Part 1: What Is a Drop Tuning?
A key part of heavy guitar music, drop tunings can give your playing a beefy, rumbling sound unmatched by standard tunings. However, despite drop tunings association with more aggressive styles such as metal, hardcore, and grunge, drop tunings have long been used by both classical and blues guitarists. They also make some notable appearances on pre-metal classic rock songs, including songs by Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and, perhaps most importantly, by a cult protopunk band called The Sonics.
A drop tuning is by its definition any guitar tuning where the 6th string is lowered by one additional whole-step (the distance of two frets on your guitar) when compared to the other strings. Please note that if you are playing a guitar with more than six strings, then the concept still remains the same, but the string that gets further lowered is instead whatever your actual lowest string is (either your 7th string or your 8th string). If your guitar only has six strings, like most guitars, then you don’t worry about that last part.
The tuning known as Drop-D is both the original drop tuning and by the most commonly used. Drop-D tuning is almost exactly like standard guitar tuning (EADGBE), except that the 6th string is tuned down from E to D. All five other strings remain in their standard tuning. If you have correctly tuned to Drop-D, your strings should be tuned to DADGBE.
Once you have finished tuning to Drop-D, try strumming your 6th, 5th, and 4th strings without fretting any notes, letting all three strings ring out open. You can see that transcribed here:
You may have noticed that it sounds a lot better than when you ring out the bottom three strings of our guitar in standard tuning. That’s because when tuned to Drop-D, what you just played is a D Power Chord.
That’s right. When you’re in drop tuning, your left hand doesn’t even need to touch to your guitar to play chords. But if you’re hoping to play any power chords than just D, then, unfortunately, your left hand will have to get in on the action. However, it is still a bit less work than playing power chords in standard tuning.
In order to play power chords in Drop-D tuning, simply barre the same fret on your bottom three strings with your index finger. For example, lay your index finger across the 5th fret on the 6th, 5th, and 4th, strings and strum just those three strings. You are now playing a G-power chord. You can see that transcribed here:
If you are comfortable with the names of your notes in standard tuning but are not super sure about them in Drop-D tuning, then you can figure out what power chord you are playing in Drop-D by counting down two frets from whatever fret you playing on the 6th string, and finding what note that would be in standard tuning. For example, the power chord we just played started on the 5th fret of the 6th string. So to find the name of this power chord, mentally count down two frets on the 6th string, from the 5th fret to the 3rd fret. In standard to tuning, the 3rd fret on the 6th string is a G, so we know that we are playing a G power-chord. This trick can help you when you’re still getting your bearings in Drop-D, but ultimately it’s best to learn the names of the notes in Drop-D as well as you know them in standard tuning.
Part 2: Why Use a Drop Tuning?
The most basic reason to use a drop tuning is for the extra two notes you get on the lowe end. When tuning to Drop-D, you’re able to play a D and D# that are below the range of the guitar when tuned to E-standard. So if you want to use one of those two notes in your song, such as Kurt Cobain did when he wrote the riff for “Heart-Shaped Box”, then you have little choice other than to tune down. Another reason that you might choose to use a drop tuning is tone.
Try playing the G-power chord in Drop-D tuning as written above, then try tuning back to standard and play a G-power chord as you usually would. Do you hear a difference? It’s subtle, but even though you’re playing the same notes the difference is still there. This is because strings that are tuned lower will sound different in more ways than just pitch. In Drop-D tuning, there will be a little less tension on your 6th string, and that’ll make the notes you play on it sound a little darker, a little bassier, and just a little muddier. This is what makes drop tunings a favorite among grunge and metal guitarists the world over. However one of the most common reasons that players may favor drop tunings is for the technical advantages they offer.
When you can play a power chord as easily as barring with one finger or even just letting your strings ring out open, it allows you to play some pretty quick chord changes with a fair amount of ease. Try taking a song based on power chords that you already know how to play in standard tuning. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar will all work great for what we’re about to try, but any power chord song that you know well will likely do the trick.
Now try adapting the way you’re playing the power chords in whatever song you picked so that you’re still playing the same pitches, but in Drop-D tuning. You can use the trick discussed above of counting down two frets to help you find the notes in D-Drop if that helps you. Once you’ve figured out the fingering needed to play your chosen song in D-Drop, try playing through the main riff a few times. There’s a pretty good chance that you had to move a whole lot less and exert a whole lot less energy to play that part.
Part 3: Beyond and Below Drop-D
While Drop-D is the most common drop tuning, many guitarist take the same principle much further. If you tune all your strings even further down, but equally further down, from Drop-D, then you can play the exact same chops and ideas you like to play in Drop-D to even lower, heavier effect.
Tune your guitar to Drop-D, then try tuning all six of your strings down another whole step (the distance of two frets). After you do this, then your current tuning will be CGCFAD. This tuning is called Drop-C. Just about everything we already went over about Drop-D would still work in Drop-C, except that your guitar will another whole-step lower, and sound that much darker and heavier. If you want to try taking it even a step further, trying tuning your guitar to A# F A# D# G C. This tuning is called Drop-A# (or alternatively Drop-Bb) is capable of producing some wickedly murky, bone-crushingly low guitar sounds.
There are many reasons to play in a drop tuning and many drop tunings to experiment with. But at the end of the day, drop-tunings, like all alternate tunings, exist because they can help you create something simply not possible in standard tunings.