Alternate tunings can open up all kinds of cool new possibilities on guitar, but it can be intimidating for players that are used to standard tuning. Turn those tuning keys and everything moves, so
even a skilled player may not know where the notes are any more. But an easy and really useful place to start is with a very common tuning that requires only one small change to one string:
drop D tuning.
It’s as simple as it sounds. “Drop” or lower your low E string a whole-step to a low D. This not only extends the range of the guitar and gives you an additional bass note, it gives songs in the key of D or G more resonance by adding another harmonic open string to the mix. While using a tuner to do this is the easiest way, it’s worth learning to do it by ear as well. Play the open 4th string D and then the open 6th E, then lower the low E string until the two strings blend. When you reach the low D, you should be able to hear a clean octave between them.
Remember something important about tuning by ear. When notes are close together but not quite in tune, they interfere with one another and create phasing, which we hear as a “beating” sound. To put it simply, as the sound waves of two very close pitches clash, they cancel each other out at regular intervals and the sound actually disappears for an instant. As you bring the string into tune, notice how the beating becomes more apparent as the notes get closer together, then begins to slow down and finally disappears when the notes blend. It’s like cloudy water turning clear. This is a really useful thing to listen for.
When you’ve got your low D in tune, strum an open position D chord using all six strings. It’s easy to hear the appeal of this tuning, as that extra low note adds richness and depth to the sound.
It should be pretty obvious that this tuning works best when playing in the key of D. With the low D added, your three bass strings are now D-A-D and form a thick, satisfying power chord. And since all three notes are now on the same fret (in this case, open strings) you can play other power chords by simply flattening a finger across the 3 bass strings. Check out example 1:
Full Speed Demonstration
This sound is very common in 90’s grunge-era rock, and our example borrows equally from Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins. Play the open string power chord with a sharp, aggressive
attack, but don’t pick too hard. Your detuned low E string is now looser than it was, so it can be easy to use too much force and create a flabby sound. Moving the picking hand a little closer to the
bridge can be helpful, since the string tension gets higher as you approach the bridge. The resulting added brightness gives the chord a nice bite.
The rest of the chords are all played with one finger each, a partial barre across the three bass strings. For the move in measure 2, play the 3rd fret F5 with the index finger and the 5th fret G5 with the ring. Use the same two fingers to play the 12th fret D5 and 10th fret C5 in measure 4, then jump down to grab F5 and G5 again before releasing to the open low D5.
Naming the chords tells us something important. By dropping the 6th string to D, we have also shifted the location of every note on the 6th string up 2 frets. Now, the F note is found on fret 3 instead of 1, and the G on fret 5 instead of 3. This will affect some of your chord fingerings, as we’ll see. But first, check out example 2, in more of a southern rock vein:
Full Speed Demonstration
This example stays in the open position, and takes advantage of the way the low D lets us complete a D minor pentatonic scale. This is clearest in the bass string run that makes up the final two measures.
The overall harmony is D throughout, with the D chord articulated both in the 3-note open-string power chord in measures 1 and 2 and in the more familiar fingering at the downbeat of measure 3.
You can hold this partial D shape for the entire lick. Even though we don’t strike the treble strings at all in the first two measures, holding down the 2nd and 3rd strings as if you were playing the D chord gives the sound more resonance and fullness. The 3rd fret bass notes can be played with the middle finger, while index and ring hold the 3rd and 2nd string notes. This sets up the chord at the beginning of measure 3 very nicely, and the concluding run can be played entirely with the middle finger (and open strings) as well. It happens to be a great finger independence exercise as well as a cool, swampy lick. Pick the eighth notes with repeated downstrokes and pairs of sixteenths with down-up: so the first two measures would be played entirely with downstrokes except for the 16th-note low D (the second note of both the first and second measures). Picking for measures 3 and 4 would be as follows:
D DU D D DUD D DU D DU D D
Example 3 takes us into different musical territory with fingerstyle technique. The octave between the 6th and 4th strings creates a nice droning accompaniment when plucked with the thumb. Simply bounce the thumb back and forth between the two strings. The treble notes are played with the fingers, and will either line up with the bass notes or fall in between them.
Full Speed Demonstration
Looking at the notation rather than the tab, notice the down-stemmed notes. These are the open 6th and 4th strings, played with the thumb, and you can see the corresponding zeros in the tab.
This thumb part is constant, alternating back and forth on the count: 1, 2, 3, 4.
The opening melody part is played with a two-finger chord on the 5th and 7th frets of the first and second strings. In measure two, drop the same 2-finger shape down two frets. Measure 3 starts with a hammer-on to the 2nd fret, played with the index finger. Notice how the first melody note of measure 1 falls on the second beat and is played together with the thumb note. Measures 2, 3, and 4 start with thumb and fingers together on the first beat but complete the measure alternating between them.
Measure 5 introduces a new fingering for an F chord: ring finger on the sixth string 3rd fret, pinky on the fourth string 3rd fret, middle on the third string 2nd fret, and index on the second string 1st fret. You might notice how the notes on strings 4, 3, and 2 look like our familiar F, but that the low bass note has been moved up because of the tuning change. Measure 6 makes a similar change to what would otherwise be a familiar G chord, with the low bass note played by the ring finger on the 5th fret before dropping to a 3rd fret F on the final beat to set up the resolution back to D. Measure 7 returns to the 2-finger formation we started with but on the 8th and 10th frets this time, creating an implied D7. The example concludes with the ring finger sliding along the second string from fret 10 down to fret 7 on the final downbeat. If you’re new to fingerstyle, this will probably be the most challenging example. Give a listen to Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” or Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “4+20” for other examples of this sound.
These three examples are only just a few of the possibilities that drop-D tuning opens up, but they do illustrate some of the most common ways you’ll hear this tuning used. For more on drop D tuning (especially in fingerstyle), check out Jim Deeming's excellent introductory lesson on JamPlay.com:
Introduction to Drop D Tuning by Jim Deeming
Taught by Jim Deeming
Fingerstyle master Jim Deeming teaches you the basics of guitar playing. With over 30 years of experience teaching and playing, Jim will definitely start you in the right direction. This is a great series for beginners and guitarists looking to refresh their knowledge.
Now drop that string and get down to it! Enjoy.
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Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading! Have fun and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!
Nashville Session Musician