Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 9: D major redeemed (dropped tunings)

“Died and were reborn,
and then mysteriously saved”

Bob Dylan: “Oh Sister”

I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this post: the post where the ugly duckling, despised by everyone, turns out to be a swan.

All it takes is to tune the sixth string one tone down, and something wonderful happens to the D major chord.

Let’s take it from the beginning and summarize the charges against D:

  • It uses only four out of six strings, giving it an unnecesarily crippled, thin sound
  • it has the third at the top, which is not necessarily bad, but requires some extra care.
  • Below that is a rigid octave/fifth skeleton, which — again — is not wrong per se, but which together with the third, alone at the top on the first string, gives a very bipolar, fixed sound.
  • It uses a lot of fingers, with very little room for maneuvering.

Then tune the sixth string down to a D, one tone lower than its standard tuning. It should sound like the fourth string, only one octave lower. This tuning is usually referred to as the Dropped D tuning.

The new D is played 000232, i.e. it uses all the strings in all their bassy glory. Now, magically, most of the complaints vanish:

We not only gain one but two strings: the A on the fifth string, which in the standard major chord is best avoided because it is not the keynote, is now a perfect support for the new fundamental tone: the low D on the sixth string.

The new D chord doesn’t change the position of the third — it is still up there at the top, in perfect isolation on the first string, and everything below it is just a sequence of octaves and fifths: D - A - d - a - d’. However, now that the fundamental tone is on the sixth string, we not only get two extra tones sounding in the basic chord 000232: we also get two extra intermediary strings — the fourth and fifth — which can be used for melody and bass lines, almost like with the G major chord. We can for example play the quintessential early Dylan folk/blues fill:

         :   .   .   .     :

All that is done with the long finger, which temporarily leaves its place on the first string. “3p0” means “pull-off”: strike the fifth string with the finger at the third fret, and pull off to produce the tone of the open string.

here’s an incomplete list of songs where Dylan uses the Dropped D

So, you may ask, why isn’t Dropped D the standard tuning if it has all these advantages?

The reason is of course that the advantages are limited to D major; all the other chords become troublesome, to a higher or lesser degree. The low G, for example, is now all the way up on the fifth fret of the sixth string, and that makes the G major chord more tricky. There is a solution: since the tone D is also part of the G major chord, we can play it like this:

o oo


But note that this chord lacks the keynote in the bass. Hence, it is not suitable for songs in G major. For songs in D major, on the other hand, where G major is the subdominant, which is more like a variant of the keynote, this is more ok. Also, the third finger is in the same place in D major and in this variant G major chord, which is a good thing.

Another alternative, which gives us a G bass on the lowest string, is this:

  ooox      ooox
======    ======
||||||    ||||||
------    ------
||||||    ||||||
------ or ------
||||||    ||||1|
------    ------
||||||    ||||||
------    ------
34||||    34||||
------    ------
||||||    ||||||


It is playable, but it requires you to shift the hand position up to the third position (“position” is a technical term, at least in classical guitar terminology, denoting the fret in which the index finger is placed).

The dominant of D major is A major. In standard tuning, this chord can use the open sixth string, since that is an E, which is a member of the A chord. In Dropped D tuning, the sixth string either has to be avoided, or it has to be fingered at the second fret. The most practical way to do this is with the thumb:

 o   x


But with this fingering, it is difficult to bend the index finger enough to let the first string sound. In most of the songs from the list above, you will hear that when Dylan plays an A chord, it is usually more muffled than the other chords — sometimes very muffled.

Finally, one last disadvantage: In the dropped D tuning, the D major scale runs as follows:


In other words: some of the important tones in the scale are on the 4th and 5th frets, which at times may be a problem, especially if one wants to play melody lines while strumming. In practice, one is then required to use the little finger quite a lot.

If one plays in a more blues-oriented style, however, all the notes at the fourth fret will be replaced by the third fret instead — as in the “quintessential riff” above. A lot of the songs in the list above are also in this style, such as “Hollis Brown”, “It’s alright Ma”, etc., for which it fits like a glove.

Here is a handful of songs which in different ways are typical of dropped D tuning.

Masters of War

On the album, Dylan plays this with a capo on the third fret. If you play it without a capo, it will sound very dark.

  Dm                    Cadd2 Dm                    Cadd2
  :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .     :   .   .
|-2-----2---2-|-2-----2-0---|-0h2---2---2-|-0h2---2-0---|  etc.

Come you masters of war

You that build the big guns

You that build the death planes
         Cadd2         Dm
You that build all the bombs

You that hide behind walls
         Cadd2       Dm
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
      G/b              Dm
I can see through your masks

As usual, the tab means to indicate a general pattern more than exact
notes/strings to be played.

The three chords that are used in this song are:

ooo        o oo o    o oo o
======     ======    ======
|||||1     ||||||    ||||||
------     ------    ------
|||2||     ||||||    |1||||
------     ------    ------
||||3|     |2||3|    ||||3|
------     ------    ------
||||||     ||||||    ||||||        

  Dm       Cadd2      G/d

As you can see, the ringfinger is in the same spot all the time, and all the strings are used, although they are not always “correct”. This is one of the things you will see in the various altered tunings: since they usually emphasise one particular key, the tonal character is so strong that an occasional “off” or “odd” tone does nothing to obstruct that.

