Drop D tuning was one of the first alternate tunings I was exposed to. A lot of guitar players, including myself, are intimidated by alternate tunings.
Fortunately, I like to think of drop D as a great introduction to alternate tunings. Whether you’ve never heard of drop D tuning or you just need to know how to get to it, I am here to help you learn the drop D alternate tuning.
In this lesson, I’m going to show you 3 different ways to tune your guitar to drop D tuning.
- Tuning your guitar to itself
- Using a D chord to tune your low E to drop D
- Using harmonics to tune to a drop D
Each of these methods of tuning is highly effective. Depending on your level of experience and how your guitar responds to harmonics, be sure to try each one of these tuning methods.
If any part of this lesson seems too complicated or you want more explanation, I want you to check this website out… I’ll talk about it later, but feel free to bookmark this link now and revisit it after the lesson — I promise I’ll give you an explanation!
Originally published on February 12, 2019, this article was republished on May 23, 2023.
What Is Drop D Tuning?
In drop D tuning, the lowest string – the sixth – is tuned down a full step, from the standard tuning E to the alternative tuning of D. Instead of the standard tuning of EADGBE, drop D tuning reads DADGBE. So by changing the note of one string, you can get a completely different, alternative tuning. This type of tuning is great for lower, heavier songs, and also for playing power chords.
Before I go any further on this lesson, I want to clear the air on something…
It’s not difficult to return to standard tuning after being in drop D tuning.
One of the biggest complaints guitarists make about experimenting in alternate tunings is how hard it is to return to standard tuning.
Also, did you notice that for drop D tuning you only change one string?
Drop D tuning looks something like this: D A D G B E.
The only string you change is the low E string — which changes to a low D.
How to Get to Drop D Tuning
Now that I’ve clarified what drop D tuning is and why it’s not difficult to get back to standard tuning, I’m going to show you how to get into drop D tuning.
Use Your Other Strings
One of the easiest ways to get into drop D tuning is to use your open D string. Just to be clear, this method only works if you know that your other strings are in tune. If you need a refresher on how to tune your guitar, check out my guide here.
To tune to drop D tuning, start by playing your open D string as the reference. From there, you want to lower the pitch of your low E string (the thickest one) by turning the tuning machine for the low E string. Make sure that the pitch is dropping.
You’ll know you’re close to being in drop D tuning when your lowest string sounds similar to your open D string. It will be an octave lower in pitch, but it’s essentially the same wavelength as your open D string.
If it sounds dissonant, wobbly, or not quite right, try going lower or higher in pitch until you find the low D pitch.
Another important note!
- DO NOT crank your tuning machines too quickly! This will damage the string and you may have a harder time finding the right pitch.
It shouldn’t take too many turns on your tuning peg to get into this tuning. For most steel-string guitars, it only takes about one full turn of the tuning peg.
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Using a D Chord to Get to Drop D Tuning
For drop D tuning, I recommend using this method to really dial in your low D string.
To use a D chord to tune your low E string to a low D, start by playing a D chord. Typically for the D chord, you use only the D, G, B, and E strings (if you need a refresher, click here!). In this instance, I want you to play all six strings.
It might sound a little muddy, but playing all six strings will ensure that your guitar is entirely in tune — especially your low D string. You want all six strings to ring out harmoniously, so don’t be afraid to fine-tune that low D string.
Harmonics Are Your Friends
The last method of getting to drop D tuning involves using harmonics.
“Woah, Tony…I have no idea what a harmonic is!”
That’s okay! Harmonics are not to be feared! Harmonics are your friends.
A harmonic is like a higher version of a note played on the fretboard. You don’t need to fret a note to play a harmonic. Instead, place your finger directly on top of the 12th fret of the D string.
Don’t apply any pressure, just let your finger gently touch the string right above the fret. Then, pluck the string.
Once you have the harmonic on the 12th fret of the D string, you can use that harmonic to check your low D string or tune your E string down to a low D. If you aren’t in tune, you might notice a “wobble” or dissonance between the harmonic and your lowest string. Continue to adjust the tuning peg until that wobble goes away.
The Positives of Drop D Tuning
Now that we’ve discussed the ins and outs of drop D tuning, let’s look at the why.
Why is drop D tuning so popular?
Firstly, this kind of tuning is very popular when making power chords as it gives you an additional two lower notes and therefore allows for a deeper sound.
It also allows guitarists to play power chords with a single finger over the same fret, instead of using multiple fingers across multiple frets. This makes playing multiple power chords up and down the neck as easy as moving your index finger.
Drop D tuning also makes it easier for you to play a lower pitch on the guitar. This lower pitch has a different sound and is great for singers who naturally have lower voices.
And finally, drop D tuning is also very versatile for multiple genres of music – from metal to punk to hard rock.
The Negatives of Drop D Tuning
One of the main drawbacks to using an alternate type of tuning is the fact that chords you once knew may now require a different shape.
For example, any chord using the low E will now require a different shape altogether.
Another disadvantage is the fact that drop D tuning doesn’t suit every chord. You’ll find that some chords are a lot more difficult in drop D tuning.
However, all of this is not to deter you from playing in drop D, but just to equip you with the knowledge to know the right moments to switch tuning.
Playing in Drop D Tuning
After you tune your guitar to drop D tuning, take some time to explore the newfound range of your guitar.
Some chords will have to change, while others can stay the same. Any chord that uses the top strings (A, C, Bm, etc.) will not need to be altered. Additionally, you can now play a full-bodied D chord using ALL of your strings!
Meanwhile, chords like E minor need to be adjusted. Because your low E string is tuned a whole step down (2 frets), you need to compensate for that. As a result, a revised E minor chord uses 3 fingers to play the chord as shown below.
Drop D Tuning in Alternative Rock
One of the most popular genres for drop D tuning is alternative rock.
Since alternative rock has a deep and heavy sound, it’s a no-brainer to use drop D tuning to really get low and grungy.
If you haven’t heard drop D tuning out in the wild (or you have but don’t know you have), you can hear it in the following popular songs:
- Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters
- Newborn by Muse
- Whatsername by Green Day
Drop D Tuning in Metal
Another extremely popular genre for drop D tuning is, of course, metal.
While you can actually go heavier to drop C tuning, drop D is usually sufficient for producing the brutal sound that all metal musicians crave.
To hear drop D tuning applied deftly in a metal context, check out these songs:
- Walk by Pantera
- The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson
- Wake Up by Rage Against The Machine
- Moby Dick by Led Zeppelin
Taking Your Playing to the Next Level
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