Down But Not Out: Drop-Tuning Like a Pro
For those few who may be unfamiliar, drop tuning is the practice of tuning the strings on a guitar to pitches that are lower on the scale than the traditional E Standard (E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4) guitar tuning. This term can refer to tuning all the strings of a guitar down the same amount and retaining the same modal shapes (at lower pitches) across the fretboard; tuning the 6th string down from E to D to open up new chord shapes and make power chords fret-able with one finger; or any number of other alternate tunings.
Whether we want to make our chords easier to sing along with; we’re after a darker, heavier guitar sound; or we just want to try something new; the fact is that drop tuning has been done by players for a variety of reasons for decades. With so many artists making awesome music right now using extra-low tunings (especially on the heavier side of the genre spectrum), it’s easy to understand how a player could be inspired to give it a try for themselves.
Indeed, a great many of us are, but when doing so, we may be missing a number of crucial steps that would help us play and sound a lot better along the way.
So, we want to drop-tune a guitar.
What do we need to do – just tune down the strings to the lowered pitch we desire?
But wait – if you’ve ever turned a tuning machine before, you may have noticed that the lower you tune a string, the more bendy and floppy it gets. If we’re just going to a common drop-D tuning or Eb “standard” tuning (where every string is just tuned one half-step, or fret, lower) occasionally, this bit of reduced string tension probably isn’t a very big deal. In fact, Eddie Van Halen will sell us a product to do exactly that.
However, if we’re going for something more extreme like a lot of modern metal bands use; or if we’re looking to make drop tuning a long-term element of our musical palette; some adjustments are needed to compensate for the change in string tension compared to when our guitar was tuned to E Standard, and keep our guitars playing the way we’re used to.
The first and most obvious thing we may need to address when changing to a drop-tuned setup is string gauge. Generally, to maintain equal or near-equal string tension, we go up a string gauge for every step we drop tune. In practice, this means that if we normally play with .009 to .042-gauge string sets in E Standard, we should go to .010 to .046 for Eb Standard, .011 to .049 for D Standard, and so on.
Sounds simple, right? It is.
Here’s the rub: by changing our string gauge, we create the need for other adjustments to our guitar in order to keep it sounding good and playing well. Which brings us to…
The Truss Rod
Ah, nefarious truss rod, ye mystic purveyor of trepidation! Thou hast no hold o’er me! Nor dost thou quicken mine breast with fear! Thou art mine own to command, for I wieldeth the iron will of the Rock Gods!! …And an allen wrench.
For real, though. Truss rod adjustments are the simplest, easiest guitar adjustments to make that like 80% of all guitar players are totally uncomfortable with even trying.
When we change tuning and string gauge, we may need to make an adjustment here. The one-to-one rule of tuning-to-string-gauge is only a general guideline, and we will likely still wind up with slightly more or less total string tension on our neck than we had before, which could easily cause it to have more or less neck relief (curve) in it than it used to.
I recommend reading this article by my Seymour Duncan blogging colleague, Orpheo, who explains the whole truss rod thing in detail and will get you through it with no problem. Come back here when you’re done.
The nut is the little straight piece of material behind the first fret of the guitar neck with slots in it that hold the strings in position as they come down from the tuning pegs and go across the fretboard. These come pre-cut from the guitar manufacturer to accept whatever string gauge ships from the factory on our guitars (usually .009 to .042).
Moving up a string gauge can turn the nut into a problem area, because the slots may be too narrow to properly hold our new, thicker strings. This can introduce string buzz and, more commonly, string binding (where the string actually gets stuck in the nut) that causes the guitar to go out of tune abruptly while playing, especially if it has a tremolo bridge (unless that bridge is a locking tremolo like a Floyd Rose, in which case the guitar does not have a traditional nut and cannot bind).
The way to fix this is pretty simple: file the slots! It’s easy to do, but be careful! Filing a nut slot too wide or too low can introduce a whole new set of problems. For that reason, it’s best to go slow and easy. File them out little by little, using as little downward pressure as possible. Remember, the goal is to make the slots a tiny bit wider, but not any deeper.
