The Case For D-Standard Guitar Tuning

The superb British fingerstyle guitarist Martin Simpson first introduced me to the concept of keeping a guitar tuned a whole-step below standard pitch. Tuned this way, the guitar’s open strings are D, G, C, F, A, D (low to high), rather than the normal E, A, D, G, B, E. Because the intervals remain the same between strings, the fretboard stays completely familiar—the only change is that everything sounds a whole-step lower.

Simpson uses a lot of open and altered tunings, and, as we’ll explore in a moment, it makes sense to use “D-standard” tuning as the platform to shift into DADGAD, open D, and open G. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate other benefits of D standard too. I’m not proposing that D standard replace standard tuning, but I believe it makes sense to keep an instrument appropriately strung, set up, and tuned a whole-step lower than your other guitars. Ideally, you’d have both an electric and an acoustic configured this way.

Here’s why …

D standard allows you to use heavier strings—which offer more volume and sustain—without a significant increase in tension. On an acoustic flattop, try a medium set (.013-.056) turned a whole-step down. It sounds huge, yet doesn’t feel stiff.

With a set of stout electric strings—I like a .012-.052 set with a plain 3rd—you get more nickel or steel vibrating over your pickup pole-pieces than with regular light-gauge strings. Again, you get a bigger, bolder sound without losing playability or sacrificing your favorite string-bending techniques.

Transposition is fairly painless when you’re playing in D standard with another guitarist or an ensemble. Mentally raise the key by a whole-step and you’re good to go.

For example, let’s say another guitarist is playing Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in the key of G in standard tuning, and you’re wielding a guitar tuned to D standard. You’d simply snap into the key of A and follow the I-V-IIm harmonic structure. You’ll both be playing in the same key—G—yet using fingerings from different keys. This offers a tremendous sonic payoff: The mixed grips create a powerful, shifting texture of open and fretted strings that’s much more exciting than hearing two guitarists playing identical voicings throughout a song. If you’ve ever used a capo when playing with other guitarists to shift your voicings away from theirs, you know how cool this sounds. I like to think of D standard as a “minus capo,” where you’re essentially lengthening the fretboard rather than shortening it, as you do with a capo.

And speaking of capos: To convert D standard back to normal tuning—E, A, D, G, B, E—simply slap a capo on the second fret. Now all your voicings and fingerings line up with regular guitar, yet you still have the enhanced projection and fatter tone of heavier strings.

Consider D standard in the context of open and altered tunings: Dropping light-gauge strings to enter an open tuning typically results in fret buzz, poor intonation, and a wimpy tone. Thin strings just don’t sound good when they’re slackened, and they’re also harder to keep in tune. It’s a mess.

As you can see in this chart, moving from standard tuning to open G, open D, or DADGAD requires dropping three or four strings a whole-step or half-step:

Tuning comparison chart

But when your guitar is tuned to D standard, you wind up raising three strings to enter open G, open D, or DADGAD. This slight increase in tension works well to support a slide or bottleneck, and you’ll find it easier to get open tunings in tune. The added tension is small enough you won’t need to worry about breaking strings or stressing your guitar.

I keep several guitars permanently strung and tuned to D standard, including a Fender Telecaster, a rockin’ ’81 Dean V, a Taylor 512c, a custom Wechter roundneck resonator, and a great ’72 D20-12 Martin 12-string. The 6-string acoustics sport .015-.056 sets, and the electrics have .012-.052 or even .013.-.056 sets (the heavier strings are for slide).

Most guitarists who play 12-string in standard tuning opt for the recommended .010-.047 extra-light set, but thanks to D-standard tuning, I can string my D20-12 with a Martin set gauged .012-.054 and not worry about playability or pulling the guitar apart. Wow—does that sound great. Huge and spangly. (Lead Belly tuned his 12-string even lower, which helps explain his immense sound.)

If you haven’t explored this tuning, give it a shot. Most nut slots are big enough to accommodate slightly thicker strings, so you can jump right into the D-standard world. You might have to make a small trussrod adjustment—this can occur whenever you change string gauges up or down—and you might want to lower your pickup height a tad, but these mods are reversible. ♦