Heavy Metal Guitar Tunings - The Complete Guide
A fundamental aspect of heavy metal guitar is the use of different guitar tunings. If you’re starting out in metal, it can be a daunting subject.
As you may have noticed, a lot of metal records sound brutally heavy and many factors come into play which make them sound this way.
A large part of this heavy sound is to do with the guitar tuning a band uses.
Typically, the guitars are detuned which means the strings are tuned lower than standard tuning (EADGBE).
To play along with your favorite records, you’ll need to understand what guitar tuning was used on them, and tune your own guitar in the same way.
If you’ve ever looked at guitar sheet music or own a guitar tab book, you may have come across these instructions at the start of the notation:
Detuning the guitar can sound complicated but fortunately for you, I’m here to make sense of it all. By the end of this lesson, you’ll be a lot clearer on the subject.
What tuning a band uses for their music depends on many different things.
This can be down to the style of metal they play, or how their music is written and arranged. Even the singer’s vocal range can affect the final decision.
The most important thing you need to do is figure out what tuning is being used and how to detune your guitar accordingly.
Before you start, you’ll need a chromatic tuner. Chromatic guitar tuners are different to regular tuners, as they allow you to tune the strings to any note.
Due to the range of different tunings available in metal, it’s a good idea to invest in a cheap chromatic tuner from the start. A regular tuner will only help you tune to standard tuning.
I use the Korg CA-1 (pictured below) but there are plenty of alternatives that will do the same job:
If you have a smartphone, search your phone’s app store for a chromatic guitar tuner app. You’ll find plenty of free and paid apps that will do the job.
Standard Tuning Variations
E Flat Standard Tuning
The first type of detuning to be aware of is the variation on standard tuning. You know already that the strings are tuned, low to high, EADGBE.
You may also know that the notes on the twelfth fret have the same names as the open strings, as this is one octave higher:
Understanding this is the key to understanding variations of standard tuning.
For the first example, let’s imagine you want to play along with Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’. The tuning used on this, and many other Slayer songs, is E Flat Standard. Low to high, that's Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.
If you look at the sheet music for this song, you’ll see these instructions at the top:
Let’s go back to the guitar neck for a second. If you shift the notes down one semitone from the twelfth fret to the eleventh and spell out the notes you’ll get this:
As you can see, these notes are the same as the E Flat Standard tuning. By detuning the open strings down one semitone in the same way, you’ll get the same notes an octave lower, and get your new tuning:
It’s time to grab the chromatic tuner. At this point, it’s a good idea to write down the note names you found at the eleventh fret – Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb – for reference.
If your guitar is in Standard tuning, check your chromatic tuner while playing the open low E string. You’ll see the note name E on the screen, like this:
Loosen the string with the tuning peg while playing the string and keep your eye on the screen. You’ll see the note change to Eb. Once the needle hits the center and you get the green light, your string will be detuned correctly to Eb (or D#):
You can repeat this process for the A string in the same way, and end up with the note Ab (or G#):
Once you’ve detuned the E and A strings, continue by repeating the process for the remaining four strings. Be sure to keep an eye on the note name given by the tuner, as you don’t want to tune a string to the wrong note accidentally.
You may need to repeat the entire process one or two times to stabilize the tuning. Once you’re getting green lights on each string, you’re done.
Now the guitar is tuned to Eb Standard. With this tuning you can play along with Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’, Guns ‘N Roses’ ‘Sweet Child ‘O Mine’ and many other songs.
More importantly, you now understand how to detune accordingly whenever you see that a song is in this tuning.
As Eb Standard is a variation on standard tuning, playing in it will feel no different to playing in standard tuning.
All your chords and scales will retain the same fingerings, except the guitar will sound one semitone lower than before.
This new, lower-sounding tuning sounds ‘heavier’ than standard tuning. As you’ll hear, just one semitone can make a big difference to the sound.
To get back to standard tuning, tighten each string while watching the screen of the tuner. Check that each string goes back to the original note – EADGBE.
Again, you may have to do this a few times to stabilize the tuning.
D Standard Tuning
Here comes some more good news.
The exact same tuning method can be used for all other variations of standard tuning.
As an example, let’s say you want to learn a song by the band Symphony X. The tuning that guitarist Micheal Romeo uses is D Standard tuning.
Once again, look at the guitar neck. The notes at the twelfth fret in standard tuning are the same as the open strings:
Shifting these notes back two frets this time, you’ll get the following notes:
These are the notes you need for D Standard tuning. Low to high, that's DGCFAD.
Now all you need to do is detune each string in the same way that you did before, only this time, you’ll detune by two semitones (one tone) instead of one.
Check your tuner screen while playing the low E string:
Loosen the string using the tuning peg until you see the note D on the screen. You’ll want to go past Eb or D# and keep detuning until you get to D. Once you hit the green light, you’re done.
Repeat the process for the A string. Once you see the note change to G# or Ab, keep going and you’ll get to the note G.
Now repeat the process for the remaining strings. Repeat the entire process one or two times for every string to stabilize the tuning and you’re done.
Remember, you can get back to standard tuning by watching the tuner screen and tightening the strings back up to EADGBE.
It’s pretty simple to do, and with a bit of practice and experience playing in these tunings, you’ll be detuning your guitar in just a few minutes.
