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. ♦

 

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16 thoughts on “The Case For D-Standard Guitar Tuning

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Case for D-Standard Guitar Tuning « The Guitar Show Chronicles -- Topsy.com
  2. I’ve been tuning my guitars to D standard for years. I just got tired of fighting with flat-wound 13s in standard tuning. I don’t even bother transposing when I’m playing solo, as D standard suits my voice better. I haven’t had any intonation problems either. So, as the kids used to say 10 years ago, it’s all good.

  3. Nice explanation ! I was thinking about this with DADGAD and even CGCGCD 😉
    If base strings/neck tension is the same but with bigger gauge, you get more possibilities to capo up and downtune.
    Whereas standard tuning with light gauge stop you from raising gauge (too much tension) and downtuning (flabby strings).
    You convinced me : I will tune my acoustic in D standard, with a special string set to makeup for open tunings 😉

  4. This is all such great advice. Coincidently, as I have aged (I’m 70 now) my voice pitch has lowered, so in order to use my favourite keys on the guitar I dropped to E flat Standard, and for the last year or so, to D Standard. Works for me. I actually arrived on this site looking for advice about increased string sizes for D Standard and I’m about to get some 15 – 56s and see how it goes. Great stuff people – thanks for the advice and confirmation.

    • 15-56? Wow Martin, 70 years old and a pair of vises for hands! I salute you. But watch out, at this rate, in another year you’ll be playing a bass in A# and crushing coal into diamonds!

  5. Nice article. Gave me the confidence that the idea wasn’t going to get me ridiculed in the music shop. I enjoy the D Standard Tuning because as I get older my voice strains to sing those songs I wrote twenty years ago. Also, the transition into Open D is much smoother and I like to switch back and forth often. My FrankenTele is tuned up with a fresh pair of the new fancy line from D’Addario and once I’m ready to put on the next pair I’m going to move up a gauge.

  6. Will the guitar hold the tuning better if you just keep it dropped a step all the time (rather than trying to tune back and forth from regular tuning to D standard)?

    • Yes, it will if you string the guitar specifically for D standard (D G C F A D) and leave it tuned that way. This requires slightly heavier strings, which you would not want to raise to standard tuning (E A D G B E). But if you dedicate a guitar to D standard by equipping it with bigger strings, you’ll also be able to enter open G, open D, and DADGAD more easily—and the tuning will be much more stable—than if you were to drop down to these tunings from traditional E-E tuning.

  7. I agree with your thesis in using extended range guitars as well .. while I am not a proficient 7 or 8 String player I find it alot easier for some reason to play an 8 in ‘Open’ tuning rather then a standard method.

  8. Hey! Hoping this post is still active. I have a vintage (’63) hollow body electric. I want to bring EVERYTHING down a whole step (the setup I currently have on my acoustic).
    1) Is this ok for the guitar?
    2) Would I need to have an adjustments made to support the down tune?

    Thanks in advance!

    • It won’t hurt your beloved ’63 to tune it down a whole-step. (Tuning up from standard is what can potentially cause problems, so don’t do that.) When drop tuning, I suggest going up a gauge with your strings to keep them from flopping around on the fretboard. Drop tuning lowers tension and switching to slightly heavier strings will bring the tension back up, which will sound better and minimize fret buzz. For example, if you use a .010-.049 set in standard, try a .011-.050 or .012-.052 set for D standard on electric. Many string companies make special electric sets specifically for dropped tuning, and you can experiment to find just the right feel and sound. (If you don’t string up with slightly heavier strings when you drop tune, you’ll probably have to loosen your truss rod a bit to accommodate the reduced tension.) I have several electrics in D standard and switching to slightly beefier strings was all that was required for great tone. And heavier strings play really well in a lowered tuning, thanks to the reduced tension, so no worries there.

  9. For me Electric D Standard is achieved with (I play 9-42 in E) 9-42 gauge and raise 6th string end of tail 2 full screw rotations to increase tension. I get slick playability and powerful tone. Or try hybrids (9-46)

    I only like 10-46 gauge electric strings on acoustic. I’ve been doing that for 25 years and I never saw acoustic the same way again.

  10. Lower tunings makes sense when shifting between male singers of different vocal fachs.
    But always lower your base pitch for A4. 440hz is too bright. Previos european pitch at 435hz (-20 cent) is a better comprimise. 440Hz shifts the passaggio too high for most male voices.
    A guitar tuned to E-standard with the -20 cent detune fits a baritenor or bright lyrical baritone on open chords (C-major) . Slap on a capo on the first fret and your are into tenor land (C#-major). Lower guitar to E-flat (still with a 20 cent detune). And you are into deeper baritone land (H-major) . Tune Down to D-standard with a -32 cent detune and a bass singer can sing those classics rock roll tracks performed in A/D/E but now in a slighly flattened G/C/D. The 432Hz tuning prevents early register shift which is a goodsend for those bass and bass-baritone voices.

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