Alternate guitar tunings can open up new worlds to explore in your guitar practice, songwriting, and performance. One of the most popular alternate tunings, drop D, is a superb place to start because of its simplicity and immediate effectiveness.
How to Put Your Guitar in Drop D
The best thing about tuning your guitar to drop D is it is very easy to do. In fact, there is only one string that changes pitch in this tuning: the low E string, which is lowered a whole step to D. That drop in pitch is how the tuning gets its name.
There are two main ways to do this.
Tuning to Drop D With a Tuner
If you're new to putting your guitar in alternate tunings, you might want to use a tuner the first few times until you get the hang of what you're doing.
- Play your low E string (the 6th string).
- Slacken the pitch of it slowly as you watch your tuner.
- The string will drop from E to D sharp (or E flat), and then finally to D.
Once you have the low string tuned to D, you are officially in drop D.
Tuning to Drop D by Ear
If you're more confident tuning your guitar with your ear or if you do not have a tuner, you can tune to drop D using a more manual method as follows:
- First, play the open D string on your guitar (the 4th string) and let it ring.
- As it's ringing, play your low E string (the 6th string) and let it ring.
- With both strings ringing, slacken your low E string until the lowering pitch matches the pitch of the open D string on your guitar. You can continue plucking both strings as you calibrate the 6th string to match the 4th string.
- Technically, the notes won't be exactly the same. The low D you're tuning on the 6th string will be one octave lower than the note played on the 4th string, but you will be able to hear when the two strings match.
Once the notes sound in unison, you're officially in drop D.
Tips and Warnings
The beauty of drop D is it's not a drastic tuning change, so you don't have to alter your playing style dramatically. Only one string out of the six is different, so most of the fingerings you already know for standard tuning still apply. However, here are tips and warnings for playing in drop D:
- Be careful with chords that used an open low E string when you played in standard tuning. This especially applies to E major and E minor chords. It could also apply to the C major or A minor chords if you liked including the open low E when you strummed them.
- If you want to keep your drop D but need to play chords that use the open low E, dampen the open E sixth string by resting the base of your right hand's palm or wrist on it as you pick or avoid strumming the open sixth string if your picking is precise enough.
- The second option to playing open E chords such as E major or minor is to learn a modified fingering. In the case of drop D, it's simple: press on the second fret of the sixth string with a spare finger (or thumb) of your left hand.
- Drop D is wonderful for playing power chords. If you have an electric guitar, a distortion pedal, and an amp, and you love rock and roll, crank it up and play some power chords. Drop D makes it easy: on any fret you choose, bar the sixth and fifth string with your index finger and you've got a crunchy power chord.
- As you learn to play power chords in drop D's simpler fingering, you will find you can switch between power chords much faster. If you're a songwriter or guitar player in a band, try creating riffs that take advantage of this fast-changing power chord capability--riffs that switch between power chords quickly.
- If you're not into rock and roll, and you're into mellower genres like folk, country, or singer/songwriter, drop D can add some beautiful bottom and pedal tones when you choose to write songs in the key of D major or minor. You can play the open low D string (the sixth string), and its low tone adds a nice, resonating full-frequency sound to your strumming.
As you find ways to apply the drop D to your playing style, it quickly becomes an indispensable tool in your bag of guitar playing tricks.
Examples of Songs Using Drop D
The following song examples use the drop D effectively. The links below will take you to websites where you can view tablature for the songs for practice purposes. While the grungy low sound of drop D is often used in hard rock, it has actually been used in a surprising variety of styles, from classic melodic rock (The Beatles) to the mellow singer/songwriter genre (John Mayer).
- The Beatles - Dear Prudence - A lesser known track from The White Album, nevertheless Dear Prudence is one of the calming, beautiful songs written by The Beatles. It uses the low D as a hypnotizing pedal note that drones below the music.
- Nirvana - Heart Shaped Box - Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter and amazing singer, but he was also a creative guitar player. This fantastic song from the album In Utero makes brilliant use of drop D, and it's not terribly difficult to play.
- John Mayer - Your Body Is A Wonderland - One of John Mayer's biggest hits peaked at no. 18 on Billboard's Hot 100, and it helped land him on the map of the music industry. It also shares the same tuning as some of the biggest metal and grunge songs every written, a surprising connection for Mr. Mayer.
- Led Zeppelin - Moby Dick - In this classic instrumental track from legendary rockers Led Zeppelin, drop D is used in a more virtuosic context in which guitars and drums riff and solo off of each other in a jazz-infused rock masterpiece.
Find New Tone Colors
It's a delight to play around with new tunings, but the ultimate goal is to find a sound you've never experienced before in your personal or public guitar performance. It is similar to a painter who finds a new color she has never used in her paintings. Such experimentation adds new life to your artistry and new color to your music.