• OVERVIEW •
Probably the first altered tuning you ever learned. Easy to remember, simple to reach from Standard, and innately fun to jam in across a countless range of genres. Notably, 6-5-4str form a ‘straight line’ power chord, with the slackness of the 6str bringing subtle pitch instabilities when strummed hard (looser, lower strings have a wider ‘wobble’ – and this vibration, being essentially like any other ‘bend’ of the string, raises its pitch: see more on ‘inharmonicity’, plus my James Taylor tuning puzzle).
I often use transpositions of Drop D as my ‘default’ steel-string tuning when exploring new music: the ‘1-5-1’ bass-side power is useful for replicating the modal music of other cultures, and the unchanged 5-1str maintain melodic familiarity. It’s also 2 semitones wider than Standard (great for 9th voicings), and comfortably covers many common keys too: apart from all shades of D itself, you can capo at 2fr for songs in E (or 1fr for Jimi Hendrix Eb) – or leave open for an interesting twist on Cmaj (all the open tones are in the Cmaj scale, but C itself is not present).
Similarly, the tuning makes an ideal ‘home base’ from which to further wind the pegs – functioning like a ‘crossroads’ between the Open D, Open G, and Drop 6th families, with onward access to many other realms (6str is the most commonly-altered on the whole Menu). Honestly, while I still love Standard, I almost think that Drop D should be taught alongside it from the very start: especially for young beginners, for whom the most vital facet of learning is finding fun and enjoyment in the clear coherence of new sounds (it certainly worked well when I tried it with my last primary school class here in South London: if multiple 5-year-olds are just gonna wildly strum the strings at random intervals throughout the session, then I may as well load up their guitars with a little more consonance…anyway, I salute their general impulse to shamelessly make noise!).
Harmony: D6/9(sus4) | 1-5-1-4-6-2
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Naturally, even a semi-exhaustive Drop D list would be impossible to compile. So, for a few famous users, check out: Jimmy Page (Moby Dick), Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (Ohio), Neil Young (Harvest Moon), John Lennon (Dear Prudence), Bob Dylan (Mr. Tambourine Man, cp.2), Patty Larkin (Winter Wind), Fleetwood Mac (Never Going Back Again), Frank Zappa (Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow), Steve Vai (Bad Horsie, -1), and Papa Roach (Last Resort) Also see a fine selection in Rick Beato‘s riff rundown: including King’s X (It’s Love), Foo Fighters (Everlong), and Soundgarden (Spoonman: featured in my Odd-Time Songwriting lesson for Guitar World).
Many groups have, at least at some point, used it as a ‘home tuning’ – see multiple songs by bands such as Nirvana (e.g. Swap Meet, On a Plain, Heart-Shaped Box, All Apologies, -1), Tool (most, e.g. Schism, Pneuma, Vicarious), Avenged Sevenfold (e.g. Bat Country, Nightmare, Buried Alive), and Helmet (e.g. Rollo, Flushings, Sinatra, Meantime: they even joined a 2014 tour with Filter and Local H entitled The Anti-Folk Revival In Drop-D).
Also lots of Rage Against the Machine songs, including Wake Up, Bulls on Parade, and the iconic riff to Killing in the Name. As recounted by Tom Morello (who always records Drop D using one specific Tele): “I was giving a guitar lesson, teaching a student how to do Drop D…I just started playing that riff. So I stopped the lesson, got out my little cassette recorder…”. (Never has Drop D sounded as beautiful to me as when this song unexpectedly became the UK’s 2009 Xmas #1, after a cross-scene grassroots campaign to keep the vacuous X-Factor single off top slot. Top-tier teenage memories!).
