As part of our series on alternate tunings, today I’ll be extolling the virtues of drop D tuning. This darker, haunting tuning, while the simplest of alternate tunings and arguably the most common, is particularly well suited to the acoustic guitar. But, if you don’t have time to read the full article, below is a quick summary:
Drop D tuning requires the 6th string to be detuned a whole step (2 frets) from E to D. It’s an effective tuning for acoustic guitar, especially in the key of D, thanks to the interplay between the 4th and 6th string octave which makes open string drone notes readily available and provides freedom to the fretting hand when playing alternating bass patterns, a signature of Travis picking.
Drop D also promotes the inclusion of the open 6th string when playing D chords, providing an octave lower root note resulting in a more expansive sound, while extending the lower range of the fretboard to include an Eb on the first fret and a D power chord when playing the open 4th, 5th, and 6th strings. Power chords are easier to form and transition between as drop D tuning vertically aligns the root (6th string), 5th (the fifth note in the chosen key), and a second root (an octave higher) on the 4th string.
How to Tune to Drop D
Alternate tunings, when used creatively rather than as a crutch offer great benefit for those who dare venture from the well-beaten path of standard tuning. But, despite the obvious benefits playing in non-standard tunings offers, most guitars never stray too far from the familiar E-B-G-D-A-E.
One of the reasons guitarists often feel less inclined to experiment with alternate tunings is the difficulties involved in remembering the tuning itself, along with the mechanics of actually tuning the guitar and transitioning back to standard tuning as required.
It’s for this reason, that drop D tends to be the first alternate tuning many guitarists experiment with, as one of the real benefits of drop D tuning is just how accessible it is from standard tuning. Unlike many open tunings that require the pitch of multiple strings to be adjusted, tuning to drop D merely requires detuning the 6th string (low E) a full step to D, the equivalent of two frets.
When tuned to D an octave is established between the 4th and 6th open strings. This allows the open 4th string to be used as a reference when tuning the 6th string from E to D, rather than relying on the 7th fret (a whole step up from the 5th fret E) of the A string.
Because drop D is such a simple tuning to remember and incorporate into your playing, it’s a great alternate tuning to begin experimenting in, offering a heck of a lot of bang for a very little buck.
Notes of the Fretboard – Drop D
Making the Case for Drop D Tuning
I’ve played in Drop D on the acoustic for almost as long as I can remember.
While I’m a fan of many other tunings including DADGAD, along with many open tunings that are great for playing around with a slide, drop D has long been a staple.
It’s a tuning the typical purist may have mixed feelings about, partly I suspect because it simplifies playing (already simple) power chords, enabling guitarists who perhaps haven’t yet paid their dues access to an arsenal of chords using just the index finger, which contributes to poor technique if relied on too heavily.
But, aside from gifting power chords to otherwise mediocre guitarists, drop D is far from a one-trick pony.
A Tool for Creativity & Songwriting?
Drop D is a great tool for songwriting. It’s familiar enough for most guitarists to find their bearings fairly quickly as only one string is changed. But, that one small adjustment opens up a world of creative opportunities and new ways to approach the guitar. Below are some classic acoustic-based songs that you may not realize are written in Drop D.
|Song||Band / Artist|
|Wanted (Dead or Alive)||Bon Jovi|
|Rocky Mountain High||John Denver|
|Country Road||James Taylor|
|Going to California||Led Zeppelin|
|Don’t Drink the Water||Dave Mathews Band|
|Mr. Tambourine Man||Bob Dylan|
|Harvest Moon||Neil Young|
|Touch Peel and Stand||Days of the New|
Electrifying the Acoustic Guitar?
There’s something about removing the basic framework and relatively safe confines of standard tuning that inject new life into the songwriting process on acoustic guitar. And, while the same rules apply to electric guitar, drop D tends to supercharge the creative process on the acoustic, mostly because while not a radical departure from standard tuning it facilitates more of an electric guitar approach to the acoustic guitar.
For example, power chords are more difficult to play cleanly on the acoustic guitar as they require the index finger to serve as a movable nut up and down the fretboard barring the thicker bass strings while the ring finger frets the 5th note of the scale.
While they are a simple chord shape in many ways, thanks to the span between the index and ring finger and the higher action and greater string tension of the acoustic guitar the force required to form power chord shapes compared to the electric guitar makes them harder to really sound great on acoustic. That’s not to say, they’re strictly the domain of the electric guitar but these types of chords tend to lend themselves more easily to the electric, which is then reflected in the type of music we associate with the acoustic guitar.
