Down But Not Out: Drop-Tuning Like a Pro

G&L ASAT Deluxe

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.

Neat!

What do we need to do – just tune down the strings to the lowered pitch we desire?

Sure!

EVH Bro Fist Pump

“Buy my stuff so I can afford some shirts!”

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.

Strings

guitar with string changing supplies

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

guitar nut

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.

The Saddles

LP bridge

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.

The Action

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Intonation

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:

  1. Plug the guitar into the fastest, most accurate electronic tuner available.
  2. Tune the strings to the desired pitch.
  3. 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.
    1. If flat: With the appropriate tool, adjust the sixth string saddle a little closer to the neck.
    2. If sharp: Adjust the saddle a little further from the neck.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

Adam Gotch

About Adam Gotch

Adam Gotch is the guitarist for the instrumental nerd-beer-thrash outfit Devils of Belgrade (listn.to/devilsofbelgrade). He possesses many fine talents and is alarmingly handsome. You should follow his advice to the letter in all things.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1225641358 Ben Ferguson

    Good article! To be honest I use .012 – .052 (with a wound 3rd string) tuned down 2.5 steps to “B standard” on my 24.75″ scale Dean, it comes out to roughly the same tension as a set of .008′s or .009′s tuned to “E”. With longer scale-lengths, you can get away with lighter strings; this applies even more to down-tuned guitars! I did have a quick question I wanted to ask; have you ever heard of, or tried to, intonate so the very highest fret is in tune as well as the open/harmonic notes? I’ve seen this recommended here and there, and having tried it, it does seem to help with the notes above the 12th fret. It had never occurred to me until I read it a few months back, but give it a shot if you haven’t yet; it’s not any harder (except you have to figure out what note the last fret is I guess) and it seems to work better for me. Do you know of any disadvantages or “gotchas” with this method? Thanks again for the informative and amusing articles Adam!

    • http://www.facebook.com/agotch902 Adam Gotch

      I’ve never tried that method. Generally I intonate so that the open note and fretted 12th fret are the same. I don’t have any 24-fret guitars currently, so this is the simplest method that provides accurate results that I have found.

      • Ben Ferguson

        I’ve found it seems to help a little with my (ahem) lower-budget guitars especially. You don’t need a 24-fret guitar to do it, either; you can just check that the highest fret and the open string are both in-tune, then check a couple other notes up and down the fretboard. Same principle, just stretched further up the neck. I think I saw it explained on the “ibanezrules” website, that guy has a bunch of other interesting setup tricks I’d never thought of on there – check it out when you’ve got an hour or two to kill!

    • James

      A 52 in B would be equal to a 38 in E. Very light string gauge but what ever works for you. Its all personal preference. I use a 44 in E and a 59 for the B string.

      Great Article! Very in-depth and addresses a lot of the things most people skim over when downtuning.

  • Gary O. D.

    I always thought “drop tuning” just meant tuning the lowest string down a whole step.

    • Chris burns

      I am of the same opinion, the rest is detuning and considered “lowest note” standard, for example D standard being the whole instrument down a full step as opposed to Drop D being the 6th string dropped to D.

  • http://thefreelance.tumblr.com/ Jeff A. Taylor

    Good stuff, but I would caution anyone new to nut-fu to take it even slower, particularly with relatively soft Corian (plastic) nuts.

    If I know I want to drop a guitar a whole step or more, I first really take note of how the current strings are setting in the nut, maybe even take a pic. Then you’ll have a ready frame of reference when the new strings go on. Do they set roughly the same — or much higher?

    If higher, one old trick to try BEFORE files or sandpaper is just taking the end of the new string (the end you’ll cut off eventually) and work it lightly back and forth in the slot. Many times a few passes will wear enough of a groove to match the previous string set — particularly for wound strings. Try this before moving onto rougher tools that might end up removing too much nut material.

    Also, IMHO anything much smaller than a 62 as the low string of a 7 string is too floppy, particularly if you are playing with a 5-string bass who is not at all floppy.

    https://soundcloud.com/acaer/apex-predator

    • Chris burns

      I would say 60 is the minimum. I personally use a minimum of 11 to 50 in E.

  • Brent Moore

    I play in Eb standard with the occasional drop C# and I use 10-52 strings. They work great for this tuning. I also have a Gibson Flying V tuned to drop G#. Basically a baritone tuned 1/2 step flat with the low Bb dropped a whole step. I use a 12-72 set on this guitar and shockingly it intonates really well and doesn’t feel floppy. As a tech, I find that intonation is almost always a compromise. I play the harmonic and match it at the 12th fret. I then check the 5th and 3rd frets. If they are still sharp or flat I will adjust until they are all as close to perfectly in tune as possible. Very rare to find a guitar when you don’t make some kind of sacrifice like this. I’ve actually Earvana nuts on all my guitars and I no longer have this issue. Companies like Paul Reed Smith have remedied this by removing about 1/16 of an inch from the end of the fretboard which moves the nut forward. Makes a huge difference when you intonate and really gets those first position chords to sound good. A zero fret can accomplish the same thing, but will obviously brighten the tone a bit. My two cents.

    • Chris burns

      One tech to another here. I too find that there is a compromise, more so on cheaper guitars. My vintage Gibson S-1 and vintage Gibson Les Paul DC with rather worn frets somehow still intonate bang on the notes all the way up the neck. I personally compromise a little action ever so slightly to make it run near on the dot up and down the neck.

      I personally like to check all the way along the neck to see if there are any bung notes or dead spots, most of the time it’s all done on a 0.01 cent accurate chromatic tuner. The only instrument that gives me issues is the Rickenbacker 4001.

  • mouseporn

    you posted the good jamz at the end too. Jon Paul Davis of Conan told me hes in Drop F tuning!

  • http://www.fauxfreshness.com fauxfreshness

    I love that pickup comparison video from Keith Merrow, but wasn’t he using a baritone with a longer scale anyway? From his notes in the video:

    “The baritone used here was rather picky!”

    I loved the deeper tones in it, and it’s why I’ll probably end up trying one after I get my current guitar dealt with… ;-)

  • https://www.facebook.com/PatrickShaneDurham?ref=hl Patrick Durham

    Ah, if we all only had Billy Gibbons’ touch and could tune down with 8s! Check out “She Could Be Made Into a Movie” and be amazed.