Why use the DAA tuning?

by Steve Eulberg

With mountain dulcimer, every tuning has benefits to recommend it.  Every tuning also has limitations.

Someone wrote to me recently to ask why we include lessons on the DulcimerCrossing website in the DAA tuning.  Here are the 4 reasons that I wrote back in response:
1)  Do-sol-sol or 1-5-5- (e.g. DAA) Tuning
1-5-5 is the most common original tuning for mountain dulcimers in the USA, and, on instruments with no 6+ or 6-1/2 fret, it is the only way to play the Ionian (Major) scale on the melody strings. The Ionian Mode or Major Scale is the one that most of the tunes played in the US are found.  That scales goes from frets 3-10 (not playing the 6-1/2 fret).

DAA is the most common occurring version of this tuning at this point in history among players across the USA.  (We'll explore how "D" came about as the basis for tuning mountain dulcimers in another post.)


2)  Notes below "Do".
This tuning gives the player the notes below Do for "Plagal" tunes (like Amazing Grace, Holy Manna, Happy Birthday, e.g.) all on the melody string(s).  This is most helpful for players who are not comfortable leaving the melody string(s).  It is also required for playing these kinds of tunes that the lower octave when playing in the traditional noter style.  (It is hard for most players to use the noter to play notes only on the middle string.)  (I explored Plagal in an earlier post.)


3)  Close-Harmonized Chord Voicings.
This tuning also affords very comfortable fingerings for Close-harmonized chord voicings.  This feature may be a little more complicated to explain, but let me give it a try.  Close harmony is when you have all the notes in the chord as close to each other as possible, with no "gaps" between notes.  (Close harmony is on the left, open or dispersed harmony is on the right.  We'll talk about this in relation to both kinds of dulcimers in a future post.)


4)  Familiarity with other players.
There are many people who prefer this tuning, and a good number of clubs and groups who use it as their primary or only tuning.  Some of them even use DAA in their club or group's name.
We'll explore in more depth the benefits and limitations of different tunings in other posts.
As always, if you have questions or comments, or you have some additional input, please let me know!

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8 comments

Steve Eulberg

Glad to help, Tanya. And if I can give you some online support, let me know!
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if onetunes the dulcimer to DAA the bass string is D the others A right??? now if you were playing with a group and the guitars were playing in the key of G or maybe A then what would the bass string be tuned to??/ and what would the other strings be??????? hope this doesn't sound to stupid
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Steve Eulberg

Hi Tanya, Not stupid at all. (By the way, I don't believe there are stupid questions when what you are seeking is understanding!) If you are wanting to play chords while others are playing in G, then you just play the G C and D chords that you already know and you don't have to retune anything. If you are tuned DAA and want to play in G, the quickest thing to do is put your capo on the 3rd fret and then the lowest notes you can play are G D D, and you can freely drone away in G, playing the melody on the lowest (bass) string. An alternative is: If you want to retune, leave your lowest (bass) string at D, tune your middle and melody strings down one step to G (D G G) and begin playing at the 0 fret to get your melodies. A final alternative is to tune D G d, but that is further away from what you are asking here and will require its own blog post (and if we can talk him into it--a video lesson!)
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thanks alot Steve your comment really helped, the song the group wants me to play is Wildflowers, its sung by Dolly Parton, well usually i am just the main singer, but on that song she plays the auto harp at the beginning, so they want me to try and play the dulcimer the first verse instead, well going to give it a try, sound folish but its really hard for me to sing and play at the same time, but guess just need to practice practice,,,, i may think about doing a few online lessons maybe that will help thanks alot for your reply Tanya
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Steve Eulberg

Lisa "Strumelia" just shared this post from her blog about why she loves DAA tuning: http://dulcimer-noter-drone.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-i-like-daa-tuning.html#comment-form
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Regina Bartlett

I play a lot of songs in DAA. Songs that I play on guitar I can easily play on dulcimer in this major tuning with chord progressions that work very well and I also can play melody on the strings.
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Steve Eulberg

Wow, I am late in seeing and responding Regina! Thanks for your patience, and for sharing your experience!
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The Joys of DAA | North Alabama Heritage Dulcimer Association

[…] Why use the DAA tuning? (April 2009) by Steve Eulberg https://dulcimercrossing.blog/2012/04/09/why-use-the-daa-tuning/ […]
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