Drop D tuning and deeper

Tuning down two half steps and more


Tuning down two half steps is another common way to tune a guitar. There are two types of D-tuning. The standard way is to tune every single string a full step down. That means the low E-string becomes the low D-string, the A-string becomes a G-string and so forth. The other way to tune down is called ‘Drop-D‘. We will see what that means in a moment. (If you simply want to tune to drop D quickly, go to Online Guitar Tuner Drop D)
First let’s talk about tuning every string down a full step…

The difference in sound and playability is severe. The tone becomes a lot darker and heavier. Where a tuning a half step down might go unnoticed, tuning two steps down most certainly doesn’t.

As for the set of strings: the strings get a LOT sloppier with a standard set of .009s. For a complete Drop D tuning you would at least need a set of 010-046, no matter the guitar. For the rest you would follow the instructions for tuning a half step down. But wait a minute, there are different ways to get the deep note…

Compared to tuning down half a step, tuning down a full step often is not so much about playability. The main focus is on having that deep note, that authoritative fat D that tells everyone that you mean business. Well there’s a trick that makes a lot of things a lot easier, and that trick is to only tune down the low E-string two half steps and leave the rest of the strings alone. This way you have a deep D note and the rest is tuned to standard tuning. So you tune (from low to high): D-A-D-G-b-e.

This has a couple of advantages:

First of all, playability is almost not affected at all. There is no need for you to adapt and change your technique, your guitar still feels like your guitar.

The required changes in setups are either minimal, or you don’t have to change anything at all. Most of the time you don’t have to make any changes to the setup but you have to re-tune all the strings slightly (an exception is discussed below).

There is another advantage to tuning your guitar this way if you are a rock or metal guitarist. By far the most common chord in rock and metal music is the so called power chord. Let’s say you want to play a G power chord. With standard tuning you would put the index finger on the 3rd fret of the E-string, the ring finger on the 5th fret of the A-string and now either bar the 5th fret of the D-string with your ring finger or use your pinky.
Now you tune the E string a full step down to D…surprise! – all the notes you need for a power chord are suddenly in a line. All you need to do is bar the E-, A- and D-string with your index finger. For an open D power chord you don’t have to use any fingers at all.
To many people it seems a little bit counter-intuitive at first that the relevant notes actually move closer together when you tune the E-string down. But think about it: as you tune down the E-String to D all the notes actually move up, for example the low E itself moves from fret 0 (open string) to the second fret.

One related advantage of tuning this way is that you can even play quite a few different chords that are useful the which either required skipping a string with standard tuning or stretching your fingers to the limit.

The two guitarists of the band Lamb of God for example tune their guitars this way. Playing their songs with standard tuning lowered to D would be next to impossible.


Eddie and the D-Tuna

Eddie van Halen also uses this tuning, but (unlike Lamb of God) does not want to play it all the time. He uses a device that allows you to switch between E and D tuning. It’s called D-Tuna. It’s relatively cheap and can be retrofitted to any Floyd Rose system.

It’s also a standard feature of his EVH signature guitar. Looking at the device, I found it somewhat surprising that it actually works. But it actually works like a charm. Eddie van Halen is the man! He always tries new things and his guitar knowledge is incredible. This guy has forgotten more about guitar than most people will ever know. But nevertheless, the cool function of the D-Tuna comes with a price…

The D-Tuna works because it blocks the Floyd in one direction (upwards). This is cool for people who set up their Floyds like this anyway. This is the way that Eddie traditionally sets up his tremolo ever since a guy named Floyd Rose handed him one of the early prototypes in the 1970s…

When you set up the Floyd so that it cannot be pulled upwards in pitch, the rest of the strings cannot go out of tune (go up in pitch) when you release the tension of the E-string (tune it down to D).  You can do all your dive bombs, but you can’t move the tremolo up. Without discussing individual tremolo techniques, it basically means: no Steve Vai tricks and no Dragon Force songs. You decide…


OK, but back to the full step down tuning…

Unlike the incomplete dropped d, as discussed above, the complete d tuning changes the pitch of every string. Namely, the

  • low E-string becomes a D-string
  • the A-string tuns into a G-string
  • the D-string becomes the C-string
  • the G-string will be tuned to the note F
  • the b-string is tuned to A and finally
  • the high e-string is again now a d-string.

Now that is a little confusing at first. But honestly, unless you are a Jazz player there won’t be a lot to think about. In a band with a lot of different instruments, most of which cannot be detuned, you have to stay in key with everybody else and therefore shift the chords to fit the rest of the instruments. A typical Jazz combo includes brass and woodwinds, all of which have a fixed (and oftentimes odd) tuning. But there is also the typical double bass, which does not lend itself to being tuned down either.

With most contemporary styles, however, the normal thing to do is to tune every stringed instrument either down a full step or to a drop d tuning. This sounds easier in theory than it is in practice. Because this also means that everybody in the band has to agree about this, which can be hardest part of the whole down tuning process.

Although tuning down two half steps is mainly associated with metal music and more specifically with metal core and the likes, there are also players of other styles who do it.
Blues guitarist Robin Trower for example plays his strats tuned two half steps down. Check out the video and his completely awesome album 20th century blues.