Drop D Tuning Vs. Standard Tuning: Which Is Best?
This is a question we often get asked and the truth is, they’re both the best – but for different styles of music.
- Standard guitar tuning is also factory standard, in other words the majority of guitars produced throughout the world are designed to be played using standard tuning.
- Drop D tuning only changes the note on the low E string, but opens up a whole new world of opportunities musically speaking.
In this article, we’ll dive more into the benefits of each so keep reading to find out the best one for you.
Table of Contents
What Is Standard Tuning?
Standard guitar tuning ranges from the low E2 up to the high E4
and entails having the strings on your guitar tuned in the following fashion;
- E 4
- B 3
- G 3
- D 3
- A 2
- E 2
It’s called standard because it’s the way most guitars are tuned and the way guitars are expected to be tuned. Most songs are recorded in standard tuning and most guitar tutorials will be set in standard tuning.
Standard tuning for the guitar goes back to the renaissance lute which was tuned in the exact same way apart from the G string being lowered to an F#.
What Styles Of Music Use Standard Tuning?
As the name suggests, standard tuning is, well, standard which means that the majority of songs in all styles of music use standard tuning. This means all of the following types or styles of music use standard tuning;
- Hip Hop
- Drum And Bass
- New Age
However, these styles are not limited by standard tuning. In fact many artists use different tunings including drop D tuning when composing songs. Many switch between tunings, playing some songs in standard tuning and others in alternative tunings.
A good example of this is the American heavy rock band Metallica. They are one of the “Big Four” Thrash Metal bands who specialise in heavy rock. Yet almost all of their songs are recorded in standard tuning with only 2 of their songs “Just A Bullet Away” and “All Nightmare Long” recorded in drop D tuning.
Any guitar tuned in a different way is said to have an alternative tuning because it is tuned differently to standard tuning.
There are several alternative tunings for the guitar and we will look at all of them at some point. But for the purposes of this article, let’s look at drop D tuning.
What Is Drop D Tuning?
Drop D tuning is the easiest alternative tuning to get into because it only involves altering the pitch of one string. To tune your guitar to drop D all you need to do is lower the 6th string from E2 to D2. This will entail tuning the strings of your guitar in the following way;
- E 4
- B 3
- G 3
- D 3
- A 2
- D 2
As you can see, the only difference between standard tuning and drop D tuning is the 6th string has changed from E to D.
That slight, one string, one full step down change makes all the difference when playing the guitar. It gives the guitarist access to the lower registers without losing any of the upper register notes when soloing.
Power chords become simpler to play too because in drop D tuning the bottom 3 strings played open give the root, 5th and octave note of the D chord. This means playing just the bottom 3 strings in the open position plays a D5 power chord.
Drop D Power Chords
|2nd Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
|3rd Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
|5th Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
|7th Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
|9th Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
|10th Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
|12th Fret Barre on strings 6, 5, 4
Barre those bottom 3 strings at the 2nd fret and you’re playing an E5 power chord. Slide up one more fret for F5 and so on.
This allows the guitarist to play heavier sounding rhythms using power chords while still having access to the full range of notes allowed in standard tuning.
String bends, vibratos and legatos can all be played as usual because the strings above the 6th haven’t altered at all.
What Styles Of Music Use Drop D Tuning?
On reading the above paragraph, you could be forgiven for assuming that drop D tuning is only used in metal and punk rock music. The truth is there are many musical styles that have adopted the drop D tuning style of playing. These include;
As you can see there are no limits really and many guitarists prefer to only play in drop D. A good example is Adam Jones, the guitarist with the American rock band Tool.
Tool’s style has been described as progressive rock, psychedelic rock and art rock. Adam has been with the band since 1990 and he plays almost exclusively in drop D tuning.
Another example is Dave Grohl who was Nirvana’s drummer before forming the band Foo Fighters. Kurt Cobain, lead guitarist and vocalist of Nirvana kept a Fender Jaguar constantly tuned to drop D tuning. So it’s surely no surprise that when Grohl formed Foo Fighters he also recorded some songs in drop D.
Other artists that have dabbled at one point with drop D tuning include;
- The Beatles (Dear Prudence)
- The Doors (The End)
- Queen (Fat Bottomed Girls)
- Neil Young (Harvest Moon)
- Led Zeppelin (Moby Dick)
- Chris Stapleton (Either Way)
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Fishin’ In The Dark)
- Papa Roach (Last Resort)
- Linkin Park (What I’ve Done)
- Rammstein (Du Hast)
- Van Halen (Unchained)
- Foo Fighters (Monkey Wrench)
- Soundgarden (Black Hole Sun)
- And Many More
If you go back to the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a piano piece called “Musette in D” which was transcribed for the guitar in drop D tuning.
What’s Best – Standard Or Drop D Tuning?
As you can probably tell from reading this article, there is no “best” when it comes to choosing between standard or drop D tunings. It’s all a matter of personal choice and preference.
Having said that, if you are just learning to play guitar, we’d encourage you to learn to play in standard tuning. This is because there are far more songs composed in standard tuning than there are in drop D.
Once you have mastered the basics, then you can start to dabble in alternative tunings and logically, drop D is the best place to start. This is because it only affects the low E or 6th string. As all of the other strings remain in standard tuning they can be played in the usual (standard) way.
If your experienced with the guitar and trying to decide whether to improve your skills using standard tuning or learn drop D, here are 3 points you may want to consider:
The Differences In The Sound And Tone
While standard tuning produces a bright and clear sound, Drop D tuning produces a heavier, darker sound which may be what you’re looking for when playing certain pieces of music.
Drop D tuning can make power chords and heavy riffs easier to play because as we said earlier, the bottom 3 strings create the root, 5th and octave thus making a power chord.
The Differences In Chord Shapes
In standard tuning, the chord shapes are more comfortable to play, and the range of chords that can be played is greater.
In Drop D tuning, the range of chords is limited, and the chord shapes can be more challenging to play. However power chords become simpler.
One of the key differences you need to look out for when playing in drop D is accidentally playing the 6th string, as it’s now tuned to a different note than you’re used to, but with a bit of time you’ll get used to that too.
How It Affects Your Playing Style
Your playing style is another important factor in choosing the best tuning for you. Standard tuning allows for more intricate fingerpicking and chord progressions, while Drop D tuning is more suitable for power chords and heavy riffs.
If you’re a guitarist that enjoys fingerpicking, standard tuning might be better for you, although there are always exceptions to this rule, for example if you’re looking to play like Waylon Jennings (who was a famous country picker that frequently played in drop D).
Frequently Asked Questions
Drop D tuning has its place and is great for finding new and often easier ways to play the guitar. However, standard tuning is far more popular and will therefore serve you better in the long run.
The answer to the question which guitar tuning is best is going to be subjective because different tunings suit different types of music. As a general rule, standard tuning is best because it is more widely used and therefore more common.
Drop D tuning is good for metal because it adds two lower notes which allows for a heavier sound. Drop D is also good for many other genres including; punk, rock, blues, country, folk and classical.
Drop D tuning is commonly used in heavier genres like metal and punk, but it can be used in other genres as well, such as Pop, Rock, Grunge, Alternative, Blues, Country, Folk, Classical and more.
Switching between Standard and Drop D tuning is not particularly difficult, as it only involves altering the pitch of one string. To tune your guitar to Drop D, you simply need to lower the 6th string from E2 to D2. The other strings are tuned the same as in Standard tuning. This change in tuning allows for access to lower registers without sacrificing any upper register notes when soloing.
You do not need a special guitar to use Drop D tuning. You can use Drop D tuning on any guitar with six strings and you can use a standard set of guitar strings as well.