But, by lowering the 6th string a whole step (two semi-tones/two frets) tension on the 6th string, the heaviest string is reduced. But, perhaps even more importantly the root and fifth (the notes required to form a power chord) are now vertically aligned on the fretboard, removing the need to involve the ring finger, making it much easier to fret the required notes cleanly.
And while this is often abused, from a songwriting perspective it makes it much easier to experiment over less common chord combinations than you may be accustomed to in standard tuning. In fact, a good way to work in drop D is to develop a basic idea and then make further refinements of the chords and their respective voicings once the central idea has developed further.
In a practical sense, this means you can play scales horizontally on the neck and include the 5th and a second root (power chord) by adding the 4th and 5th strings which mechanically is just a lot easier in drop D.
Because this obstruction that previously made power chords less accessible and generally less interesting can be easily removed in drop D, the tuning itself influences the kind of music you might then choose to write on the acoustic.
To illustrate the point consider the band Alice in Chains, generally known as a hard rock band that has also released a couple of acoustic-based albums in Sap and Jar of Flies.
If you analyze the songwriting you can see that a lot of the guitar work tends to be less what you might expect from an acoustic e.g. the music is a little more riff-based, rather than consisting of open chord progressions and fingerstyle arrangements. Another example of this is the songwriting of Travis Meeks of Days of the New.
But, that’s just one side of the coin. As drop D extends the lower range of the guitar, interesting chord voicings that aren’t accessible in standard tuning become available, along with greater access to simple drone notes and compound intervals (intervals that extend further than an octave) especially if playing in the key of D by simply including the open 6th string as the root an octave lower.
Is Drop D related to Open D?
No. Drop D refers specifically to lowering the pitch of the 6th string from E to D. Open D involves tuning the strings to form a D chord when unfretted.
Drop D Chords
Another benefit drop D has over other alternate tunings is many open major chord shapes are largely unaffected by the detuning of the 6th string from E to D. This means many chords can be played as they normally would be in standard tuning as the 6th string is not included. Essentially, any chord shape played solely on the top 5 strings of your guitar remains unchanged.
This includes all open A, B, C, and F chords including their minor variations.
Open Major Chords – Drop D Tuning
Open minor Chords – Drop D Tuning
Adapting chords from standard tuning to drop D is fairly simple. If a chord shape normally incorporates the 6th string it must then be raised by a whole step (2 frets). Two commonly used open chord shapes require this change, E and G.
When playing E in standard tuning the 6th string (
E) is the root. To adjust for playing in drop D we need to fret the 2nd fret of the 6th string to include the E rather than the open D.
A similar adjustment is required for the G chord because in standard tuning the G is found on the third fret of the 6th string.
G major chords must include G as the root, B as the third, and D as the fifth. The simplest way to play this chord in drop D is by fretting the 6th string at the 5th fret (G) with the ring finger, muting the A string, also with the ring finger, and playing the open 4th (D), 3rd (G), and 2nd (B) strings, and fretting the 3rd fret on the 1st string with the index finger, as per the example on the far right in the diagram below.
Alternatively, if a chord shape normally incorporates the 6th string it must then be raised by a whole step (2 frets). Two commonly used open chord shapes require this change, E and G.
When playing E in standard tuning the 6th string (E) is the root. To adjust for playing in drop D we need to fret the 2nd fret of the 6th string to include the E rather than the D.
A similar adjustment is required for the G chord because in standard tuning the G is found on the third fret of the 6th string.
G major chords must include G as the root, B as the third, and D as the fifth. The simplest way to play this chord in drop D is by fretting the 6th string at the 5th fret (G) with the ring finger, muting the A string, also with the ring finger, and playing the 4th (D), 3rd (G), and 2nd (B) strings, and fretting the 3rd fret on the 1st string with the index finger, as per the example on the far right in the diagram below.
D chords in drop D
While it’s great to know some chord shapes require no adjustment while G and E simply require minor adjustments, drop D really comes into its own when playing in the key of D. Open D chords do not require any adjustment to the fretting hand but are enhanced by including the 6th string (open D, formerly E) as an additional root note an octave lower.
On the acoustic guitar, the D is particularly effective as a wider spectrum of notes is now included in the chord which allows for a different tonality or expression of the chord, creating a much fuller sound than in standard tuning. This becomes evident when playing an open chord progression in standard tuning and moving from a chord that incorporates the 6th string e.g. open E to a D.
The lack of bass in the D chord under normal circumstances is quite noticeable. But when the 6th string D is added, additional bass frequencies are included.
