A universal right of passage for guitarists is having a catchy mnemonic to remember the standard tuning of your first guitar.
For me it was Elephants And Dogs Grow Big Ears.
But as you start to dive deeper into the world of guitar playing you soon realize there are so many different ways to tune a guitar such as full step down tuning. Perhaps you’ve found a tab that’s in a different tuning or you want to tune your guitar down to match your vocal range.
While I haven’t got any catchphrases to remember these different step-down tunings; I do know how to tune my guitar down and I’m here today to show you how!
I’m going to show you some easy to follow ways that you can down-tune your guitar so you can play your favorite songs. I have also included some sound samples of what you can do with these tunings.
Why Do Guitarists Tune Their Guitar Down?
There are many reasons to tune your guitar down. One of the most common reasons has to do with the way you sing!
If there’s a song or chord progression that you love but you’re having a hard time singing along to it then tuning down might be the solution.
Everyone has a different vocal range and if you want to sing while you play guitar you need to be playing in a key that fits your voice.
If the key is too high for you to comfortably sing along tuning down can bring those chords into a key within your vocal range and make your life so much easier.
No point straining your voice trying to sing along to a song written for someone with a high vocal range if you have a deeper voice. Of course, this also works in reverse.
Sometimes tuning down can help if you sing in a high vocal range as well. It’s not about how low the chords sound, it’s about getting the chords within your vocal range.
Grunge and Metal Tones
Another reason you might want to tune your guitar down is to create a darker and moodier tone with your guitar.
The more you tune your guitar down the deeper your tone gets. This can help set the mood, particularly in genres such as folk and grunge.
Tuning down is also commonplace in heavier genres of music such as metal. Lower tunings make it easier to play with heavier gauge strings especially if you’re going to be shredding!
If you’re playing with an older guitar tuning down a bit is also a good idea, especially for long performances or jam sessions. Tuning down eases the tension on the neck and can help protect you from having to get the neck re-set if the tension of the strings pulls it out of place.
Half Step Down – How To Tune Your Guitar Down a Half Step
The first down tuning to try is a half step down as it’s the closest down tuning to your standard tuning of E A D G B E.
Tuning your guitar a half step down will change the open notes of your strings to Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.
Half Step Down Tuning Using a Capo
The quickest sure-fire way to tune your guitar a half step down is with a capo.
- Take your capo and lock it over the first fret of your guitar. If you don’t have one use your fingers to bar the entire fret like you would with a capo.
- Now with the capo in place tune your guitar as you normally would to E A D G B E
- Once you’ve tuned your guitar to standard tuning remove the capo and your guitar will be tuned a half step down!
Half Step Down Tuning Using a Chromatic Tuner
Another straightforward way to tune down a half step is to use a chromatic tuner. Most clip on tuners or tuner pedals will be chromatic; this means it displays how far off from the closest note you are.
Tuning as you would standard, tune each string a half semitone down.
Be wary that most chromatic tuners display the sharps of notes instead of the flats. So on a chromatic tuner, a half step down would mean your strings would be tuned to D# G# C# F# A# D#.
What Bands & Songs Use Half Step Down Tuning?
Half step down tuning is mainly favored by bands that play rock on the harder end of the spectrum.
Bands such as AC/DC, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and Black Sabbath have all made fantastic use of half step tuning in their music as it gives their tone a deeper tone while preserving the warmth of rock n roll.
Jimi Hendrix was another artist that enjoyed tuning down a half step likely to make use of the slinkier feel of the strings it gives you. This makes playing bends and creating vibrato easier something Hendrix made use of to create his signature tone.
Some great examples of his music that was recorded a half step down are his track ‘Little Wing’ and ‘Red House’. Both give you a good feel for the unique sound the tuning can give you.
What Does Half Step Down Tuning Sound Like?
Have a listen to some chords getting jammed in half step tuning!
Full Step Down Tuning – How To Tune Your Guitar to DGCFAD (D Standard)
Taking your guitar down a full step will get you to D G C F A D. This tuning is where you really start to feel your strings loosening up and your tone getting heavy!
Full Step Down Tuning with a Capo
- To tune your guitar a full step down with a capo, first make sure your guitar is in standard tuning, then slap a capo on the second fret.
- If you don’t have a capo your fingers will do just fine. Bar the entire 2nd fret with your fingers like you would with a capo.
- As with a half step down, begin tuning your guitar to standard tuning of EADGBE.
Once you’ve tuned each string take that capo off and you’re good to go! You’re now jamming a full step down, also called Standard D.
Full Step Down Tuning with a Chromatic Tuner
Tuning a full step down is super easy with a chromatic tuner. All you have to remember are the different notes you’re aiming for.
Tune your strings in order from the low E to the high E, tuning D G C F A D respectively.
Full Step Down Tuning Without A Tuner or Capo
- Tune your low E-string to the same pitch as the 4th string (D).
- Tune your A-string to the same pitch as the 3rd string (G).
- Then tune the 4th-6th strings how you normally would, by holding the string above the one you are tuning on the 5th fret, and tuning until the two strings sound the same (except for tuning the 2nd string, where you will hold the 3rd string at the 4th fret).
TIPS When Tuning Down A Full Step
When you tune down a full step the tension will change quite a lot on your guitar neck.
After you have worked your way down to tuning the high E-string, you will need to start again at tuning the low E string, since the change in tension after you first tuned it will cause it to sound sharp.
So it’s a good idea to tune all the strings a couple of times to settle your guitar into the new tuning.
If you end up deciding you want to leave one of your guitars permanently tuned down to D standard, then it’s a good idea to bump up the gauge of your stings one level, which helps regain a little tension.
What Bands & Songs Use Full Step Down Tuning?
Tuning a full step down is almost exclusively reserved for bands that like to pump their tone full of distortion and create sludgy heavy tones.
Heavy hitting metal bands such as Mastodon, Judas Priest, Gojira, Dream Theatre, and Pantera all favor the terrifying depths of the tuning. It not only gives them their heavy tone but also loosens up their strings to shred and bend until their fingers fall off!
Metal isn’t the only genre where this tuning has come in handy, more alternative acts such as Chelsea Wolfe and Nirvana also drop their guitars to D standard.
One of Nirvana’s most famous songs ‘Come as You Are’ was recorded in the studio on a guitar tuned a full step down!
What Does DGCFAD (D Standard) Tuning Sound Like?
Here’s what playing a full step down sounds like!
Neck (Truss Rod) Adjustment for Step Down Tuning
Adjusting the truss rod on your guitar isn’t necessary for step down tuning if you’re switching back and forth from standard tuning.
If you plan to keep your guitar in step down tuning for a while on the other hand, it might be a good idea to give your neck a bit more wiggle room by loosening the truss rod a bit.
Leaving your guitar in step down tuning can cause the neck to lean back a bit over time and this will eventually lead to lowering your action. This will make your playing sloppy as you battle to nail down your fingers to the loose strings.
This is particularly important when using an acoustic with bridge pins. With no other way to increase string tension than your tuning pegs, loosening your truss rod is the only way to make sure you’re action stays at a playable level!
Does Half Step Tuning Work Well for Acoustic & Electric Guitars?
While this article has been pretty heavy on ‘heavier’ sounding bands, half step tuning sounds great on both electric and acoustic guitars.
When tuned down a half step the steel strings of an acoustic can create some amazing new tones. Try playing a bit of 1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins on an acoustic and you’ll know what I mean!