Drop D is a type of guitar tuning that is actually extremely common. In essence, the tuning changes the tuning of the 6th string to a lower tune, allowing people to access lower tunes overall when playing guitar and singing.
While alternative tunings, such as Drop D, can be scary for beginners and often put them off learning a song, there are many ways to achieve this type of tuning that is easy and quick.
Considering how popular and well used this tune is, it’s a great first stop on your journey to understanding alternative tuning.
Let’s get into the tuning, how to achieve it a few different ways, and ultimately why people use Drop D tuning.
Why Tune Your Guitar To Drop D?
While you can apply the drop D tuning in almost any genre, where there will be examples of this according to each and every genre, Drop D tuning is regularly used in heavier genres such as rock, metal, grunge, and punk.
This brings us to one of the main reasons why Drop D tuning is used. Drop D allows a heavier and lower pitch which does not change the highest pitch of the guitar. You can see this in many of the heavy songs that invoke this tuning.
‘Heart Shaped Box’ by Nirvana, for example, utilizes Drop D to create a particularly gloomy and whirring sound to the guitar riffs.
The bottom string now being loose creates a rumbling sound while also getting rid of the high pitch. Yet, the highest pitch of the guitar is unaffected.
Ultimately a much heavier sound is created that suits power chords particularly well as the highest string doesn’t ring at such a high pitch.
An interesting way to use Drop D is in a song that seems happy and romantic in its lyrics, but the cap on the low register helps provide character to what could be a potentially kitsch and overly poppy tune.
‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’ by John Mayer, for example, gets its driving romance and bop from Drop D tuning which stops the song being too pop-oriented and more cool. What is a romantic pop song becomes a cool bluesy tune in this sense.
Finally, Drop D tuning is also particularly popular as it is quite easy to achieve especially if you have a trusted method, only one string needs changing really and the tune is already present in another string.
3 Ways To Tune Drop D
Use The Open 4th String
As we mentioned before, the tuning you need to reach with the sixth string is already present on your standard tuning.
In other words, all you need to do is tune your bottom string (sixth string) to the fourth string in order to reach ‘Drop D’, remembering the sixth string should sound an octave lower than your fourth string – although this can be hard to judge without experience.
You can easily achieve this tuning by simply listening to the fourth string. Strum it, and let it play out and try to get used to the sound of that.
Then alternate with the sixth string, get used to the differences in the sounds and then adjust the tuning peg on the sixth until you reach the same tune as the fourth string.
This can be hard the first time you do it, but once you have it down, you can do it anywhere without any gear and pretty quickly once you have your methodology down.
You may start to understand how far you need to change the string with how many turns it takes the tuning peg to go round.
Obviously, you can achieve the same thing with an electronic guitar tuner which can be quick and easy especially in live performance situations.
Harmonics can be as confusing for beginners as the concept of alternative tuning, but it shouldn’t be feared, rather, it should be used as a tool that is super helpful.
String harmonics are pretty simple, and mainly rely on the physics of string in order to make a unique sound made up almost purely of overtones.
To achieve a harmonic, you simply rest your full finger on all the six strings, rather than applying pressure until you touch the bridge.
You actually rest your finger (usually index) directly over the frets, so they are parallel with each other. You can only achieve a harmonic on certain frets. For instance, the twelfth fret will create a harmonic, as will the seventh, and some others.
If you play a harmonic on the twelfth threat with only the D string, this is the same tune you require for the E string to reach a low D. In some cases, you can actually hear a wobble which will go away when correctly in Drop D tuning.
A Built-in D-Tuna
One guitarist who was famed for using the Drop D chord, and subsequently integrated it into his guitar hardware, was the late great Eddie Van Halen. On many of Eddie’s guitars he has something called a D-Tuna.
A device he helped to create and market which essentially drops the guitar into Drop D tuning with immediate effect.
The mechanism is similar to a Floyd Rose tuning system and can be installed into a whole group of different guitars.
You can actually buy many brands of guitars, often metal-based custom builds, that have the D-Tuna built into them already. Many of Eddie’s signature EVH line guitars have the D-Tuna in built.
This is a clever and functional, if a little cheap and gimmicky, way to tune your guitar down to Drop D and is useful if you would be switching tuning so quickly during live performance as Eddie often was.
Drawbacks Of Drop D Tuning
With any alternative tuning methods there will be some drawbacks and restrictions. Standard tuning is used as it gives you the most open movement around the neck, alternative tunings can be restrictive.
For instance, with Drop D some chords may be harder to get the right sound for, which is mainly why the tuning is rooted in rock music rather than jazz, for instance.
Rock music and metal, two genres which love Drop D, frequently rely on power chords only using a root and a fifth, whereas jazz chords that often rely on individual notes and tones can sound really strange without that higher register.
Moreover, while you don’t lose any notes, as we mentioned to be advantageous, a lot of scales can go askew. De tuning that bottom string can result in reaching the higher register of a scale quite difficult as they are now quite far away.
As you can see, the Drop D chord is pretty interesting and has quite a few avenues within it to explore.
While advantageous to many rock and metal guitarists for its heavy power-chord friendly sound, the Drop D can also inflict restrictions on other genres such as jazz.
Ultimately, you should use Drop D tuning when you feel you need to. Not everything sounds good in Drop D.
It is often the heavier and simpler stuff that can sound great in Drop D, but complicated, and jumping scales can sound quite strange in Drop D and restrict certain chords.
When listening to rock and metal music, the Drop D chord is rife in the genre where more songs are in Drop D than they are in standard tuning.
When used so regularly, many people integrate Drop D tuning into their guitar’s hardware so that it can easily be switched – Van Halen’s D-Tuna is an example, although there are similar but different products that do the same thing.
Perhaps the most impressive part of alternative tuning is reaching a point where you can tune it up and down easily rather than fiddling around for a long time. This can be particularly annoying when performing live if you don’t have a reliable method.
At the end of the day, Drop D tuning is a really easy way to get into the world of alternative tuning and learn the basics which will build you up to some more obtuse tuning techniques that can be applied in genres such as math rock and jazz fusion.
Learning about these tunings will help you become a better guitar player and access different scales, chords and sounds.
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