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Today, we will be getting our teeth stuck into a tuning that has long since passed its sell by date, and yet which seems to be more popular now than ever before! Whether you are completely familiar with how to tune to drop D or whether you have never done so before, if you are interested in learning more about it all then this is the resource for you!
What is Drop Tuning?
In using a ‘drop tuning’, we are using one of a near infinite number of alternate guitar tunings, alternate to the tonal centre typically founded on standard tuning and from where the pitch of one string is altered up or down in pitch, which in most cases is the low E string, resulting in the drop D tuning we have in our sights today.
Drop D tuning is common on electric guitar and rock music today, and has been for some time now. By the logic of drop D tuning, the lowest E string is tuned down a whole step from E to D while the rest of the strings are left unaltered in standard tuning. This creates a power chord with the lower strings that you would otherwise have to fret manually, allowing later musicians to use different methods of articulating power chords in drop D and to, most importantly, to change chords faster. In a similar vein, there is a double drop D tuning, wherein, instead of just the lower E strings, both of the E strings are tuned down a whole step from E to D, while the rest of the strings are left at their original pitch.
Despite having been introduced and manufactured by classical and blues guitarists, drop D tuning is better known for the various ways it has shaped hard rock and heavy metal music, early mainstream examples of which include Led Zeppelin’s ‘Moby Dick’ and the Beatles’ ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’.
Detuning the lowest string in this way allowed the musicians of these bands and of countless bands to come to instantly acquire a darker and heavier sound than would otherwise be possible in standard tuning. This will have made the need to tune down all of the strings less pressing, expanding the scale of the instrument down in pitch by a whole tone and by a mere flick of the wrist.
How to Drop Your D
As should already be clear if you have read the above, tuning to drop D and thus being able to play chords in drop D is relatively simple, and certainly should not be over thought. Unless you are a more experienced guitarist or musician, or if you in fact have perfect pitch (!), then you are, however, going to need a tuner.
Now, this can be an app on your phone, or a separate dongle sort of tuner that you attach to your headstock, or could even be a dedicated pedal which you are sending your guitar signal through! All of them will no doubt do a more than adequate job of converting those signals and allowing you to tune to the relevant pitch. If and when you get to tuning to more complex alternate tunings, such as those used in classic folk for example, then a more high end dedicated tuner, such as the dongle or a pedal, will be more necessary. But, for now, a mobile phone app or even a YouTube video like the one below will do a more than reasonable job.
If you are looking at the tuning above and asking ‘hey, this is pretty easy, no? Isn’t this just standard tuning with the lowest string tuned down a bit?’, then you would be absolutely right! It really is not rocket science, and I am willing to bet that someone who is not even interested in guitars or music could do it!
Just turn that tuner on, and once you have tuned all of the other strings to their relevant tunings, tune down the lowest string (which would ordinarily be tuned to E) to D. It is as simple as that!
How to Drop Your D by Ear
Sure, you could just tune your guitar to drop D and use chords in drop D by using a mobile phone tuner, a dongle, or a pedal, but how cool would it be if you could tune to drop D by ear. This is especially useful for touring musicians, or those otherwise playing regular shows. Sometimes you might need to change to drop D in between songs, some songs requiring different tunings for different moods etc, and you might simply not have enough time to use an actual tuner. You might even need to change tuning in the middle of a song, in which case you will almost certainly not have enough time to use a tuner, unless it is a pedal tuner of course.
In these instances, it would be very handy to be able to tune the lower string by ear, no? This is also handy to know if you happen to be without a tuner, caught off guard perhaps.
One method to tuning down to drop D by ear is to use the D string from the standard tuning as a reference point, sounding it out and tuning the lower string to it accordingly.
Another such method works in a similar way, but instead uses harmonics which are much closer together in pitch, and thus easier to tune to. In standard tuning, if you place your finger lightly on the 5th fret of the A string, you will hear the A note but two octaves higher in pitch, which is called a harmonic. By tuning down the E string until you think it is ready, and then placing your finger lightly on the lower string at the 7th fret, you should be able to tune them together, until all of the oscillations slow to nothing.
Open Chords in Drop D
The interesting thing about chords in drop D is how it can have either such a drastic or such a negligible impact on some open chords. There are several open chords, for example, that are almost entirely unaffected by the tuning down from standard tuning to drop D. This is because they did not have much of the lower E string in their structure to begin with, listed below are some such chords, who are wholly or largely unaffected by tuning down to drop D.
Inversely, there are a number of open chords whose very structure relies on the lower string in standard tuning and are, thus, rather affected by the move from standard tuning to drop D. This can make a guitarist’s work a little harder in some instances, though can also work to their advantage very much. The D and D minor chords are, obviously, bolstered by this lower string which is now tuned down D, thickening the lower frequencies and pitches immensely.
Hopefully you will be able to see for yourself how this very small change can have such drastic consequences even for such simple things as open chords. It really makes you sit and think, and makes you realise just how integral the low E string is to the ecosystem of the guitar. Heck, it even makes you realise how much of a different any tuning makes, especially to chords in drop D!
Power Chords in Drop D Tuning
If you thought open chords in drop D were a whole bunch of fun, then just you wait until you get your teeth stuck into power chords. As previously mentioned, it is the power that drop D tuning brings along with it that has excited so many artists over the past half century, and that has inspired so many of these artists to create music free from the bounds of traditional tuning and tonality. This is to the point where drop D tuning itself has almost become a bind in itself, swallowed by guitar mainstream in such a way that it is hardly subversive anymore, and certainly nowhere near as subversive as it once was.
One of the main reasons for their adoption in punk and heavy metal music was the ability they bestowed on guitarists everywhere to change between power chords with relative ease, placing more importance on the speed at which power chords are changed and the modes of expression in this speed.
Typically, power chords are playing using the lowest two strings, E and A, as the root notes, using a shape that places the index finger on the root note and has the ring finger and pinky finger fretting the perfect fifth and octave respectively. The simple structure and internal logic of the power chord is why it is referred to by aficionados as a 5th chord, so an E power chord would be an E5.
Hopefully you can see how the pattern repeats itself in this way…
So, there you have it! Hopefully this short but comprehensive guide through some of the chordal opportunities offered by drop D tuning has been of some use to you in finding out just exactly you want to get out of using such alternate tunings!
FAQs Chords in Drop D
Over the last half century, this tuning has become immensely popular to the point where it is a widespread common knowledge among all guitarists and most music tutors, as certain songs from the rock canon have edged their way through the door of most classrooms to be taught in various music syllabuses throughout the western world. Thus, you would be hard pressed to find a guitarist, at least in the rock and heavy metal sphere, that has not, at some point, used drop D tuning to further their musical endeavours and to dim the lights of the mood of a certain track or set of tracks.
Not as far as I’m aware, no. Perhaps it would be best if a dedicated professional, a guitar technician or luthier, looked at the guitar and set it up in such a way that would make it more receptive to drop D tuning. It is, however, such a common tuning that no one would blame you for doing without such expert advice and input. Drop D itself is only a detuning of a tone, and only of one string out of six, and so any adjustments with regards to the truss rod and overall string tension would be more or less negligible.
Once you have turned on the tuner, I would first suggest tuning all of the other strings to the tuning that you intend to use, which will likely be standard tuning. This is purely for convenience’s sake and so that you can use the other strings for reference once you have tuned down the lower string to D. On a tuner, drop D will simply look like all of the strings tuned to standard tuning (E – B – G – D – A, in descending pitch order), followed by the lowest string instead looking like D instead of the usual E.
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