- Killing in the Name – RATM (1992):
“I’m enormously proud to be an American…the things that our corporate-controlled government has done at best are shameful, and at worst genocidal: but there’s an incredible and a permanent culture of resistance in this country…not the tradition of slave-owning founding fathers: it’s the tradition of the Frederick Douglasses, the Underground Railroads, the Chief Josephs, the Joe Hills, and the Huey P. Newtons. There’s so much…that’s hidden from you. The incredible courage and bravery of the union organizers in the late 1800s and early 1900s…” (Tom Morello)
Tonestart’s lists feature other examples from across popular music: including Hinder (Lips Of An Angel), Three Days Grace (Never Too Late), Rob Zombie (The Great American Nightmare), Jason Mraz (I Won’t Give Up), Paramore (Decode), Ed Sheeran (One), Fall Out Boy (Sugar, We’re Goin Down), All Time Low (Therapy), Pantera (Walk), Creed (My Sacrifice), Three Days Grace (I Hate Everything About You), An Endless Sporadic (Impulse), Metallica (All Nightmare Long), Asking Alexandria (Not The American Average), Black Veil Brides (Knives & Pens), Evanescence (Bring Me To Life), and Lamb Of God (Walk With Me In Hell, Laid To Rest). Also Jon Gomm‘s Crazy Johnny (direct from his self-supplied tuning list).
Drop D also underpins many of Jeff Buckley’s most famous songs. To me, Buckley is one of popular music’s underappreciated guitarists – in fact, he earned his keep as a non-singing session player in LA for several years before unleashing his vocal virtuosity on the world in his mid-20s. Check out the sliding passions of Grace below for an object lesson in concise, creative Drop D songwriting – plus plenty else on the album (e.g. Mojo Pin, Lilac Wine: whereas Last Goodbye is in Open G).
- Grace (BBC) – Jeff Buckley (1995):
“Music taught me a lot about every other art form; a lot about sculpture, a lot about poetry, a lot about prose… novels…drama, playwrighting, film-making…stuntwork, juggling…other than that, we have language, which is very static and full of little meanings, innuendos, puns…Being a poet or a writer is like being an alchemist, you take things like a cup and a sandwich and you make…a carrot out of them. Or make a war…” (Jeff Buckley)
It also enjoys popularity in the nylon-string world. Corey Flowers lists a truly global selection of Drop D compositions in his 2015 PhD Altered States of Performance: Scordatura in the Classical Guitar Repertoire – e.g. from America (Andrew York), Argentina (José Luis Merlin, Jorge Morel, Maximo Pujol), Britain (John Duarte, William Walton), Cuba (Leo Brouwer), Czechoslovakia (Štěpán Rak), France (Roland Dyens), Italy (Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco), Mexico (Manuel Ponce), Paraguay (Agustín Barrios), Russian (Nikita Koshkin), Serbia (Dušan Bogdanović), Venezuela (Antonio Lauro) – and of course the classical guitar’s birthplace of Spain (Miguel Llobet, Federico Moreno-Torroba, Emiliano Pujol, Federico Mompou, Joaquín Rodrigo, Eduardo Sainz de la Maza, Francisco Tárrega, Joaquín Turina, and Fernando Sor).
The performance notes notes for Fernando Sor’s 1827 Etude in D instruct that “the strings should be plucked at the point where the vibrations will last longest…near their centre, near the soundhole. So the sound is already very different…[also] it uses the old Spanish technique of campanelas [‘little bells’]: in which an open string sounds repeatedly through moving chords”). See more playing discussion on the Classical Guitar Forum (“String memory causes strings to try to return to higher pitch when tuning down…[Isaac Albéniz’] Suite Española is [ideal] because the first few parts of it don’t use much of the low D, so the string has a little bit of time to settle in”).
- Capricio Arabe – Francisco Tárrega (1892):
“Tárrega’s sensitive ears had adapted to the sounds of the orchestra, the string quartet, and the cushioned hammer of the piano…His dream was to capture the light homogeneity of the string quartet, which is a synthesis of the orchestral polyphony – whose reduction to just one expressive concept was his highest ambition” (Tárrega’s student Emilio Pujol)
Still in Spain, over in flamenco, DADGBE has found occasional use in the instrumental repertoire. In Paco Sevilla’s Altered Tunings in Flamenco Guitar, he outlines how “The D tuning came to flamenco through the instrumental guitar, unconnected with cante [song] accompaniment…Ramón Montoya was the pioneer…but [it] was really popularised in the danzas moras…of Sabicas [who used D6str] to imitate the Arabic lute with its deep ostinato bass”. Listen to Sabicas, a true flamenco pioneer, play Amanecer Arabe, Guajira Melodica, and Zapateado & Seguiriya (“the first time the D tuning appears in the Phrygian mode”).
