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Metal for Life with Metal Mike: Continuing Our Look at Drop-D-Based Metal Riffage

Last month, we investigated the great advantages of using drop-D tuning in the development of metal-style riffs and licks. This month, I’d like to continue with this topic and show you some additional advantages that this tuning offers.

Drop-D tuning is achieved by tuning the guitar’s low E string down a whole step, to D, resulting in a tuning of, low to high, D A D G B E. As I stated, in this tuning, the bottom two strings are now a fifth apart—D to A—instead of the normal fourth apart—E to A.

As the higher D string is tuned a fourth above the A string, sounding the bottom three strings open, or fretting across all three strings at any given fret, will yield a three-note root-fifth-root power chord. This makes it very easy to slide and shift this fat-sounding voicing, as a single finger can be barred across the strings to fret the power chord shape.

Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell makes very effective use of this technique in songs like “Dam That River,” “We Die Young” and “Them Bones.” Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell was also a big fan of using drop-D tuning to perform heavy riffs in songs like “Walk” and “A New Level,” and Metallica relied on drop-D for “The Thing That Should Not Be.”

FIGURE 1 is a fast riff performed with alternate (down-up) picking throughout. I begin in bar 1 with single notes played on the bottom two strings, with palm muting applied to all notes played on the sixth string. In bar 2, I alternate open low-D pedal tones with a D octave as a D note on the A string’s fifth fret is added to the open low D. At the end of the bar, I slide this fretted D note up one half step, to Eb, to attain the dissonance created by the interval of a flat ninth—the open low D note against the fretted Eb an octave higher. Bar 1 is then repeated in bar 3 but followed in bar 4 by pull-offs that move back and forth between the A and low D strings. For the first three beats, I pull off from the ring finger to the index, and on beat four I switch to a pinkie-to-index pull-off. These pull-offs are executed rather quickly, so strive for proper fret-hand positioning with the fingers held parallel to the frets. Also, try to keep the hand as relaxed as possible to facilitate moving quickly between the two fingers. In bar 7, I play a descending riff based on the A blues scale (A C D Eb E G).

FIGURE 2 offers an example of how to incorporate melodic content into a power-chord-driven figure in drop-D tuning. I begin with a two-note D5 power chord played against the open low D note. In bar 2, I move up one fret to sound Eb5 against the low D pedal. At the end of this bar, I briefly barre the A and D strings at the sixth fret with my index finger to sound Ab5. In the last two bars of the pattern, I use index finger barres to move up and down chromatically through the progression G5-Ab5-Gb5-G5.

Another great advantage drop-D tuning offers is that, when playing octave shapes on the sixth and fourth strings, the notes are located at the same fret. FIGURE 3 is a riff that illustrates this friendly fingering, with different octave shapes alternating against a low-D pedal tone, the phrase ending with a riff in 5/4 meter that’s based on the D blues scale (D F G Ab A C).

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