What Is Drop D Guitar Tuning?

What Is Drop D Guitar Tuning?

If you play guitar or hang around with guitarists, you’re probably familiar with the term “drop D tuning”. If you’re wondering what drop D tuning is, this is the article for you. 

The simple answer is that drop D tuning is just a guitar in standard tuning with the low E string tuned a whole note lower – to a low D.

That’s the simple answer, for a more detailed look at drop D tuning keep reading.

How To Get Your Guitar To Drop D Tuning

drop d tuning fretboard

If you’re slightly worried about using alternative tunings, drop D is a great place to start. This is because you only alter the tuning on one string – The low E string. This means if for any reason playing in drop D doesn’t suit your style, it’s easy to return to standard tuning.

Before tuning to drop D, it’s important that your guitar is completely in tune. So ensure all 6 strings on your guitar are in tune in standard tuning before you start.

Once your guitar is in tune at standard tuning, just lower the pitch of the low E string by one whole step. Taking the low E string down to a low D. That’s it, your guitar is now in drop D tuning.

Just to clarify what we mean, your guitar in standard tuning has the following notes on the open strings: 

  • E
  • A
  • D
  • G
  • B
  • E

Once you have retuned your guitar to drop D tuning, those open strings will have the notes:

  • D
  • A
  • D
  • G
  • B
  • E

Notice only one string has changed this is why drop D tuning is the easiest of all the alternative tunings.

Methods For Getting Your Guitar To Drop D Tuning

You could use a chromatic tuner to tune your guitar to drop D but it is really simple to do without any technology at all. We’re going to show you 3 ways to tune your guitar to drop D. None of them are particularly difficult and none of them require any equipment apart from your hands and ears. 

Method 1: Using The D string

This is the easiest way to tune your guitar to drop D as long as your guitar is fully tuned to standard tuning. All you need to do is pluck the open D string and use that note as your reference. Then detune the low E string until the note it produces sounds exactly like the open D string but one octave lower.

If it sounds “off” or doesn’t chime with the open D note then the 6th string isn’t tuned correctly as a D. You’ll need to turn the 6th string either slightly higher or lower until it sounds the same, only an octave lower than the open D string.

For most steel stringed guitars it should only take one full turn of the tuning peg downwards to achieve a D note. Which means if you have turned the tuning peg more than one full turn, it’s possible you’ve gone too far and you might have to back track slightly to get to the correct pitch.

Method 2: Using The Chord Of D

This method takes a bit more work because you are playing more strings and different notes to try to establish the correct pitch for the 6th string.  However once achieved it allows you to play all 6 strings of the guitar when playing an open D chord whereas in standard tuning you’d usually only use the 4 top strings (D, G, B, E).

Make an open D chord and play all 6 strings, now with that sound still ringing, lower the low E string until it sounds like it fits in. This can take some time and at first it will all sound messy.

Method 3: Using Harmonics

Whenever we mention using harmonics many guitarists resist because they are under the misguided belief that harmonics are difficult to achieve. Nothing could be more wrong, harmonics are easy to perform and make tuning easier too.

To get a D harmonic place your finger above the D string at the 12th fret and gently touch the string. Don’t apply any pressure on the string, you’re not playing the note, just lightly touch the string and pluck it with the other hand. You should achieve a harmonic D note.

Once you have the harmonic D note on the 12th fret of the D string it can be used to check the low D is in tune. By plucking the low D whilst the harmonic is ringing you can tell if the notes resonate. If they sound “Off” some fine tuning might be necessary.

Bonus Method: Pseudo Drop D Tuning With An Upside Down Capo

drop d tuning with capo

Another alternative method you can use if you have a capo is to place it upside down across the top 5 strings on the 2nd fret, leaving the low E string open. 

This will create a pseudo drop D tuning, which isn’t actually  drop D tuning, but it’ll give you that same ability to play that full, 6 string D chord shape, with the strong bass on the low E.

The added advantage to this method is that you don’t need to learn any new chord shapes if you’re fretting the low E string, for example when playing barre chords. 

Plus, you can play a standard G shape with this trick and it won’t sound horrendous (like it would in real drop D).

Why Tune To Drop D?

There are several reasons to tune your guitar to drop D tuning. Drop D tuning;

  • Makes it easier for singers with lower voices
  • Makes certain riffs and power chords easier to play
  • Extends the range of your guitar

In drop D tuning playing a D chord sounds fuller and richer because you can strum all 6 strings when playing a standard D chord shape. Playing the same chord in standard E, A, D, G, B, E tuning would prevent you from strumming the 2 lowest strings (E, A) as that would make the chord sound discordant. 