More Variations of Standard Tuning
Here’s a list of three more common variations of standard tuning used by metal bands:
C# Standard tuning. Low to high, that’s C# F# B E G# C#. This is three semitones (one and a half tones) lower than standard tuning:
This tuning was used by one of my favorite bands, Decapitated. They played in this tuning for the album The Negation. Slayer also used this tuning on their album Diabolus in Musica.
C Standard tuning. Low to high, that’s C F Bb Eb G C. This is four semitones (two tones) lower than standard tuning:
B Standard tuning. Low to high, that’s B E A D F# B. This is five semitones (two and a half tones) lower than standard tuning:
This tuning was used by the band Soulfly and is also used by the band Five Finger Death Punch.
Tuning your guitar down low will make your guitar strings loose, as there will be less tension the more you detune.
This can make it hard to keep the strings under control while playing.
A solution is to use heavier gauge strings (gauge .010 or higher) and you’ll need to make sure the guitar is set up correctly with good intonation across the neck.
You can read more about this in my Metal Rhythm Guitar Starter Guide here.
Next, you’ll learn about Drop-D tunings.
It’s likely that you’re already aware of Drop-D tuning and you may have already experimented with it.
If you haven’t, this tuning is the same as standard tuning but with the low E string detuned or ‘dropped’ to the note D.
This is a very popular tuning used by many rock and metal bands. Shortly, you’ll see how this tuning method can be applied to all variations of standard tuning, too.
Look again at the notes at the twelfth fret in standard tuning:
By shifting the note on the low E string down by two semitones (one tone) to the tenth fret you get the note D:
To use Drop-D tuning, you’ll need to detune the open low E string in the same way, by two semitones. This way, you’ll end up with the notes, low to high, DADGBE.
Using the chromatic tuner, play the low E string and keep your eye on the screen. Loosen the low E string with the tuning peg until you get the note D, going past the note Eb or D#.
With this new tuning, a D5 power chord can now be played with the open sixth, fifth and fourth strings. You can also play other power chords with one finger barred across a single fret like this:
Earlier, I said that this tuning method can be applied to any variation of standard tuning. Now you’ll take things a step further.
Let’s say that you tune down to D Standard. Looking at the guitar neck, the notes you’ll need are the same as the ones on the tenth fret:
After detuning the strings by two semitones with the chromatic tuner, the notes at the twelfth fret will be what they were previously at the tenth fret:
As you learned earlier, to get a Drop-D-style tuning, the sixth string is always tuned two semitones lower than usual.
Now you’ll need to ‘drop’ the tuning of the sixth string by two semitones to get the note C, which is the same as the note on the tenth fret in this new tuning:
After detuning the string by two semitones, you’ll have the new tuning known as Drop-C tuning. This gives you the notes, low to high, CGCFAD.
Playing the guitar in this way will be the same as playing in Drop-D tuning. The only difference is that it sounds two semitones (one tone) lower in pitch.
The band Killswitch Engage uses this tuning, as do many other metal bands. It produces a very low and heavy sound without having to detune the strings that much.
As a final example, let’s say you were in Eb Standard tuning. The strings are tuned, low to high, Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb.
If you ‘drop’ the pitch of the sixth string by two semitones, you’ll get Db.
Now the strings will be tuned, low to high, Db Ab Db Gb Bb Eb. As a result, this is now called Drop-Db tuning.
What To Do Next
When I was learning guitar back in the days before the Internet, it wasn’t so easy to find out what tuning a band was playing in.
I could hear that the music was heavy and that the guitars were obviously detuned to a certain extent.
In those days, you had to use your ears or rely on the sheet music (if you could get it) to find out what tuning was used.
These days, if you can’t find out what tuning is used by a band by searching the Internet, checking their website or asking on a forum, it’s still a good idea to try to figure it out yourself by ear.
It will involve a bit of trial and error, but it’s a great exercise for your ears. Here’s what you’ll need to do.
Listen to the music and listen out for what you think is the lowest note or power chord in the song.
Make a note of the time in minutes and seconds when the note or chord appears in the song.
If you’re using a media player on your computer, try to loop this section by a few seconds so you can hear it over and over as a reference note.
Using your guitar in standard tuning, play every note on the low E string, starting from the open string going all the way up to the twelfth fret.
Keep listening to your guitar and the reference note at the same time. When you find a note that sounds the same, you have the name of the lowest string being used on the record.
Nine times out of ten, this note will tell you the name of a variation of standard tuning or alternatively, the name of the 'drop' tuning being used.
Let’s say you found that the lowest note in a song was C, for example.
It’s likely that the guitars in the song are tuned to C Standard which is, low to high, C F Bb Eb G C.
Alternatively, it could be Drop-C tuning which is, low to high, CGCFAD.
One more thing to keep in mind is that a band could be using a seven-string guitar.
For example, if you find that the lowest note is a B, consider that this could just be a seven-string guitar tuned to standard tuning which, low to high, is tuned BEADGBE.
Drop tunings can also be used on a seven-string guitar.
Instead of detuning the sixth string, the seventh string is detuned by two semitones (one tone) to A.
This new tuning, called Drop-A tuning, gives you the notes AEADGBE.
I recommend using your ears like this often. You’ll become familiar with your instrument and the music you like in a much deeper way.
You can always tune your guitar back up to standard tuning if you get stuck, just grab your tuner.
To conclude this lesson, I’ve prepared a useful table below with all the variations of standard tuning discussed in this lesson and their related drop tunings: