Friday, July 25, 2014

DGDA and ADAE Tunings (Mandola and Tenor Banjo)

Mandolas are basically just slightly bigger mandolins with a scale length between 15.5" and 17" - so about 12 to 25 percent longer than a mandolin scale, which is typically 13.875".  A mandola is usually tuned in 5ths like a mandolin, but that 5ths tuning is CGDA instead of GDAE.

I recently got a mandola with a 15.5" scale.  I was going to tune it CGDA, but then I was reminded of a chapter in Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor on Alternate Tunings where he describes tuning a tenor banjo ADAE instead of GDAE.  (Note: the Irish tenor banjo's standard GDAE tuning is one octave lower than the mandolin's GDAE tuning).  Purists beware, ADAE is the way Enda normally tunes his banjo!

Tuning an Irish tenor banjo to ADAE simply involves tuning the 4th string (lowest string) up a whole step from G to A.  On a mandola this would equate to changing the CGDA tuning to DGDA.  I've found out that DGDA is the way Marla Fibish tunes her mandola, and maybe John Doyle as well.   I'm willing to give it a shot!
Enda Scahill
In his tutor Enda Scahill describes several advantages of this alternate tuning, and below I have paraphrased some of these while translating it to mandola-oriented language.

Advantages of DGDA tuning
DGDA is almost an open tuning of D or G.  By playing the A note (fret 2) on the G string or the B note (fret 2) on the A string you play either a 4 string D chord or G chord.  This allows the instrument to resonate more in tune with itself.

The stretch to that pesky low F# (Fret 6 on the low string) is now only a stretch to Fret 4.

The G note on the low string is now at Fret 5 instead of 7.  This allows for fiddle style double G “chording” (open G played with G on the low string).

Tuning the low C up to a low D creates opportunities for droning on the open string.  This is a big advantage for the key of D (the key that most Irish tunes are played in) and for the key of G (arguably the 2nd most common tonal center in Irish traditional music).

The DGDA tuning affords different (easier?) chord formations new found harmonies and voicings.

Tuning up to D tightens the tone and the action by creating more tension in the string.  In other words, you can use a lighter string but still achieve more tension.  This results in the 4th string being not as twangy, heavy or loose.  (This feature has perhaps more relevance among banjo players tuning up to ADAE from GDAE).

I'll add to Enda's list by saying that this alternate tuning makes the mandola even more of a unique, hybrid instrument.  The interval from the 4th string (D) to 3rd string (G) now becomes a perfect 4th (like on a guitar) instead of a 5th, yet you still have the interval of a 5th between the other strings.

In this altered mandola tuning you can't quite transpose and use the exact same fingerings you've memorized on mandolin...you have to make adjustments for any notes on the low string.  But, overcoming obstacles and finding advantages in what at first might seem like an unnecessary challenge is all part of the fun of playing an instrument and growing as a musician!

1 comment:

  1. Very cool! I like this idea. Am enthralled with the viola these days. and I'm definitely going to be using it in an Irish setting 90% of the time. DGDA might be a cool way to have more open strings to hit in the keys of G, D, and A which are most common in Irish Music.

    I play some Bouzouki which is like the Irish Tenor Banjo only tuned GDAD because of the long scale length. I've thought about doing a similar thing with the viola making it CGDG. which would help with translating scale patterns/arpeggios and melodies.

    Hmmmm.... possibilities. You eventually have to settle on one tuning I find, for the sake of intonation and string longevity.

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