All About Drop D Tuning: Open D Tuning for Guitar

What is “Drop D tuning” for guitar? And why would we want to use it in our guitar music?

This is a special tuning that makes for beautifully low, rich bass sounds. Below, you’ll discover everything you need to know about tuning your guitar to Drop D tuning and it’s differences from Standard Tuning.

What is Drop D Tuning?

When we use Drop D tuning, the low E string is tuned a whole step down to D. This means instead of the 6th string sound being an E, it sounds a D. It is one octave lower than the open 4th string D.

Many composers choose to write in Drop D tuning because it has many benefits on guitar, simply by adjusting the pitch of one string down a whole step.

What is the benefit?

When we tune our guitar to Drop D, we have three bass strings that sound good together. D, A, and D. This means that we can create deep resonate bass lines, while playing in the upper positions on the guitar.

This makes the range of the guitar wider. And if desired, can provide a low “drone” over which melodies can play.

This open tuning also allows composers to write in the key of D while using the full texture of the guitar. In standard tuning, The key of D has more of an “alto” sound, because the lowest D note is the open 4th string. Drop D tuning gives composers access to the D an octave lower (on the sixth string).

The low D note on the guitar also just sounds good. Even though it’s only an added whole step (2 frets), it sounds much different than standard tuning. This especially true with recently changed guitar strings.

How to Quickly Tune to Drop D

One method to quickly tune your guitar from standard tuning to Drop D tuning is as follows:

  1. Play the open 4th string D. (Let it ring.)
  2. Play the 12th fret harmonic on the 6th string.
  3. Adjust the tuning peg of the sixth string down to below the ringing 4th-string pitch (note).
  4. Tune back up to where the two strings vibrate at the same pitch.

Tip: Tune your Guitar from below

The guitar stays in tune better when we tune up to our desired pitch from below, rather than down from above.

So instead of adjusting the tuning peg straight down to the D on the sixth string, first go past the “in tune” point. Then tune back up to the pitch from below it.

Expect your Guitar to slip out of tune

Strings have a “memory” of their home pitch. Once your sixth string is tuned to Drop D, the string will tend to go sharp (up in pitch). Tuning up from below helps reduce this, but it still happens.

So if you play a piece of music in any alternate tunings, assume that you will need to adjust your guitar tuning often. It’s all part of the game.

How to Read Music in Drop D Tuning

We can see that a piece of music uses Drop D tuning in a number of ways.

Most often, we see the text 6 = D, or 6 = re (another name for D)

A number within a circle refers to the string number. 6 = the low e string.
“Re” is another name for D. This is from the Fixed Do Solfege system (Do Re Mi etc.).
Here, the E string is to be tuned to D, written “E in D”

We can also see lower-than-usual notes in the music itself. When we see these impossible (in standard tuning) notes, it’s a clue we’re in a different tuning.

Notes out of the usual range are a good clue we may be in Drop D tuning.

Chords in Drop D Tuning

Chord shapes we are familiar with in Standard Tuning, slightly differ with Drop D Tuning. When we play chords in the low-D tuning, we have to play the 6th-string note 2 frets higher. Otherwise, it will sound “off”. This makes for some new and tricky fingerings.

For many of the standard chords that use the lowest string (such as E and G) we can quickly learn the new chord fingering. After a piece or two in this tuning, it will become more comfortable and familiar.

Don’t Be Afraid to Tune

Many players, when they first play guitar in Drop D tuning, may avoid the Drop D pieces. This is really to avoid the issue of tuning the low E string constantly.

But tuning becomes easy and quick with some practice.

If you have music in this tuning, practice it all together, to make good use of your practice time. But don’t avoid your pieces just because they demand a re-tune. Take the few seconds and journey into the rich and resonant world of Drop D!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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