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What Is Drop D Tuning? How to Tune a Guitar to Drop D

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 6 min read

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

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

In other words, the lowest string is tuned to the note E in the second octave, while the highest string is tuned to the note E in the fourth octave. The lower the octave, the lower the pitch.

When reading a piece of music notation, assume your guitar should tuned to this standard “EADGBE” format. Sometimes, however, your guitar must be tuned differently 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, moving the note to D2 instead of E2 and resulting ing a “DADGBE” pattern. Lowering the sixth string in drop D tuning produces several effects:

  • Drop D gives you access to a lower pitch. 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.
  • Drop D doesn’t change your highest pitch. 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.
  • Drop D contributes a “heavier sound.” The loosened bottom string in drop D tuning will sound heavier, with more low-frequency rumble.
  • Drop D makes it easy to play power chords. Simply strum straight across the bottom three strings in a drop D guitar, and you’ll be strumming the 3 notes of a power chord.

Musical Styles That Use Drop D Tuning

While drop D is used occasionally by country, folk, and jazz guitar players, this style is most common in rock music, particularly within heavier subgenres.

  • Grunge: 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: 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.
  • 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) use drop D to achieve heavier riffs.
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How to Tune Your Guitar for Drop D

Shifting a guitar from standard tuning to drop D is easy. After all, you only have to change the tuning of one string. There are three ways to do this:

  • Use a guitar tuner. Whether you utilize a stompbox pedal, a clip-on headstock tuner, or just an app on your phone, using an electronic tuner is the most accurate way to get your guitar into drop D.
  • Use the open 4th string on your guitar. In standard tuning, your guitar’s 4th string is tuned to D3. You can use this pitch to find D2. Just strike your open 4th string and let it ring while you adjust the tuning peghead on your 6th string. Try to match the pitch, but remember your 6th string should sound an octave lower than your 4th string.
  • Use Eddie Van Halen’s D-Tuna 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. You can buy a D-Tuna and insert it into many existing electric guitar bridges, or get a guitar that already has a D-Tuna built in.

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What Are The Drawbacks of Drop D Tuning?

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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 at all times.

  • Drop D makes several chords more difficult to play. Drop D is perfect for power chords, which aligns well with hard rock and heavy metal. But power chords only have two notes: the root, and the fifth. This means drop D is not well suited to players who need denser harmony. 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. When you detune your bottom string to D, you create a distance of a 5th between your 6th string and your 5th string on your fretboard, which can throw off some of your scale patterns.
  • A heavier sound isn’t always best. While drop D is great for achieving a low end rumble, that’s not always 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”

Drop D vs. Other Tunings: What Other Types of Tuning Are There?

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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 dropping the 6th string down to C instead)
  • Celtic tuning (DADGAD)
  • Eb tuning (lowering all strings by a half-step for an overall heavier sound)
  • Open G tuning (DGDGBD)
  • Open D tuning (DADF#AD)

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