All About Drop D Tuning: Open D Tuning for Guitar

What is “Drop D tuning” for guitar? And why would we want to use it in our guitar music?

This is an alternate guitar tuning that makes for beautifully low, rich bass sounds. Below, you’ll discover everything you need to know about tuning your guitar to Drop D tuning and its differences from Standard Tuning.

What is Drop D Tuning?

When we use Drop D tuning, the low E string is tuned a whole step down to D. This means instead of the 6th string sound being an E, it sounds a D. It is one octave lower than the open 4th string (D string).

Many composers choose to write in different tunings because it has many benefits on guitar. Dropped D tuning can be easily accessed by dropping the pitch of just one string (the low e string) a full step lower.

What is the benefit?

When we tune our guitar to Drop D, we have three low strings (bass strings) that sound good together. So the bottom three strings become D, A, and D. With the added low D bass note, we can create deep resonant bass lines, while playing in the upper positions on the guitar (on strings d g b e).

Dropped tunings make the range of the guitar wider. And if desired, can provide a low “drone” over which melodies can be played on the top strings (d g b e).

This open tuning also allows composers to write in the key of D while using the full texture of the guitar. In standard guitar tuning, the key of D has more of an “alto” sound, because the lowest D note is the open 4th string (open d string). Drop D tuning lends itself to richer-sounding musical textures because it gives composers access to the root note D an octave lower (on the 6th string).

The low D note on the guitar also just sounds good. Even though it’s only an added whole step (2 frets), it sounds much different than standard tuning. This is especially true with recently changed strings.

How to Quickly Tune to Drop D

One method to quickly tune your guitar from standard tuning to Drop D tuning is as follows:

  1. Play the fourth string (open D string). Let it ring out.
  2. Play the 12th fret harmonic on the 6th string (low e).
  3. Adjust the tuning peg of the 6th string over a full step down, to below the ringing 4th-string pitch (note).
  4. Tune back up to where the two strings vibrate at the same pitch (same note).

Tip: Tune your Guitar from below

The guitar stays in tune better when we tune up to our desired pitch from below, rather than down from above.

So instead of adjusting the tuning pegs straight down to the D on the sixth string, first go past the “in tune” point. Then tune your guitar back up to the pitch from below it.

Expect your Guitar to slip out of tune

Strings have a “memory” of their home pitch (i.e. standard tuning). Once your sixth string is tuned to Drop D, the string will tend to go sharp (up in pitch). Tuning up from below helps reduce this, but it still happens.

So if you play a piece of music in any alternate tunings, assume that you will need to adjust your tuning often. It’s all part of the game.

How to Read Music in Drop D Tuning

We can see that a piece of music uses Drop D tuning in a number of ways.

Most often, we see the text 6 = D, or 6 = re (another name for D)

Tune to Drop D

A number within a circle refers to the string number. 6 = the low e string.

Drop D Guitar Tuning

“Re” is another name for D. This is from the Fixed Do Solfege system (Do Re Mi etc.).

Tune the guitar to D

Here, the E string is to be tuned to D, written “E in D”

We can also see lower-than-usual notes in the music itself. When we see these impossible (in standard tuning) notes, it’s a clue we’re in a different tuning.

Use Drop D tuning

Notes out of the usual range are a good clue we may be in Drop D tuning.

Chords in Drop D Tuning

Chord shapes we are familiar with in Standard Tuning (with a low e string) slightly differ in Drop D Tuning, where the lowest string is tuned to the D note. When we play chords in the low-D tuning, we have to play the 6th-string note two frets higher. If we don’t move those notes up (a ‘whole step’ higher), it will sound “off”. This makes for some new and tricky fingerings.

For many of the standard chords that use the lowest string (such as E and G, or all power chords) we can quickly learn the new chord fingering. After a piece or two in this drop D tuning, it will become more comfortable and familiar.

Don’t Be Afraid to Tune

Many players, when they first play guitar in Drop D tuning, may avoid the Drop D pieces. This is really to avoid the issue of tuning the low E constantly.

But tuning becomes easy and quick with some practice.

If you have music in this tuning, practice it all together, to make good use of your practice time. But don’t avoid your pieces just because they demand a re-tune. Take a few seconds and journey into the rich and resonant world of Drop D Tuning!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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