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A Primer on Tool’s Use of the Drop B Tuning

Photo courtesy of Tool Archives.
Photo courtesy of Tool Archives.

By Bobby Kittleberger

The Drop B tuning has primarily two different variations, both of which have been used almost entirely in the post-grunge rock of the early ‘90s. Pentagram guitarist Victor Griffin is credited with inventing the tuning, and he makes a point to tell players that the tuning sounds great when played “gingerly” as opposed to “heavily.” Yet today, we’re going to introduce this alternate guitar tuning by way of one of the heaviest bands out there, Tool!

First, let’s start with the full “Drop 1” B tuning, which can be handled the same as Drop D. From the lowest to highest strings (left to right), the guitar is tuned to:first tuningThis is essentially the Drop D tuning, lowered three semitones (or the equivalent of a minor third interval). In this form, the Drop B tuning can be handled exactly like you would handle Drop D, both of which have been used commonly by rock groups for the lower notes and thicker sound. Bands who have used the Drop B tuning, specifically, include Three Days Grace, Disturbed, Halestorm, Linkin Park, Sevendust, and a slew of other nu-metal and post-grunge rock bands. Unfortunately, this form of the tuning doesn’t present much variance from the familiar Drop D.

However, our second form does, in that it treats Drop B as a modified standard tuning, dropping the B and then leaving the rest of the strings (mostly) the same. There are two forms:

second tuning

The two best examples of these tunings come from guitar tracks penned by Tool’s guitarist (and music video producer) Adam Jones, who used the first version on a song called “Prison Sex” off Undertow, and the second on “Parabola” off Lateralus. I want to spend some time on both of these Drop B tunings.

We’ll look at the properties and theoretical implications of both to see what each version of Drop B opens up for us, creatively.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Discover all new guitar sounds with our free series of bite-sized courses, Alternate Tunings for the Creative Guitarist.

Theoretical Implications of the  B – A – D – G – B – E  Tuning

The most significant change that comes with the B – A – D – G – B – E tuning is how we deal with power chords. In traditional standard and drop tunings, the most common power chord arrangements rely, almost exclusively, on the fifth interval. Thus, you’ll have a root and the fifth of that root being played on the sixth and fifth strings, given most power chord composition.

Let’s listen to the tuning in the context of Tool’s 1993 cut “Prison Sex.”

What makes the tuning used in “Prison Sex” so unique is that the fifth is no longer the most convenient power chord form to play. Instead, we’re more likely to use the major second or an octave, as evidenced by the following notation.

(If you need help with the notation above, brush up on your reading skills with our quick, free course, How to Read Music.)

If we examine the notes in both chords, we’ll see that the first measure contains a D on the sixth string at the third fret and another D (one octave higher) on the fifth string at the fifth fret.

Adam Jones plays the power chords in the chorus of “Prison Sex” using the following progression:

2

The result is a much deeper, fuller-sounding power chord, which retains a significant amount of substance, considering that the fifth provides a minimal amount of harmonic info to begin with. Swapping the fifth for a note one octave above the root doesn’t alter the chord’s properties enough to change how we would build the progression.

Moreover, we can still add the fifth, using the corresponding interval on the fifth string, which would play like this:

3

In a traditional power chord, the octave is usually played on the fourth string, while the fifth is played on the fifth string. This variation of the Drop B tuning switches those two roles, giving you a surprisingly distinct-sounding power chord.

Now, if we simply barre the three lowest strings on the same fret, we get the following notes:

  • Root
  • Major Second
  • Minor Third

Here’s what the tab would look like using the same chord progression as above:

4

The result is a loosely formed minor seventh chord, that creates a dark and brooding tone with a powerful edge to it. Both power chord shapes are great for the heavy, modern rock guitar tone.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Create Dreamier, Shoegaze Guitar Chords”

The  B – E – D – G – B – E  “Parabola” Tuning

In Tool’s 2001 single “Parabola,” Adam Jones drops the would-be A string down to E, in addition to the low B sixth string. Let’s hear the difference:

This version of the tuning is significantly lower than the other, meaning our traditional “fifth” power chord form will actually play a fourth, and barring the two lowest strings will now play a fifth, per the following notation:

5

The perfect fifth power chord is in the first measure with a root D in this tuning, while the fourth is the shape played in the second measure with the same root D and an A on the fifth string.

In “Parabola,” Jones uses the power chords with the fourth interval, running through the following progression:

6

Like the fifth, the fourth interval in this chord provides little in the way of harmonic information. However, when it comes to power chords, being able to substitute the fifth out for a different note provides some much needed variety.

This subtle change is what I find to be so likable about playing the Drop B tuning in both of the two ways that we’ve seen Jones use it. It takes a mundane and familiar shape, the garden variety power chord, and alters its colors. The new shapes still have the same push and heaviness that you expect from a power progression in a band like Tool, but there’s a uniqueness and novelty that pulls the ear in a slightly different direction.

For those who make their living in the rock genre, it’s a great tuning to keep in your back pocket.


Bobby Kittleberger is the founder of Guitar Chalk, a vast online resource for guitarists of all kinds, and a contributing editor at Guitar World. You can hit him up on Twitter or shoot him an email to get in touch.

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