Music & Entertainment

Guitar 101: What Is Drop D Tuning? Learn Guitar Technique and Easy Instructions

Written by MasterClass

Mar 28, 2019 • 5 min read

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In standard tuning for a six-string guitar, the notes progress from lowest to highest sound as follows:

6th (lowest) string - E2
5th string - A2
4th string - D3
3rd string - G3
2nd string - B3
1st string - E4

What does this mean? It means that the lowest string is tuned to the note E in the second octave used in standard music. (The lower the octave, the lower the pitch.) And that the highest string is tuned to the note E in the fourth octave used in standard music.

When reading a piece of music notation, assume your guitar is tuned in this standard format. But sometimes your guitar needs to be tuned a different way to play a particular piece of music. One of the most popular alternative tunings is known as drop D tuning.

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What Is Drop D Tuning?

Drop D tuning is almost identical to standard guitar tuning, with one exception: the 6th (lowest) string is tuned down a whole step, so it sounds the pitch D2 instead of E2. Lowering the sixth string produces several effects:

  • It gives access to a lower pitch than the guitar would otherwise have. Instead of being limited to E2 as your lowest note, you can now go all the way down to D2. You can also play D#2 — the note between D2 and E2.
  • Because of the way the guitar is tuned, drop D doesn’t put any limit on the upper register of the guitar. Every note that was available in standard tuning is also available in drop D — plus you also get two extra notes, D2 and D#2.
  • It creates a “heavier” sound due to the loosened bottom string. A looser string will sound heavier with more low-frequency rumble.
  • It makes it really easy to play power chords. If you simply mash your finger straight across the bottom three strings in a drop D guitar, you are fretting the 3 notes of a power chord.

Who Uses Drop D Tuning?

Drop D is used occasionally by country, folk, and jazz guitar players, especially when they’re seeking some low-end rumble or the “open” sound of folk-style guitar. But far and away, drop D is most commonly used in rock music, particularly within heavier subgenres.

  • Grunge players love drop D. Some of the most famous guitarists of Seattle’s grunge scene found many uses for drop D, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. Its most famous grunge practitioner was probably Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Cornell took advantage of the easy power chord fingering in drop D, which allowed him to simultaneously sing and play guitar over Soundgarden’s famously thorny time signatures.
  • Hard rock guitarists use drop D for heavy riffing. If you’ve wondered how certain hard rock songs like Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls,” Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” and Dream Theater’s “Home” get that girth-filled bottom end… one reason is that they’re performed in drop D tuning.
  • Drop D is all over heavy metal. Some metal bands seem to have as many drop D songs as they do standardly tuned songs. Slipknot, Tool, Avenged Sevenfold, Trivium, Korn, and plenty of other metal bands—particularly nü metal bands—are among the most reliable practitioners of drop D.
  • Eddie Van Halen literally invented a drop D device. Eddie Van Halen was so enamored with drop D tuning that he literally invented a device, called the D-Tuna, to let guitarists instantly drop their lowest string to D2 without even having to fiddle with the tuning pegs.

What Are The Drawbacks of Drop D Tuning?

There are many compelling features of drop D: the extra notes made available, the heavy sound, the ease of playing power chords. So what’s not to like? It turns out there are a few factors that keep guitarists from using drop D all the time.

  • Drop D makes a lot of chords more difficult to play. Drop D is perfect for power chords, which aligns it well with hard rock and heavy metal. But power chords only have two notes: the root and the fifth. So players who need denser harmony in their playing, Drop D might not be the best option. In particular jazz players—who rely on chords with four, five, or six distinctive tones—may be more hindered than helped by drop D.
  • Drop D makes some scales less intuitive. While you don’t “lose” any available notes by dropping your 6th string to D, it does make a lot of scales a bit less intuitive. The standard guitar is mostly tuned in 4ths: each string sounds a 4th higher than the one below it. But when you detune your bottom string to D, that creates a distance of a 5th between your 6th string and your 5th string. And that can throw off some of your scale patterns.
  • Sometimes you don’t want to sound heavy. Drop D is great for achieving that low end rumble. But sometimes that’s not what a song calls for. A lot of guitarists prefer a brighter, more treble-focused sound. For instance, Brian May of Queen used drop D on one song, “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Otherwise, he opted for standard tuning, which better fit his signature tone.

Songs with Drop D Tuning

Rock history is packed with well-known songs employing drop D tuning. Most are played on electric guitars, but some are played on acoustic guitar as well. Here are some of the best songs featuring drop D, with selections spanning every decade since the 1960s:

  • Alice in Chains, “Sludge Factory”
  • Arctic Monkeys, “Don't Sit Down Cause I've Moved Your Chair”
  • The Beatles, “Dear Prudence”
  • Bruce Dickinson, “Abduction”
  • Helmet, “Unsung”
  • Led Zeppelin, “Moby Dick”
  • Nirvana, “Heart Shaped Box”
  • Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”
  • Slipknot, “Vermilion Part 2”
  • Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun”

Other Tunings To Explore

If drop D tuning excites you, don’t stop there. The world of guitar is filled with alternate tunings worth exploring, including:

  • Drop C (similar to drop D, but you drop the C)
  • D A D G A D
  • Eb tuning (lower all the strings by a half-step for an overall heavier sound)
  • Open G (D G D G B D)
  • And many more!