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A Guide to Alternative Tunings - Drop D Tuning

Many young rock and metal players one day stumble across something called ‘drop D tuning’. It may be that they hear the term somewhere or, similar to how I discovered the tuning, try to read some guitar tabs that don’t specify drop D tuning and leave you figuring out why your playing sounds terrible (for tips on how to learn songs, see my blog post on the subject). 

Drop D can be heard not just in rock and metal styles of music, but blues and pop music also! However, it is prevalent in the former styles due to the ease with which one can play power chords and strum some of the lower strings open. 

What is Drop D Tuning - What is the Difference?

As we should all know by now, standard tuning is as follows:


This goes from the sixth (thickest) string to the first (thinnest) string. Drop D tuning is only slightly different; you only need to lower the sixth string a whole step from E to D. Therefore, we are left with our strings tuned to the following notes:

D A D G B E 

Nice and easy! You can use a tuner for this, but if you are comfortable tuning by ear, and provided you are in tune in the first place, you can play the D string open and lower the E string until they match. 

When Do We Use Drop D Tuning?

You can use this tuning whenever you like. It could be to learn a specific song, or maybe you just want to have some fun jamming with your friends. You may have some difficulties using this tuning though! Guitars with floating tremolo systems need to be set up specifically. Other instruments could have a very low action (the height of the strings from the frets), and lowering the string could cause a buzzing sound as a result - this is because the string gets looser as you detune it.

If you are looking at playing in this way, make sure your guitar can handle it before you begin. Most acoustic guitars should be fine, though!

Some Great Examples

You may be reading this post after viewing my YouTube short, demonstrating three of my favorite drop D riffs. I want to discuss them in a little more detail here, and also provide some links so you can check out the full songs in all their respective glory!

Just a quick note to mention that these riffs are written, and demonstrated, how I learned them, so may not be 100% true to the original. I have also arranged them to suit the purposes of the YouTube short so have been truncated in places.

Velvet Revolver - Slither

Velvet Revolver was a supergroup made up of some famous musicians back in the early 2000s, most notably Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots. They had some great songs, but ‘Slither’ really took the world by storm. The drop tuning, the iconic solo and soaring chorus really make it something special. 

One thing I really like in this song is the use of accents on certain beats. It provides some interesting syncopation that you don’t tend to hear enough of in this kind of music, at least in the mainstream. See an excerpt of the tabs below:

Notice how the accents, highlighted in a green circle, are not always played on the same beat. This is also a great representation of how the power chords are played on one fret, nearly always played with one finger.

Rage Against the Machine - Killing in the Name (clean)

This song has quite an explicit climax at the end of the song, much to the chagrin of the BBC back in 2009. The link I have provided above is to a radio edit of the song, so the swearing has been removed. 

The riff covered here is taken from one of the verses, and features a really cool chromatic warm-up that I have highlighted in green below. There is some tastefully added palm-muting here, with some clever repurposing of the riffs throughout the rest of the song.

When learning the whole song, it is a good idea to brush up on your dynamic skills. You might find that you will fail to achieve the correct feel if you play through the whole thing as loudly as you can. This can help with your guitar tone also, especially if your set up responds well to how hard you play. 

Avenged Sevenfold - Bat Country

This is a song that takes me back to my early teens in high school. Looking back on it in 2024 I think it is a little bit cheesy, but there is a strong sense of nostalgia for me. There are many rhythmic pushes in this song, which means the chord changes an eighth note earlier than you would expect it to. 

You can see in the excerpt above, which is the second half of the demonstrated section, the chords change on beat 1, the ‘and’ of beat 2 as well as the ‘and’ of beat 4 in the first bare - see everything highlighted in red so that you know when to change. However, things are evened out again by the end of the second bar. After playing the very first power chord (highlighted in green) as you normally would, I recommend playing the next chord (highlighted in blue) with your middle finger - it is a much easier transition in my opinion. 

Honorable Mentions

There are so many songs that I have listened to, or played, over the years. The following list is in no particular order, but I recommend you listen to them all.

Queen - Fat Bottomed Girls

A classic song with some brilliant vocal harmonies and a riff to stomp your feet to! This is a nice song to learn when practicing slide guitar, so consider this one before you jump straight in and try to play like Derek Trucks!

Pretenders - Middle of the Road

The verse guitar part here has some fast paced, flat-picked, open chord arpeggios and there is a descending line that you need to be tuned to drop D in order to play it properly. There is some tasteful use of chorus effect also. 

Foo Fighters - Everlong

This is a fast riff that some people struggle to play properly. One of the reasons for this is that there are some unconventional chord shapes that are used due to the lowest string being changed. Give it a shot!

Other Things to Try

I would recommend that you try to go over some basic scales that you know, pentatonic scales for example, and also the use of palm-muting to really bring out the chunkiness in those riffs. 

Being able to quickly tune yourself back up to standard tuning is something worth practicing. This is especially true if you are playing some drop tuned songs live and don’t wish to change guitars!

Final Thoughts

Don’t be afraid to experiment with this tuning, it is a lot of fun to play with and a nice gentle introduction to the world of open tunings! I would recommend trying the riffs discussed earlier first, and then breaking out and trying to create something of your own - if it is just a little part of something that could be a riff, or a fully fledged masterpiece then you are stepping in the right direction.

All of the teachers at The American Guitar Academy have experience with this, each in their own unique way. If you want to learn some more, speak to one of them or your current teacher and have fun with it!



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