What is Drop D Tuning?
Drop D is an alternate tuning that swaps the lowest (sixth) string of the guitar from E to D, giving us the tuning DADGBE.
The result of this dropped string is a wider range of possible notes (you can now play all the way down to D2), access to fuller-sounding open D chords of various qualities, and the ability to play songs that aren’t possible in standard tuning.
Double Drop D takes this one step further; instead of shifting just the Low E string down to D, it also drops the High E string a whole step. The resulting tuning is, from lowest to highest, DADGBD.
Playing in either of these alt-tunings can be difficult for those used to standard tuning since all relationships between the altered and unaltered strings are changed. With a little bit of practice, though, playing in Drop D and Double Drop D can become second nature.
Drop D in Popular Music
Musicians across a myriad of genres have employed Drop D tuning to create many famous tunes.
The tuning reached new heights of popularity in the 90s and early 2000s, when Drop D became the default for many metal bands. Killing In The Name, Nightmare, Schism, and Everlong are all played in Drop D.
It can be useful to compare one tuning to others, since many of the same principles apply to playing in both. Understanding how they relate to each other can also improve your understanding of the underlying music theory behind the alt-tunings.
Drop D is obviously most similar to standard tuning, as it’s only one string removed from this (the sixth string is the only difference between the two). This allows many of the same practices that are common in standard tuning (standard barre chord shapes, open chords, and scales) to be employed with ease in Drop D.
Double Drop D, however, is actually closer to Open G (DGDGBD) and DADGAD tunings, as it’s only one string removed from either of these.
From Double Drop D, tuning the 5th string down a whole step creates Open G tuning. Likewise, dropping the second string a half-step creates DADGAD.
Chords in Drop D
Due to Drop D’s similarity to standard tuning, all relationships are preserved between strings 1-5..
This means chords can be played in much the same way, albeit with a less full sound, by strumming only the bottom five strings. For instance, to play a C Major chord, create the standard C shape and only strum from the A string to High E.
Barre chords can be treated the same way; there’s no need to alter the shape, simply omit the sixth string from the chord.
While the majority of chords lose some of their fullness in this tuning, any quality of D chord benefits greatly from the tuning. While you’re probably used to playing five-string versions of any open D chord, feel free to include the sixth string in Drop D for a richer, fuller-sounding D Major, D Minor, D7, or any other D-rooted chord.
Chords in Double Drop D
Dropping the High E string complicates chord-playing immensely; you can no longer play the shapes you’re used to while playing the bottom five strings.
The easiest workaround is to only strum the middle four strings when playing standard open chords. Typically, tunes in Double Drop D utilize partial chords or uncommon chords that you may not instantly recognize, and the best way to learn them is by learning and playing these songs.
Soloing in Either Tuning
The principle behind soloing, or playing a melody, in either of these tunings is very similar to that of Open G; since all alt-tuned strings are shifted down a whole tone, you’ll have to shift two frets (a whole tone) over to adjust for this.
As a more concrete example, consider trying to play a basic C Major pentatonic scale in the shape shown below.
To play this scale in Drop D, you’ll have to begin on the 10th fret of the sixth string, instead of the 8th. You’ll play:
- 6th string, 10th fret
- 6th string, 12th fret
Then, you’ll “jump” back to the seventh-fret of the A string and play the rest of the scale as per usual.
In Double Drop D, you’d play the scale in the same way on the top five strings. Since the first string is also dropped, however, you’ll have to shift over again when you reach this portion of the scale.
So, instead of:
- 1st string, 8th fret
- 1st string, 10th fret
- 1st string, 10th fret
- 1st string, 12th fret
These examples are primarily for illustrative purposes, since in most cases it’s optimal to play scales within the span of the middle four strings to avoid awkward jumps.