Extending Power Chords
What are power chords?
For those unaware, a power chord lacks quality. No, that doesn’t mean they are inferior-sounding chords (although some may argue that to be the case). A chord’s quality refers to the flavor of the chord, the most common being major, minor, diminished, and augmented of the nine available. Power chords are formed by playing the root note of the chord (For example D is the root note of the D Major chord ) and the fifth note of the major scale from the root. For example, the 5th note of D is A, as the root note (the starting note) is always counted as one.
We’ve already discussed the advantage drop D tuning provides concerning the vertical alignment of notes. Being a movable shape it’s child’s play to form power chords and transition between them.
Power chords do not include the 3rd note from the scale which is included in triads and extended chords and determine the chord’s quality. Suspended chords e.g. sus4 also do not include the 3rd as it is replaced with a perfect fourth (sus4) or sometimes a major 2nd (sus2), as a result, they are also neither major nor minor.
As the acoustic is a sparser instrument under most circumstances power chords are generally overlooked for more expansive chords e.g. chords that contain more notes. However, we can spice up drop D power chords by including an additional 5th note octave and a third rot note octave.
This is achieved by picking up the G string two frets higher up the neck than the root (see example 3 below).
A third root note can then be added by incorporating the pinky to play the b string 4 frets higher up the neck (see example 4 below).
In standard tuning, this would require the hand to span 7 frets which is more or less impossible unless playing higher up the neck. However, in drop D we only need to span 4 frets. Example 4 is a chord variation I use regularly as it adds considerable depth to what would otherwise be a fairly bland power chord.
Keep in mind this is a moveable shape, so learning your major scale on the 6th string open D (formerly E string) will allow you to play many power chords rooted on the 6th string.
The next chord type that happens to be very accessible and useful in drop D is the sus2 chord which can add extra spice to power chords with little effort.
Sus2 chords (also a movable shape) are formed in drop D by fretting a power chord shape using the vertically aligned root and fifth while adding a 2nd two frets higher up the neck on the D string with the ring finger.
Suspended chords, as the name implies, create suspense as the chord does not contain a 3rd that would otherwise allow it to resolve as major or minor and can be a great songwriting tool when used purposefully.
Everlong, by the Foo Fighters, leans heavily on this chord which can be seen in the opening minute of the video below of Dave Grohl playing the song acoustically.
Major and Minor Barre Chord Shapes
If you know how chords are constructed you will know that in the case of the sus2 chord above, as the chord contains the second note of the scale, the next fret along is a flattened third, which when included creates a minor chord. For a chord to have a defined quality e.g. minor or major, instead of the 2nd note the chord requires a 3rd for Major and a flattened third for minor.
With this in mind, it’s quite easy to form a minor chord variation from the sus2 example above by simply fretting the next highest fret along on the G string making the chord now of a minor quality. (Another variation is to play the E power chord but include the three open treble strings).
Extend that one note further, and we have the third note of the scale, making the chord major, which although requiring a little more of a stretch is still accessible in drop D, especially if playing higher up the neck.
Finger Style and Drop D
Lastly, I’d like to discuss drop D tuning with regard to fingerpicking guitar. Alternate tunings, or Scordatura, taken from the Italian word Scordare (as referred to in classical guitar circles) are nothing new. Drop D has long been used across many different genres including classical, country, and blues and a common technique among each is fingerstyle guitar.
Another reason Drop D is such a natural fit for the acoustic guitar is the benefit it offers when playing finger-style arrangements. This is especially evident when playing in the key of D and to a lesser extent G.
The combination and layout of notes on the fretboard are particularly effective when playing an underlying alternate bass pattern in the key of D if utilizing Travis picking for example. The open strings free up the fingers to play the more sophisticated accompaniment on the treble strings while the low open 6th string provides an underlying drone (ringing out open strings underlying a melody).
A great example of fingerstyle in drop D is Chet Atkins’s rendition of ‘The Entertainer’. If you pay careful attention to the video you’ll notice, that although Chet incorporates the 6th string regularly, it is rarely fretted.
Hopefully, the information above helps inspire you to get started playing around in drop D. Being one of the simplest alternate tunings it’s a great introductory tuning to experiment in, and as we have learned many great songs have been written in drop D.
The chord shapes and ideas listed above should serve you well as an introduction, but, once familiar with your open position, power chords, and barre shapes try transposing some of your favorite chords and melodic ideas into drop D. You may find, especially if writing original music on the acoustic guitar that drop D is a more effective tuning, especially if writing in the key of D.