There are many alternate tunings for the guitar and they can have some lovely and powerful results both musically and technically. Dropped D tuning is great to start with and is a perfect choice as the gateway to a host of new tuning possibilities. A well set up and well intonated guitar with nice fresh strings is always good too.
The Key of D and Dropped D Tuning
To start, think of dropped D as being in the key of D. This will give you a starting reference point. In order to tune to dropped D take your 6th string and tune it down one tone from E to D. It might be helpful to use a tuner if this is the first time you are trying this. If you don’t have a tuner, don’t fret (pun unintended ) about it, just tune the low 6th to the open D at the 4th string.
The way to do this is to continuously strike the open 4th D string while tuning your 6th string down to the D an octave lower. D at fret 4 is 146.8 cycles and the low D will be half that, 73.4, an octave apart. If you keep your ears open you should hear these frequencies lock in to each other.
So now that you have tuned to your dropped D check it with your open position D major chord which will now sound huge with that big low D. This is an ideal place to tweak the tuning until it sounds perfect to your ear. Your open strings are now tuned as follows:
Compensating in Dropped D
It probably goes without saying that any chord you play that uses string 6 will have to be altered to compensate for the new tuning. Take G as an example, the IV chord in the key of D. In regular tuning your G root for that chord is found on the III fret but in the new altered tuning the G is now on the V fret. Your fingering for the G chord will have to be altered to take this into consideration. In the case of the A or V chord you will have to avoid that 6th string altogether as now that note does not belong in the chord of A. This is simply to say that you always have to consider what notes are in the chords that you are playing no matter what your tuning is.
Power Chords and Dropped D
There is a real added bonus with the dropped D tuning for players wanting big fat power chords. The low 3 strings are now D – A – D , or 1 – 5 – 1, a D power chord. If you move this power chord with a single finger barre you can now quickly and easily play big power chord sounds with only one finger barres. You should practice doing this with your strong fingers of 1, 2 and 3. For those of you with hands of steel try it with your 4th too if you like. Remember that the root or naming notes of these power chord voicings are on string 6. D open, E fret II, F fret III, G fret V and so on.
Over the last 15 years or so, especially in heavier electric stuff, this dropped D power chord idea has taken on other forms. These common “re-alterations” take the exact same dropped D tuning and further drop all of the strings down either a semitone or even a tone thereby creating a very baritone punchy low end sound. You have heard these tunings over and over in heavier pop tunes of the last two decades. These tunings would look like this:
Db – 6 Ab – 5 Db – 4 Gb – 3 Bb –2 Eb – 1
or drop an entire tone to:
C – 6 G – 5 C – 4 F – 3 A – 2 D – 1
String Gauges and Setups and Guitars
When you start to get into tunings that drop all the strings below regular tuning the gauges of your strings become increasingly important. For instance, if you decide to play regularly in a low C tuning (as above) you will have to compensate with a heavier string gauge in order to maintain pitch. If you flip between tunings a lot you may have to think about two guitars, but hey, that is never a bad thing.
I hope this is a help to those of you wanting to get into alternate tunings. Above all make sure that your alternate tunings are “perfectly” in tune, I can’t emphasize this point enough. For those of you that have guitars using trem arms I would suggest NOT trying alternate tunings unless you have an expert by your side to explain the considerations.