There’s a secret that heavy bands don’t want you to know: many of their best riffs are actually the easiest to play…Drop Guitar Tuning.
If you understand how drop guitar tuning works, you can play a soaring chorus or a crushing breakdown with just one or two fingers. Here’s what they are and how they work.
What is a Drop Guitar Tuning and Why Should I Learn Them?
In standard tunings, you need two or three fingers to play a power chord on your bottom strings. That’s because they look like this:
In dropped tunings, the same power chords look like this:
Dropped tunings make your thickest string sound one whole step (two frets/semitones) lower than normal. That means that power chords involving your thickest string can be played entirely on one fret.
‘[In dropped tunings], you can play power chords with only one finger. This makes songs way easier to play!’
This has two advantages: First, you can play power chords with only one finger. This makes songs way easier to play! Second, it gives your guitar two lower notes than it usually has, allowing you to play heavier riffs.
Do I Need to Know Any Music Theory?
The only thing you really need to understand is what a semitone is.
A semitone is essentially the difference in sound between one fret and the fret next to it. It is also known as a half step.
If you played the second fret of a string and then played the first fret, you’d have gone down one semitone.
If your thickest string was tuned to E and you tuned it down to the very next note, Eb/D#, you’d have tuned the string down one semitone.
If you tune a string down one semitone, everything you play on it sounds one fret lower. Playing on the second fret now sounds just like playing on the first fret used to.
What Are the Different Drop Guitar Tunings?
As you probably already know, standard tuning uses the following notes, from lowest pitch to highest:
E A D G B E
The most common dropped tunings (and the different ways to write them out) are as follows:
Great, a Bunch of Letters and Symbols. How Do I Put My Guitar in a Drop Tuning?
Look at the difference between standard tuning and drop D:
E A D G B E
D A D G B E
The only thing that’s different in drop D is that the thickest string is tuned to D instead of E.
‘The only thing that’s different [from standard tuning] in drop D is that the thickest string is tuned to D instead of E.’
If you’re in standard tuning, tune the thickest string on your guitar down two semitones, from E to D.
That’s it – you’re in drop D!
Tips for Beginners
If you’re new to changing guitar tunings, you have to gradually loosen your guitar string to tune it down. Play the string constantly while using a guitar tuner. You should see the note change from E to Eb or D#, and then to D.
You’ve loosened the string too much if it changes to Db or C#. Also, if you ever see E# or Fb, you’ve accidentally started tightening the string. Start turning in the opposite direction before you break it!
My Strings Are Getting Floppy!
If you have light strings on your guitar, they might get floppy after you tune into dropped tunings. This can cause buzzing. In extreme cases, like trying to tune light strings down to drop A, your strings may become completely unplayable or even fall off your guitar.
If you want to sound like a pro playing in dropped tunings, you need heavier strings. Just note that heavier strings require more strength to play.
‘If you want to sound like a pro playing in drop tunings, you need heavier strings.’
I’m a huge fan of Ernie Ball strings for dropped tunings. Their Hybrid Slinky has slightly heavier bottom (thick) strings, making it perfect for tuning down to drop D without making the thinner strings any harder to play. Skinny Top / Heavy Bottom is a bit thicker on all strings and should get the job done well down to drop C.
I personally like being able to go down to drop A whenever I want, so I use their extra-thick Not Even Slinky strings most of the time. I wouldn’t use them unless you’ve built up your finger strength, though.
Other brands will work just as well – just look for ones with comparable string gauges displayed on the package.
What About the Other Tunings, Like Drop C?
Once you go into anything lower than drop D, you have to change the tunings for all of your guitar strings.
The most important thing to remember is that the name of the tuning tells you how low the thickest string on your guitar needs to be tuned. Then, for every semitone that string is lower than D, you need to tune all of your other strings down one semitone.
How to Switch from Standard to Drop Db or Drop C# Tuning:
Tune your thickest string down three semitones from E to Db/C#. (If you’re already in drop D, you only have to tune down one semitone.)
Next, tune all of your other strings down one semitone.
Once you’re done, your guitar tuner should show the following notes. This time, to match the way they would be laid out in a tab, I’ve started with the first (thinnest) string and gone to the sixth (thickest):
How to Switch from Standard to Drop C Tuning:
Tune your thickest string down four semitones (two whole steps) from E to C. (If you’re already in drop D, you only have to tune down two semitones.)
Next, tune all of your other strings down two semitones.
Your tuner should show the following notes, from the thinnest string to the thickest string:
If you want a mnemonic to remember this by, a friend of mine once came up with this one starting from the thickest string: Cold Gun Cocked Fired And Ditched. I found it appropriately metal. If you want something a bit less violent, you can use Cold Greasy Chicken Fajitas Are Delicious.
Switching to Other Drop Tunings (Drop B, Drop Bb/A#, Drop A)
By this point, you should be seeing a pattern: you just tune down all of your strings one extra semitone to get down to the next tuning.
‘You just tune down all of your strings one extra semitone to get down to the next tuning.’
To get to drop Db/C#, you had to tune your thickest string down three semitones from standard tuning and all of your other strings down one semitone. To get to drop C, you had to tune your thickest string down four semitones and the others down two.
So, the quick guide to the rest is:
Thickest string down five semitones from E.
All other strings down three semitones from standard tuning.
From thickest to thinnest string, this appears as B Gb B E Ab Db or B F# B E G# C# on your tuner.
Drop Bb / Drop A#:
Thickest string down six semitones from E.
All other strings down four semitones from standard tuning.
From thickest to thinnest string, this appears as Bb F Bb Eb G C or A# F A# D# G C on your tuner.
Thickest string down seven semitones from E.
All other strings down five semitones from standard tuning.
From thickest to thinnest string, this appears as A E A D Gb B or A E A D F# B on your tuner.
That’s all there is to it! Experiment and have fun with the different tunings. When you’re ready to try learning a few songs with them, crank your distortion and head over to 4 Easy Electric Guitar Songs.
About the Author
Justin Golschneider is the Guitar Coach sub-editor. Before chopping off his hair and becoming a professional editor and writer, he played bass in the hardcore band Fractures and lead guitar in the short-lived melodeath band Steel and Crow. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.