Which Genres Of Music Use Drop D Tuning?

Drop D tuning lends itself to certain genres of music better than some others. It is most commonly used in rock and heavy metal songs but is also used in blues and country as well.

Examples Of Alternative Rock Songs That Use Drop D Tuning

Nirvana used drop D tuning on many of their songs, a great example is “All Apologies”. Foo Fighters, the band created from Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl also used drop D tuning on their first hit song “Everlong”.

Examples Of Heavy Metal Songs That Use Drop D Tuning

Drop D tuning has been used in the heavy rock/metal genre since the 1980s. Bands like Van Halen and Judas Priest are great examples. Moving forward to more up to date metal bands, Avenged Sevenfold’s “Hail To The King” is a great example.

Examples Of Country Songs That Use Drop D Tuning

Drop D tuning is also used in the country music genre with artists like Waylon Jennings playing most of his songs in drop D. A good example is “Amanda”.

Examples Of Blues Songs That Use Drop D Tuning

It’s a well known secret that many blues artists used drop D tuning. Songs like Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues”, Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and John Fahey’s “Poor Boy” are all played using drop D tuning.

Playing Chords In Drop D Tuning

Once your guitar is tuned to drop D tuning you will have to adjust the way you play some chords. Basically any chords that use just the top strings can be played in the same way as usual. Those that include the 6th string will need to be altered.

For instance the chord of Em usually takes 2 fingers holding down the 5th and 4th strings on the 2nd fret. But in drop D tuning you will need to additionally hold down the 6th string also on the 2nd fret (or not play that 6th string at all)..

Likewise the chord of E major requires an extra finger to hold the 6th string, 2nd fret down when playing (or again, you could just not play that 6th string at all). 

Playing the chord of G simply involves holding down the 5th string 2nd fret and the 1st and 2nd strings 3rd fret. You can then strum all of the strings because the 6th string has now become an open D note and the note of D is in the chord of G major.

Playing F involves holding down the 3rd fret on the 6th, 5th and 4th strings and holding down the 3rd string 2nd fret and barring strings 1 and 2 on the 1st fret. 

The chord of A major is played in the same way as in standard tuning, making sure that the 6th string is not played.

Playing Power Chords In Drop D Tuning

With the guitar tuned to drop D, the way you play power chords changes. For instance playing the 3 lowest strings in the open position will give you the power chord of D5.

F5 is played using the same 3 bottom strings held down at the 3rd fret, and progressing up the fretboard with the same bottom strings held down gives you G5 at the 5th fret, A5 at the 7th fret, B5 at the 9th fret, C5 at the 10th fret and obviously E5 would be played with the same finger pattern on the 2nd fret.

Are There Any Problems With Drop D Tuning?

Drop D tuning is great for experimenting and finding new and exciting ways to play the guitar. Playing in alternate tunings can really expand your guitar playing and musical understanding. However, you will find a few difficulties when playing guitar in drop D tuning.

For instance, certain scales will be more difficult to play in drop D tuning. Standard tuning is made up of 4ths with each string being 4 notes higher than the previous string. Changing the low E string to drop D creates a 5 note separation which can take time to comprehend fully.

You might also find that while it works great for rock, punk and heavy metal, if you’re in a folk or pop band, drop D tuning might not work so well.

Do You Need Special Strings To Play In Drop D?

While it’s perfectly acceptable to use your guitar’s standard strings to tune it to drop D tuning. If you are a particularly aggressive strummer, the 6th string once tuned to drop D might be extra loose and therefore sound out of tune due to vibrational issues. If this is the case we would recommend strumming lighter unless you want to keep the guitar permanently in drop D.

In which case you might benefit from changing the 6th string for something heavier. But that’s only if you don’t intend to go back to standard tuning because then a heavier string will feel and probably sound wrong.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I tune my guitar to drop D?

To tune your guitar to drop D tuning all you need to do is tune the 6th string (low E) down a step. This makes the 6th string  a low D string instead of a low E string. The rest of the strings remain as they are always tuned.

Do I need different strings for drop D?

As long as you are not an aggressive guitarist your usual guitar strings should be OK. You’re only dropping the low E string down one step so it should be fine.

What notes on guitar drop D?

The open notes on the guitar in drop D tuning run as follows; D, A, D, G, B, E. Whereas in standard tuning the open notes run: E, A, D, G, B, E. The only string that is altered is the low E string which becomes the low D string.

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