Why Tune Down – Sound and Playability

Introduction

Alright folks, the ins and outs of tuning a half step down, also called Eb tuning…lots of information here so let me lay it out what you will find on this site:

First of all, if you just want to quickly tune half a step down, there is the Online Guitar Tuner Eb to help you out and give you the correct reference notes for Eb tuning, there is also an online guitar tuner in case you want to get back to standard tuning.

There is detailed section on how to tune down a half step, discussing the several ways to tune down, with any type of tuner or with no tuner at all. With step-by-step instructions.

You may start out with some guidelines on choosing the right string gauge for your guitar to start with.

If your guitar has floating bridge there is a a step-by-step-guide on how to set up your Floyd Rose tremolo when tuning down to Eb.

But why tune down a half step in the first place? Further down this site we will shed some light on this, in the section about the effects on sound and playability.

 

Why tune down – Effects on Sound and Playability…

Eb tuning is arguably the most widely used alternative guitar tuning. It is used in all styles from Heavy Metal in all it’s forms, to Country, Fusion and even Jazz. The second most used alternate tuning is probably the Drop D tuning (see the article Drop D tuning and deeper), which is also more limited to metal styles.

So, why is it that so many players choose this tuning. What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks?

If you own several guitars you will find that some guitars lend themselves to be tuned down more than others. So it’s always a matter of trying and often there is some compromise involved. Artists who play Gibson type guitars tend to use standard tuning, artists who tune a half step down generally use normal Strats or Superstrats.

Slash tunes half a step down 300x298 Why Tune Down   Sound and Playability

Slash tunes half a step down

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule. Guitarist Slash of Guns’n Roses fame being one example, as he plays his Les Pauls tuned a half step down almost all the time. The other, equally famous Les Paul playing half-step-down-tuner is Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society). Learn which strings they use and what are sensible starting points for your guitar…

For any type of metal, tuning half a step down is generally worth a shot. Palm muted chords will typically sound more compressed and heavier. For soloing the increased flexibility makes bending the strings a lot easier. So that’s good.
Due to the strings being sloppier, the initial pick attack creates a bigger peak noise, resulting in more compression, which basically means with Eb tuning you get gain/distortion for free. All in all, tuning down a half step goes very well with all rock and metal styles. It certainly plays a vital role in creating the ‘over-the-top’ sound commonly associated with 80s hair bands. Many of the players of that era were and still are hardcore half-step-down-tuners. Some of the most influential players of that time, like George Lynch (back then with the band Dokken) and Warren De Martini (Ratt), tuned a half step down, and so did almost everyone else.

Rusty Cooley Half Step Down 247x300 Why Tune Down   Sound and Playability

Playing fast…

On the downside, sloppier strings can make the whole guitar feel less precise and if you are (or aspire to be) a very technical player (a ‘shredder’) this might be something you don’t like. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to play fast on a down tuned guitar of course. Technical players from Yngwie Malmsteen to Rusty Cooley tune down a half step all the time, so take that with a grain of salt. But it definitely takes some getting used to and maybe an adjustment of your picking technique.
Rusty Cooley (and if you don’t know him: that guy is FAST!!!) for example picks very close to the bridge to make up for the sloppier strings. Because of that he only plays certain types of tremolos (Ibanez Edge III, I believe) and not others (no standard Floyd Rose). A standard Floyd Rose would go out of tune, because his palm is resting too far back.

In terms of playability, if you’re picking close to the bridge anyway you might actually benefit from tuning down a half step. This, of course, leaves you with the question: “how exactly can I tell if I’m ‘picking close to the bridge’?” The answer is: if your palm is resting behind the pivot point of your tremolo and you frequently touch the fine-tuners, that would be considered picking close to the bridge. Not close to the bridge is when your palm typically rests at around the pivot point of the tremolo.

Picking closer to the bridge does affect the sound however. Expect the guitar to sound (slightly) thinner and brighter and less full.

Sustain

Less string tension also means less sustain. Now, a lot of people don’t get this, but less string tension results in higher peak volumes, because the string can swing more freely, but it also uses up the energy quicker and therefore has less sustain. Sustain, however, is somewhat overrated to begin with. I have yet to see a decent quality guitar that actually doesn’t have enough sustain. With high gain sounds there is usually enough sustain for everybody anyway, so that’s not really a problem here.

An issue somewhat related to sustain is that due to the reduced string tension when tuning half a step down, there is less energy to make the guitar resonate. That could very well be something that makes a guitar sound a lot worse. The dry sound of a nice Custom Shop Strat will oftentimes noticeably deteriorate (but still be sweet). This tends to be only a problem with guitars with non-locking tremolos, like your average Stratocaster, and guitars with a fixed bridge like the Les Paul. Floyd Rose equipped guitars are much more forgiving when it comes to half step down tuning, because, as some say, there is less tone to lose to begin with.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. If you can tune down one half step, why not tune down two?. Read the article about drop D tuning to learn more about some really heavy guitar tunings, most often found in metal.