I prefer to use a special set of files I purchased from Stewart-MacDonald for this purpose, but if you don’t have any files of your own, you can get by with a little high-grit sandpaper wrapped once under a guitar string. Just slide the sandpaper-wrapped string through the nut slot a few times until it can pass through smoothly without binding up and you’re good to go.
Similarly to the nut, if the bridge has saddles which are grooved to hold the strings in place, they may require filing once we change string gauge. This is less-commonly necessary than nut filing, though. Typically, If we aren’t having any problems with string binding or breakage at the saddles before we change strings, it’s not very likely that we’ll run into new issues there afterward.
If the saddles do need to be filed, you’ll need to use an actual file. Bridge saddles are made of materials like brass, aluminum or steel. A little sandpaper on a guitar string isn’t going to do much there. In this event, proceed in the same slow, easy manner we used with the nut. Saddles filed too wide or too low will need to be replaced, but that problem is easy to avoid if we’re careful.
Once we’ve adjusted our truss rod and filed our nut and saddles as needed, it’s time to address the string action. Action just describes the distance of the strings from the fretboard. Our hands and ears will tell us whether the action needs work. Too much string buzz, or notes fretting out when we bend the strings? Raise the action. Too hard to play, or notes going sharp when we fret them? Lower the action. Bang. Boom. Easy.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to string action, only personal preference. What is right is whatever feels and sounds good.
There are, however, two guidelines to heed when adjusting action. They are:
- Adjust string action from the bridge, by raising and lowing the bridge and/or saddles. Action can be affected by other things, namely bridge angle (on a tremolo-equipped guitar) and neck relief, but neither of these factors are recommended for changing the action of an electric guitar, due to the other things they can throw out of whack in the attempt.
- When adjusting a bridge with individual height-adjustable saddles, be conscious of and try to match them to same the radius of the fretboard (the curve of the frets under the strings). Doing so will give our guitar a consistent feel across all the strings, making sure it stays nice and comfortable to play.
Adjusting intonation, or as I like to call it, the-absolute-very-last-step-of-any-guitar-setup, is the act of increasing or reducing the length of the strings on a guitar to make it play in tune up and down the neck. This should always be the final step of any setup and even most regular string changes, because string length is affected by virtually every other setup adjustment as well… But intonation adjustments only affect intonation, so saving that step for last means we can get our intonation dialed in as accurately as possible without screwing up other elements of a setup we’ve already performed.
Good intonation is immediately more important to anyone who has ever tried to play a guitar that wasn’t properly intonated. You tune it so the open strings are in tune, play a chord anywhere above the third fret, and CLANGABRANGALANG!!! The guitar sounds like a grade school band recital. No bueno.
After what we’ve just done to it, the intonation of our guitar is most definitely gonzo right now. First we put much thicker strings on, then adjusted the truss rod, and finally changed the action; all of which have worked together to throw intonation off. Thankfully, getting it right again is cake. It just takes a little patience.
Follow these steps:
- Plug the guitar into the fastest, most accurate electronic tuner available.
- Tune the strings to the desired pitch.
- With all the open strings tuned perfectly, fret the sixth string at the twelfth fret and pluck it. Observe whether the tuner reads flat or sharp.
- If flat: With the appropriate tool, adjust the sixth string saddle a little closer to the neck.
- If sharp: Adjust the saddle a little further from the neck.
- Check it again and readjust as necessary until the open note of the string and the string fretted at the twelfth fret both read as in tune on the tuner.
- Repeat for the rest of the strings on the guitar.
That’s it. We’re done.
Our guitar is now fully calibrated for our new dropped tuning, and we’ve put in the work to make sure it remains stable, toneful, playable, and in-tune. That’s how to drop tune like a pro.
All this (and it’s a lot) being said, one never stops learning when it comes to these things, so if you have any tips or tricks you use when setting up a guitar for a dropped tuning, share!