  • An essential part of this pattern — as Dylan plays it in the album version of the song anyway — is the constant, driving, hammering rhythm on every beat in the bass.
  • Also, there is a stronger emphasis on the first beat in every measure — indicated with full chord on all the strings, although it does not necessarily have to be played that way all the time.
  • The ground rhythm of the accompaniment is something like this:
      :    .    .    | :   .   .   |
      V    v    v      V     ^ v

    That is not to say that there is only one upstroke, but that that last upstroke in the pattern has a certain emphasis which brings out the dotted rhythm in that measure.

  • The hammer-ons should be fairly straightforward to figure out. They are embellishments and hence not absolutely obligatory, but it’s worth making the effort to learn them. Play the four measures above over and over again until your neighbours complain and your girlfriend leaves you — don’t worry, she’ll come back once you get it right.

Double Dropped D: The Ballad of Hollis Brown

The pattern in “Masters of war”, with a dominating Dm or D chord broken up by the sequence Cadd2 -> G/b at structural points in the song, is a trademark figure in Dylan’s acoustic repertory, in the early days of course, but also in his live work in the late 80s and early 90s. Another song where this features prominently is “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”.

This song is played in “Double Dropped D” tuning. This means that both the sixth and the first strings are tuned down one whole tone, so that they both sound like the fourth string.

As should be clear from this, Double Dropped D tuning is very centered around one chord, and all others are more to be seen as ornaments.

This gives the following main chords:

ooo  o     o oo o    o oo o
======     ======    ======
||||||     ||||||    ||||||
------     ------    ------
|||2||     ||||||    |1||||
------     ------    ------
||||3|     |2||3|    ||||3|
------     ------    ------
||||||     ||||||    ||||||        

  Dm       Cadd2      G/d

As you can see, the only difference from the chords in “Masters of War” is that the first string is left untouched in all the chords. In Double Dropped D tuning, that string already has a d', so there is no reason to mess with it.

The first chord is not really a D minor: there is no third in it, so from the chord chart alone, there is no way of telling if it is minor or major. However, throughout the whole song runs another trademark figure, where the minor third is prominent:

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .

  :   .   .   .     :   .   .   .
|---  etc. in the same manner  -----|
|-----------------|-----------------|   etc

This figure is played everywhere there is a continuous Dm.

Hollis Brown
                Cadd2      Dm
He lived on the outside of town

Hollis Brown
                Cadd2      Dm
He lived on the outside of town

With his wife and five children
        Cadd2 G/b    Dm
And his cabin broken down

“Mr Tambourine Man” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”

Mr Tambourine man uses Dropped D tuning in a way that comes closer to a traditionally harmonic three-chord song, using the chords D, G/d, and A:

D     000232
G/d   020033
A     202220 (with thumb)

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna fall” uses the same three chords, but in a quite different way. The chord shapes from Mr T-Man are used here as well, but during the “I’ve been…” / “I seen…” lists in the middle of the verses, another set of shapes is used:

======     ------        ------
||||||     |||1-1  3rd   |||1-1  5th
------     ------        ------
|||1-1     |||2||        |||2||
------     ------        ------
||||2|     ||||||        ||||||           

  D         G/d           A/d

Here, the half-barre version of D major comes in handy: keep the finger on those three strings throughout and slide it up to the third fret for the G chord and to the fifth for A.

That gives the following:

    D                       G         D
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
    D                                     A
And where have you been, my darling young one?
     G/d                     A/d          D
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
     G/d                        A/d         D
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,
     G/d                      A/d       D
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
     G/d                    A/d        D
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,
          G/d                       A/d        D
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
    *)     D                A            D                G
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
           D        A          D
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Dropped C tuning

The third main “Dropped” tuning is the Dropped C. Again, the sixth string is tuned down, but this time two whole steps, so that it sounds an octave lower than the c you get on the third fret of the fifth string, the fundamental note of the C major chord.

Dropped C is even more limited than dropped D when it comes to keys: it is hardly ever used other than for songs in C major.

It is great fun to play in: it gives a wonderfully strong bass. Most chord shapes in standard tuning have a fifth between the two lowest bass tones (exceptions are G and C major). This gives a certain fullness of sound. The C major chord in Dropped C tuning, however, has a full octave between the two lowest strings. Thus, the deepest C works more as a reenforcement of the fundamental tone. It is noteworthy that Dylan used this tuning to some extent during his solo acoustic parts of the 1965/66 shows, but abandoned it once he started playing with a band (where the bass guitar could take care of that deeper register).

Here’s a list of songs using dropped C. Go to any of them and try them out.

Bringing it all Back Home:
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Highway 61 Revisited:
Desolation Row
Blonde on Blonde
4th Time Around,
Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,
Absolutely Sweet Marie
Live 1966:
Just Like a Woman
I Wanna Be Your Lover
Farewell Angelina
On A Rainy Afternoon/Does She Need Me?
What Kind Of Friend Is This?

All the Lessons

6 thoughts on “Learn to Play the Guitar in Two Weeks, Day 9: D major redeemed (dropped tunings)

  1. I find these explanations into the more technical theories of the guitar immensely interesting. Your writing style is both easy to understand and full of information. Great job!

  2. I agree completely with Tyler’s comment. Thank you so much, you have no idea how much your work has helped me improve! Again, thank you.

  3. Great work, Eyolf. Ever think about making videos or writing some explanation for more of the complicated blues songs that Dylan plays? (for example: Milk Cow’s Calf Blues, Kindhearted Woman Blues, Two Trains Running, etc.) Dylanchords is the definitive Bob Dylan chord database on the internet and otherwise, it’s helped me immensely throughout the years.

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