Brad Richard: Just out of curiosity, why is DAD tuning so popular?
I think there are two questions there, Brad. The first is why tuning to D became standard and the second is why DAd (or 1-5-8 or the mixolydian tuning) is so common.
I'm pretty sure that once upon a time, people would tune a dulcimer to whatever tone resonated most saliently in that given dulcimer. They would "hoo in the hole," literally hum into the soundhole, find a tone that sounded really special, and tune to that. Later on, I think tuning to C was most common, and to be honest, I wish we still tuned to C because it would make explaining music theory so much easier. But I think around the time of the dulcimer renaissance in the late 60s or early 70s, people began tuning to D to play with fiddles, since there are so many fiddle tunes in D (and A -- It's those pesky guitar and banjo players who like playing in G).
In traditional drone play, you have to change the tuning of your melody string depending on the mode or scale of the melody you are playing. In the key of D, the four most common tunings are DAA, DAd, DAC, and DAG. The first two sound major and the latter two sound kind of minor.
When the 6+ fret became common--and it's pretty standard these days--a player could play in the mixolydian (DAd) or ionian (DAA) modes without re-tuning. How convenient!
You will often hear that chording is easier in DAd than in DAA. I do not believe that the simple act of playing a chord is easier in one tuning than the other. And I actually prefer the sound of chords in DAA better than in DAd. They are more compact and more coherent.
This is only a theory, but I think playing melody & chords together is easier in DAd because out of one chord position you can reach a greater range of notes, basically three frets' worth. The whole trick to chord/melody style is to be able to capture the melody out of chord positions with a minimum of hand movement. And DAd simply gives us a greater tonal range out of any one hand position. Anyway, that's my theory.
I happen to play in DAd 90 percent of the time because that was the most common tuning when I first started playing and I want to be able to play by instinct as much as possible, so that a musical idea goes from my head (or my heart) to my fingers with no hesitation, something that is much easier if you stick to one tuning. I also have a 1+ fret on my main playing dulcimers and find that with the 1+ and 6+, there is rarely a melody I can't get.
But I would never say that one tuning is superior to another. DAd happens to be the most common these days, and that's why I started with it. Now it's comfortable. When I tune to other tunings, I have to think about what I'm doing, and who wants to do that?!
Dusty T., Northern California
As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
updated by @dusty: 11/04/23 02:35:53PM