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A Guide to Alternative Tunings - Drop C Tuning

In this blog post we are going to be talking about drop C tuning. This is very similar to the drop D tuning we have discussed previously, but we will explore the differences later on in the blog post. 

It is common for guitars with this tuning to use a thicker gauge of strings, or at the very least a set that uses a thicker than normal sixth string gauge. This is to keep the tension of the strings more in line with what can be expected when using a standard tuned guitar. It is also a good idea that, for guitarists who use the tuning frequently, to have a guitar set-up specifically with drop C in mind. 

The Tuning

We know that standard tuning is as follows:

Drop tuning as discussed is when we lower the sixth string, usually by a whole tone (two frets). Drop D is as follows:

When we tune to drop C however, all of the strings are tuned down a tone, sometimes called D standard, with the sixth string further dropped to C instead of D. You would be left with:

Seeing it displayed above should enable you to understand why thicker strings might be desired, or a thicker sixth string. I mentioned this previously, and the reason is because there is less tension in the strings because they are tuned lower - the idea is to rebalance that tension. 

The same playing ideas hold true here, allowing for power chords to be played with one finger melodic riffs using the lower string as a pedal tone. 

Achieving a Good Tone

I was toying with the idea of omitting this section, but I feel it should be included - you never know who it will help! You could apply the following advice to any heavy guitar tone, something I may write about in detail in the future.

Drop C is associated with heavy guitar tones, and the lower tuning means that bass frequencies are more prevalent, or you can hear them better. Simply turning up the gain and hoping for the best isn’t going to be the best course of action. 

Having a high gain amplifier, or a digital version thereof, is a good place to start. What is perhaps the most important is to use a good speaker (or emulation of) that can handle the lower tuning and keep things focused. Some people use a distortion pedal, but running one into an already distorted amp will just be too noisy - in this case you would use a cleaner guitar amp sound. Using a booster pedal, or something like a Tubescreamer-esque pedal with the gain at zero and level on maximum, into a distorted amp will push the amp harder and tighten up the sound. 

However, I must stress that you should always be looking to create your own sound, so use this advice as a springboard to develop for your own personal tastes. I personally like to use active pickups in this scenario because the signal is a little more predictable.

Common Styles

I have already mentioned that this tuning is common in heavier styles. Before we look at those, we will have some honorable mentions.

Neon - John Mayer

John Mayer is a modern day guitar legend, and his ability stretches from the blues to pop and country songs. I am not sure how to classify this one, but it uses drop C tuning in an unexpected way, similar to how Charlie Hunter uses extended range guitars. The low string is used to provide some low frequency context to the melody and chords played on the higher strings. 

Bad Horsie - Steve Vai

Steve Vai is one of the most well-known guitarists to have ever existed. His career has seen him support and breathe new life into established bands, though he now tours under his own steam. This song is still quite heavy, but it has funk and blues undertones - the song also relies heavily on a wah pedal, which inspired guitar gear manufacturer Morley to create the ‘Bad Horsie Wah’ in collaboration with Vai.


Many offshoots of metal and heavy rock can justifiably use drop C tuning, but metalcore is where it really shines in my opinion. Some bands in this genre are far too cheesy for me - that does not mean there is no great music to be heard!

Rose of Sharyn - Killswitch Engage

Killswitch Engage are a band I was introduced to by friends in high school, and I have been a big fan ever since (I even once had a pair of signature Killswitch Engage shoes!). There are some really brutal, heavy sections with some excellent counterplay between both guitars, a pleasing mix of clean and distorted vocals. I especially like the higher guitar parts coupled with the heavy riffs, it creates an interesting texture.

Holy Diver - Killswitch Engage

I do not like to include more than one offering from a band in each blog post I write, though I must make an exception here. I would not go as far to call this a full rearrangement, though their version of a Dio classic must be heard to be appreciated fully. The guitars are tuned down to drop C, they have written new solos and added some great guitar harmonies. I also think the recording sounds brilliant, with some tasteful backing vocals mixed in for good measure.

The music video linked above is a great watch too!

Tears Don’t Fall - Bullet For My Valentine

You simply cannot mention metalcore without mentioning this band. Some of their earlier songs are extremely nostalgic for me, this one in particular. Many, if not all, of this band’s songs are written in this tuning.

There guitar harmonies aplenty, a section that could almost be thrash metal and many different sections that work well together - quite often songs with many sections get messy and meander around aimlessly until they end. 

Toxicity - System Of A Down

System Of A Down are known for their deceivingly tricky songs, politically charged lyrics and sometimes graphic imagery all around - this is a warning if you are under 18 or are sensitive to certain subjects. This song is perfectly safe for younger listeners.

The riffs from this song are ingrained into my brain almost as well as the basic open chords on the guitar. As wacky as some of their tunes can be, this one is a little more ‘vanilla’. The song is excellently written and goes to show that complicated riffs does not ensure a brilliant song. I mentioned that they are deceivingly tricky - it takes a lot of effort and skill to pull them off effectively!

Final Thoughts

There is nothing more fun than tuning your guitar low and just rocking out. You can learn a lot about your playing when you just open up and see what happens! I also find that the simple act of tuning lower, despite being so similar to drop D tuning, inspires a different avenue of creativity - I encourage you to try it out. 

Tuning this low can take a toll on your guitar if you need to change frequently - that’s why I have a guitar specifically for lower tunings. If you wish to learn some songs tuned this low, I would recommend asking your teacher first so they can adequately prepare (it is even more difficult if the guitar has a floating tremolo system!). Some of the teachers at the American Guitar Academy can definitely help you out if you need some assistance, your average run of the mill guitar tutor might not be able to help you there.

Good luck and keep rocking!



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