If you’re already familiar with the most common guitar chords and scales, perhaps you’re interested in a slightly different challenge? If so, you may wish to consider changing the tuning of one or more strings on your guitar like many other guitarists do. It instantly gives you different sounds and fingering possibilities. In this blog, we’ll take a look at one of the most popular alternate tunings called Drop D. Well-known songs like Harvest Moon by Neil Young, Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana and Slither by Velvet Revolver all use this tuning.

Guitar in Drop D Tuning: how and why

Lower tunings in general

When you see the term ‘drop’ with tunings, you can already guess that it’s going to be lower. These type of guitar tunings give you a more robust, fuller sound with just a few turns of the machine heads. That’s why they’re commonly used in styles like rock and metal music and some singers prefer it too because it allows them to sing in a lower register. Jimi Hendrix, for example, always tuned the strings on his guitar a semitone lower to better match his soulful, baritone voice.

How to tune your guitar to Drop D

Tuning your guitar to Drop D is one of the easiest alternate tunings because you only have to change the tuning of one string from the standard EADGBE. Simply lower the tuning of the low E string by a whole tone until it becomes a low D instead. You can easily check it by comparing it to the higher string that’s already tuned to D. They’ll be an octave apart, of course. To ensure it’s tuned accurately, you may also wish to use a chromatic tuner. Once you’re done, your guitar will be tuned to DADGBE instead of EADGBE.

Guitar in Drop D Tuning: how and why

Do I need different strings for Drop D tuning?

Normally, you can play in Drop D tuning using the same strings, but if you’re a particularly aggressive player, the string tuned to low D may sound a little out of tune because it has a lower tension than the other strings. The easiest way to prevent this is to make sure not to play too hard which will also give you a fuller sound.

Tip for heavy-handed players

If you find it impossible to play with less force, then changing the low E string to a thicker one should give you roughly the same tension as the other strings when it’s tuned to a low D. If you have a .010 string set on your guitar, for instance, then change the lowest string to a wound one with gauge like .054. If you’re using a nickel-wound .009 string set, then a .048 string should be a good replacement. Once you’ve replaced the string and it’s tuned to D, you should double check its intonation (this is not the same as the tuning). Note: if you regularly retune the string back to E, it’s not recommended to change the thickness of the E string because it will then have a higher tension than the other strings on the guitar.

Drop D: not just for lazy guitarists!

Some players out there will tell you that Drop D is only used by lazy guitarists! There is some truth in the fact that certain things are easier to play in Drop D tuning: power chords and riffs based on them, for instance. D major and minor chords are also easier to play because you can use all the strings. When you want to play chords that normally use the low E string, like E and G, however, things become a little more complicated again. You’ll quickly find that using alternate tunings have advantages as well as disadvantages. That’s why most guitarists simply use them because of the different sound it gives their instrument.

A few examples of chords in Drop D tuning

Below, you can see a few examples of how chords are played in Drop D tuning. In case you’re not overly familiar with chord diagrams, allow us to explain. The numbers tell you which fingers to use on certain strings and the dots indicate on which fret to put your fingers. If there’s a circle instead of a number above a string, it should be played as an open string, but if there’s an X above it, the string should not be played at all. You might also notice that some of the dots are not solid: these simply indicate the root notes in the chord.

Guitar in Drop D Tuning: how and why

Drop C and other alternate tunings: how low can you go?

When you dive deeper into the world of alternate tunings, you’ll see that there are practically endless possibilities. Bands like Alice in Chains and Deftones regularly play in Drop Db (DbAbDbGbBbEB). This is essentially Drop D tuning, but then with each string tuned another semitone lower. In harder styles of music, Drop C tuning is sometimes used as well. This is another semitone lower giving you CGCFAD. Bands like Killswitch Engage and Helmet use this tuning and Ruben Block from Triggerfinger usually has a guitar in this tuning ready to use during his performances too. You may be interested to know that Drop C tuning has a legendary status within the Death Metal music scene!

A whole world of alternate tunings awaits!

Now that we’ve peaked behind the door of alternate tunings, you might be tempted to force it wide open. If so, we recommend exploring some the open tunings that are commonly used in acoustic music. If you’re up for even more of a challenge, just imagine the possibilities of alternate tunings on a 7 or 8-string guitar!

Got any questions or tips about alternate guitar tunings or want to share info on one your favourite band uses? Let us know in the comments section below.

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» Electric guitar strings
» Chromatic tuners

» How to tune your guitar

2 responses
  1. Danny | Bax Music says:

    @Joe

    To ensure the best possible tuning all over the guitar neck, it would indeed be best to adjust the intonation to the new tuning. If you are planning to use it for only a short while, you could perhaps get away without intonating it. However, some instruments are more forgiving than others. So be sure to keep your tools within arm’s reach.

  2. Joe OConnell says:

    Do you have to change the intonation of the guitar for drop C tuning ?

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