How low can you tune an acoustic guitar and will it harm the instrument? Dropped guitar tunings can open up a vast array of possibilities for a musician to explore with the added option of using lower notes that were previously only accessible in bass instruments. While this tuning can flesh out new ideas that are hard to do on standard tuning, even the slightest change in pitch can create some issues on your instrument.
The guitar’s standard tuning – EADGBE – is unique compared to its other stringed predecessors such as cellos, mandolins and violins, which are normally tuned in fifths (guitars follow a sequence of ascending perfect fourths and a single major third). Musicians in the past have agreed that this standard tuning is the most convenient choice, given the ease of movement that it provides guitar players in forming chords and playing scales.
Contemporary musicians may have popularized the use of alternative or alternate tunings, but its history can be traced back to the 1600s when German violinist Thomas Baltazar invented the concept of “Scordatura” which literally means “discord” or “mistunings” in Italian. Scordatura is the technique of altering the tuning of stringed instruments to create unique timbres and sound palettes. In modern music, this phenomenon became more apparent in blues and folk, through the acoustic guitar-driven music of the likes of Joni Mitchell, a style that makes use of open tunings to create a sustaining note called a drone.
In the 90s, a younger generation of guitar aficionados were exposed to alternative tunings when Kurt Cobain popularized the use of the drop D in some of his songs. Drop D is the easiest alternate tuning to learn as it only requires guitar players to tune down the low E string a whole step lower to D. The dropped tuning helped spark the grunge revolution which later on led to more experimentations in nu metal and djent trends of the new millenium. Whereas folk and grunge relied on detuning their guitars, these chugging, groovy variants of heavy metal went to greater lengths by utilizing 7 or even 8-stringed axes.
The fact that they invented a new breed of guitars to produce much lower, heavier notes, shows humankind’s immense hunger for innovation and creativity. But this also shows the limitations of a six-stringed instrument in accessing notes in the lower register. That doesn’t mean however, that standard tuning in a six string guitar is not perfect in design because it serves the purpose of making guitar playing more physically comfortable for the vast majority. Standard tuning also gives people from all walks of life the chance to learn how to play the instrument and strum their emotions away to their favorite songs.
What is the lowest you can tune an acoustic guitar?
Legendary metal guitarist Dimebag Darrell was fond of tuning his entire guitar a whole step lower to create his bottom-heavy sound on some albums. He also tuned his guitar this way to allow him to pull off some extreme string bends on the low E string, a benefit of the instrument’s more relaxed tension.
As long as the strings of a guitar are not wobbling out of existence, there are almost no limits to tuning the down a guitar. Some metal guitarists have already delved into drop C (CGCFAD) and drop A (AEADF#B) territory, or even tried on some strings that were meant for 8-stringed electric. But are these ridiculously low tunings even worth trying out on an acoustic? If you aren’t planning to perform some headbanging music, you might want to consider sticking to standard tuning to avoid some possible acoustic guitar issues.
However, there are also practical uses of tuning down your guitar. For example, you may tune your entire guitar a half step lower to accommodate the vocal range of a vocalist, without having to transpose the chords.
Negative impacts of tuning down on your acoustic guitar
The number one setback that you’ll encounter after tuning down your guitar is the fret buzz, an unwanted noise caused by a sudden shift in string height after the tension has decreased. The neck may also warp if the guitar stays too long in its much looser state, making the buzzing sound remain even after tuning the instrument back to standard.
These problems can be solved by having a professional luthier fix the action of your guitar. They will adjust the truss rod and bridge height. While an adjustable bridge is not a common feature in acoustic guitars, a truss rod is found in almost all guitars today, with the exception of classical guitars, as well as some cheap knockoffs. A truss rod is important in stabilizing the curvature in your guitar’s neck. Do not adjust this without the aid of an expert in guitar repair to avoid further complications.
Fret buzz solutions for acoustic guitars tuned low
If you really are intent on keeping your guitar tuned lower, your best bet is to have your luthier adjust the action while the instrument is in its desired tuning. This way, the bridge and truss rod can be set up in a way that the fret wires won’t interfere with string vibration and cause some undesirable buzzing sounds. However, this will also mean that changing again the tuning of your guitar can lead to a new set of problems.
Another way to prevent fret buzz when lowering the guitar’s tuning is to use heavier string gauges. The thicker set of strings can help maintain the same tension and action that your instrument had when it was tuned to standard.
Most importantly, you can tune an acoustic guitar as low as you want, as long as it’s not negatively affecting the guitar and your sound. Creating or playing music should always be a pleasant experience to both the instrument and the musician.