From Foo Fighters to Iron & Wine to Led Zeppelin, drop tuning, double drop tuning, and open tuning are employed in numerous songs in blues, country, rock, metal, and indie/folk genres.
Beginners do it because it’s easy while pros say it opens new doors for expression and speed. But is drop tuning safe for your bass or guitar?
Most conventional drop tunings and alternate tunings don’t pose any concerns for a reasonably built guitar or bass. There is only a small tension differential that cannot cause any lasting damage to the instrument.
If you go overboard with unorthodox tunings, however, you might need a new set of strings and a visit to the guitar tech to adjust a twisted neck.
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What’s the point of drop tuning?
Drop tuned guitars and basses have a distinctly loose and heavy sound. Drop-D, for instance, gives you access to two extra notes on the low-E string – Eb and D.
It also allows you to play the D note an octave lower than the D at the 5th fret of an E string in standard tuning. A few reasons to use it:
- Covering songs by bands who use it
- New sonic possibilities: Extended lows have a thicker/fatter tone
- Root-octave drones (i.e DADG) for raga-based or eastern-style music
- To find inspiration to create new riffs and sounds.
Guitarists/bassists in genres like RnB, Hip-hop, metal, and rock also make stylistic use of the extended lows.
Drop tuning also makes it easier to play certain riffs and power chords, as drop tuning alters the shape of chords/scales i.e. you can play a power chord with one finger barring 3 strings.
This can allow musicians to play fast or play a phrase/lick that is relatively harder to play in standard tuning.
While alternate and open tunings can be used to the same effect, drop tunings are most common as it is easy to switch from standard to drop tuning and vice versa.
Difference between Drop D and Standard D Tuning
In the drop-D, you drop only the low E string of a guitar/bass to the D note. This results in the tuning of DADG (and BE for guitar).
In standard D tuning, you will drop all the strings by a whole tone. This will result in a bass tuned to DBCF and a guitar tuned to DBCFAD.
You can tune your instrument to standard C using the same method. Guitarists can also use a double drop D tuning – DADGBD.
What’s the lowest drop tuning?
C (drop C) is generally the lowest note you can reliably tune the low-E string to. Venturing below that can cause fret buzz and unplayable, floppy tension. The resulting notes will sound muddy and/or inaudible.
How low you can go, however, depends on the scale-length, string gauge, and bridge. Modification to the pickup height, tuning pegs, and the bridge can be made for lower tunings.
Is drop tuning bad for your guitar or bass?
Guitars and basses are designed for the string tension of standard tuning – EADG(BE). Drop tunings have relatively lower string tension, but switching between them won’t damage a well-made instrument.
That said, your instruments and strings like to remain in a constant state of tension, tuning and detuning them very often can cause them to wear out faster.
A neck setup may be a good idea for drop tunings if you plan to use them frequently or permanently. Any regular guitar can be modified by a luthier for the string tension of drop tuning.
Is it OK to leave a guitar in alternate tuning?
The impact of leaving a guitar in alternate tuning will depend on how unconventional the tuning is and how long you leave it on for.
For instance, if you use drop D and leave your guitar that way overnight or for a few days, it likely won’t have any noticeable affect. Alternate tunings like Open D or DADGAD are harmless for short durations.
On the other hand, long periods of very low tuning may move the neck on mediocre quality instruments and can weaken your guitar’s overall ability to stay in tune.
It is better to err on the side of caution and tune it to EADGBE before you store an instrument away for a long time, unless your instrument has been set up for alternate tuning.
Is it bad to change your guitar tunings constantly?
If you use unconventional tunings and do it very often, it can lead to a warped neck, and will exert stress on the strings because they are constantly being tightened and loosened. You may need to replace the guitar strings more often.
Guitar string gauge for drop tuning
As we discussed, drop tuning leads to a loss of string tension as compared to standard tuning. A thicker string gauge can compensate for this loss of tension because thicker gauges exert additional tension on the neck.
Generally, the total pull on the high string side of a guitar in standard tuning is 48.2 lbs, and the total pull on the low strings is 73.3 lbs. When you drop the low-E to low-D, the total pull drops to 68.3 lbs. This is a reduction of 5 lbs.
For regular scale length basses, Ernieball recommends 10-52 string gauge for drop-D tuning and 11-48 or 11.52 for C# tuning to maintain regular tension.
For higher tension, you can go as thick as 11-54 for D standard tuning (DBCF) tuning to be safe.
Recommending strings for guitars is a little tricky because there is a lot of variation in dimensional properties and material.
Here again, the rule of thumb is that lighter gauges are better for higher tunings (i.e. Open F) and thicker gauges are better for drop tunings or lower tunings (D Standard or Open C).
You can also mix and match string sets or get a custom gauge for alternate tunings where some strings are tuned lower and others are tuned higher. This takes trial and error but can improve your playing experience.
Use the McDonald Patent Universal String Tension Calculator to check the tension for guitars. It calculates the tension of each individual string based on the scale length, string gauge, and intended tuning.
This can help you find the most effective/safe gauge for your preferred tuning.
Tips for safe drop tuning
Besides the valid concerns regarding the safety of your instrument, transposing from drop to standard tuning and vice versa can lead to the tuning instability while performing.
When you go from standard to DADGAD and drop C# and back, the guitar may have trouble staying in tune. It can make you sound sharp or flat and may need constant adjustments.
A common solution is to own multiple basses or guitars, each with a different tuning. You can modify the tunings slightly on each instrument for other songs i.e. an open-D guitar can be used for DADGAD.
Drop tuning + capo
If you have only one instrument, another approach is to tune your bass/guitar in standard D tuning – DGCF(AD) – with heavy gauge strings. For songs in standard tuning, you add a capo on the 2nd fret to play in EADG(BE).
Another way is modify your guitar with Hipshot Detuners/Xtenders, Keith-Scruggs tuners, or other specialized ‘drop head’ components to instantly switch tunings.
Detuners are specialized mechanical devices that are fitted on both ends of a string. Once installed, these devices allow you to use pre-set levers to drop your tuning on the fly.
Detuners are safe to use for the guitar if installed properly, and can help your instrument cope with constant changes in tension.
Guitarists like Adrian Legg and bass players like Michael Manring are known for their use of multiple extenders for quick tuning changes in their compositions.
See Hipshot’s entire bass extender collection here.
Lastly, it’s also worth considering a digital pitch-shifting pedal like the Digitech Whammy 5th Gen (for guitar) or Digitech Drop (for bass).
These stompboxes have a ‘drop tune’ section, a bypass footswitch, and a wide range of options to drop tuning from one semitone to a full octave down.
Guitar and bass players also use other pedals like the Morpheus DropTune, Line 6 M5, and EHX pitchfork to change tunings during gigs.
Since the pedal is doing all the work, your guitar neck or strings face no risk of metal fatigue, neck warp or tuning instability.
Make sure your try a pitch-shift pedal before you buy it as quality is important in the timbre you achieve when pitch-shifting – some have latency and tracking issues.