Sevilla also mentions Manuel Cano (Reniego: “an easy and superb Bb chord, with F on [6str 3fr]”), as well as the farrucas (‘fast, elegant Galician dances’) of Victor ‘Serrantino’ Monge, Enrique de Melchor, and Paco de Lucía (his “Farruca…can be considered as the ultimate achievement in this form”). Other examples abound – e.g. Rafael Marin’s 19th-century guajiras, and Paco Peña’s own take on the Farruca. (n.b. Several of these examples, in keeping with the flamenco style, are capo’ed at 1fr or 2fr: giving natural open-string keys of E and B.)
- Farruca de Lucía – Paco de Lucía (1972):
“I have to confess that I still don’t read music at all…When I was young, I simply had no choice but to learn by ear. [Maybe] this might be a reason why my music comes more from inspiration than from intellect” (Paco de Lucía)
Despite my obsessions with more abstruse altered tunings, I’d still recommend good ol’ Drop D as the best place to start exploring from. Perhaps, in a subtly different historical shuffling, it could even have supplanted EADGBE as the guitar’s standard layout (…if this was the case, I wonder how different our repertoire would be?).
Like everything on my site, the World of Tuning will always remain 100% open-access and ad-free: however, anti-corporate musicology doesn’t pay the bills! I put as much into these projects as time and finances allow – so, if you like them, you can:
…and hasten the project’s expansion…
—Documenting more altered tunings—
—Further harmonic & melodic analysis—
—Engaging with peg-twisting guitarists—
—Ensuring that high-quality guitar knowledge will remain open to all, at no cost: free from commercial motive!—
Insights to share? Get in touch!
• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Low Drop C (this -2): a deeper, slacker transposition
- Double Drop D (this with 1str -2): lowering both edges
- A ‘Slack Thwack’ (this with 6str -5): radical drop variant
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Peg-twisting nylon-stringers: the examples above only cover a snapshot of the tuning variety found in classical and flamenco traditions: for classical, see Corey Flowers’ PhD Altered States of Performance (with a heroically detailed composition list at the end, including examples in Drop DG, DADGAD, Lute, Open Cm, and more) – and for flamenco, check out Paco Sevilla’s Altered Tunings in Flamenco Guitar (also featuring Dadd9 and José González patterns: “The Good Lord, in His infinite generosity has enriched our instrument further by making it possible to change the tuning…[This] was explored very early in flamenco, at first out of mere inquisitiveness, and in a rather anecdotal way, and later, resolutely and methodically…”)
- Buckley’s essences: often hazily ‘romanticised’ as a downcast, poetic depressive, Jeff Buckley certainly had his emotional ups-and-downs – however, based on his own diaries, the virtuosic singer-songwriter seems to have led a frenetic, action-packed, squeeze-forth-the-colours lifestyle (…maybe it’s that he looks kinda glum in Hallelujah and on Grace‘s cover art: sadboi spirits certainly don’t linger for long in the live performance of the title track above) – read other such reappraisals in my article for Ragatip (“I remember schoolfriends earnestly recounting how Jeff had committed suicide by jumping into the Mississippi River, after it all got too much for such a hyper-romantic soul…maybe they were half-right: Jeff did drown in the Wolf River aged just 30: but, by all accounts, through reckless, joyful abandon rather than any impulse towards self-harm. After raucously singing Whole Lotta Love with a roadie, he leapt in for a quick dip, booted and clothed, seeking full-body refreshment before a return to his acoustic guitar that lay on the shore…”)
Header image: Jeff Buckley’s His Own Voice book cover
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
“An intrepid guitar researcher…”
everything 100% ad-free and open-access