The Art of Drop Tunings

SMG_Drop_Tuning

Metal has long been hailed for it’s deep and dark sound and no other single genre has explored the depths of tuning down like Metal has. During the days of Metals inception, standard A440 (E, A, D, G, B.E) was beefed up with heavy overdrive and increased low end equalization to achieve that low heavy sound but as time passed and music evolved, a desire for a deeper and more rich bottom end guitar sound was building.

This vision for a deeper musical tonality had musicians looking at alternative tunings derived from other cultures and musical styles such as country music’s infamous DADGAD tuning. Simplicity also played a big role in lower tunings as open chords and open tunings began to expose a fuller richness in tone as made popular by grunge music with it use of drop D (D, A, D, G, B, E) tuning.

In the early nineties, always looking to push the boundaries of creativity, guitar virtuoso Steve Vai teamed up with Ibanez guitars to create a 7-string that featured a low B string much like that of a 5 string bass. This low B allowed guitarists to dig down deeper and have a massive low-end sound while keeping the standard tuning of the remaining 6 strings intact. The call for lower tunings without the complications of adding an extra string was answered in the form of what we know as a baritone guitar, which features a six string outfitted with a longer scale neck that is set up for lower tunings.

In HEAD (former KoRn guitarist’s new band) we use a custom-made baritone guitar. These baritones have a bit longer neck and use fat strings almost like smaller bass strings. They have a bigger sound than a 7 string and 6 are easier to maneuver and make things sound more articulate. Our primary tuning is: G#/D#/G#/C#/F#/A# which is similar to the drop D tuning idea in which our guitars are tuned A# to A# but then the low A# is dropped to G#.

Whether you fancy 6 or 7 strings, standard or baritone, one thing remains clear. Opening your mind to tunings that resonate with you, as a player and a songwriter, will carry more presence to the world that is listening. Some of us really feel the power of lower tunings and those frequencies really give a song extra power and weight when we hear it. Having learned this, we can use this knowledge to write songs in tunings that will increase the weight of their resonance with our audience.

When experimenting with alternate tunings, it’s important to think about the needs of your instrument. For guitarists and bassists, you will need to keep the same amount of tension on the neck as it had in a standard tuning. So this means you will have to use a heavier gauge of strings and adjust your bridge or tremolo system and your neck. Most standard tuned guitars use 9 or 10 gauge strings. You can even get sets now that have a standard set with a heavy bottom string for drop D style tuning. Dropping a whole step down from standard so to say D, G, C, F, A, D is a common metal tuning and for this 11-12 gauge strings are the best, and they sound HUGE. Another of my favorite tuning as of late is drop C, so that’s the whole guitar tuned down one whole step and the low string tuned to C. So that’s C, G, C, F, A, D and for this I recommend 12 or 13 gauge strings. And if you REALLY want to thicken up the sound and get some really rich overtones try flat wound strings, it’s a little known secret weapon in the creation of a thick sound as the purity of notes and the tones resonate longer and with more clarity.

Alternate tunings are just one more way of utilizing the power of vibrations in all ranges of frequency. After a few adjustments and a good re-tuning, you should be all set up to explore the dungeons of lower tuning and frolic in its depths!

  • I have always been intrigued by all the different kinds of alternate tunings. You summed it best saying “Alternate tunings are just one more way of utilizing the power of vibrations in all ranges of frequency.”

  • Mickey Richardson

    Killer post SVH! So many great ideas on tuning possibilities here and string gauge tips… I think I need to acquire enough guitars for each tuning, LOL. I def want to get a baritone guitar someday and give that a whirl.

  • Fern

    Mick–First you need to win the lottery so that we’ll have the $$$ to keep up with your guitar collection plans…

  • Yeah, I’d like a baritone too…although then I’d also need a 5 string bass or something else to be able to put the bottom end in. Even with a 7 string in standard tuning you’re only a 5th above a 4-string bass’s bottom end!

    I like alternate tunings for acoustic stuff and because it either a) makes you think about new fingerings, or b) gives you new sounds from the same fingerings. I enjoy playing with Open Dm (DADFAD), and I think Opeth’s “Ghost Reveries” might’ve been in that tuning. (At least, I’ve seen some tabs of songs arranged in that tuning…)

  • SVH

    Right on man!

    LOVE OPETH!!! (Ghost Reveries is my favorite record too)

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