Fingerpicking and dropped-D tuning fit together like hand and glove. For evidence, just consider the long list of fingerpicking classics played in dropped D, which includes Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey,” Pete Seeger’s “Living in the Country,” the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” Bert Jansch’s “Black Water Side,” Bruce Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Ed Gerhard’s “The Water Is Wide,” and Chet Atkins’ “The Entertainer,” to name a few. (To listen to these selections and more, check out my Spotify playlist “Dropped-D guitar tuning sampler” below).
Dropped-D tuning, where you lower the sixth string a whole step to D, is such a natural fit for fingerpicking because of the open-string bass notes—under a D chord, the tuning gives you a satisfying low root (D) on string 6, plus a fifth (A, on string 5) and the root an octave up (string 4). Since you don’t have to finger any of these root or fifth bass notes under a D chord, your fretting hand is free to venture around the neck while your picking-hand thumb handles the bass.
This workout will help you get going with fingerpicking in dropped D through a series of little instrumental tunes. So drop your guitar’s sixth string to D, stow away your flatpick, and get fingerpicking.
One of the pleasures of fingerpicking in dropped D is playing a Travis-style alternating bass on the open strings. Try it out in Example 1, a simple ragtime-inspired tune built on the I, IV, and V chords (in the key of D, that’s D, G, and A), with a quick appearance by the II (E7).
Take a look at the bass part first, shown with downward-facing stems in the notation. Play the down-stemmed notes in this lesson with your thumb, and the up-stemmed notes with your index, middle, and (if you wish) ring fingers. On the D, G, and E7 chords, alternate the bass mostly between strings 6 and 4; note how on the G you need to go up to the fifth fret on the sixth string because of the lowered tuning. On the A, alternate between strings 5 and 4.
Measures 5–8 get a little more complex in the bass, alternating on three strings. On the G, that means grabbing the B on fret 2, string 5. On the A, fret the sixth string at the second fret to add the low E bass note. I use a first-finger barre for A on strings 4–2 and fret the sixth string with my second finger. If you’re comfortable fretting with your thumb, you might use that digit instead on the sixth string.
On the treble side, you play pinches (picking treble and bass strings simultaneously), as well as notes on the offbeats. Many measures—1, 3, and 5, for example—end with a syncopated note on the and of beat 4 that anticipates and rings into the next measure. In bar 16, use a first-finger barre for the A chord and add the D/F# on top for just one beat; this fingering also alters the bass line, putting an F# in the bass instead of an E.
Beginners’ Tip #1
If you’re new to alternating bass fingerpicking, first practice the thumb by itself until the motion is automatic. Then add the other fingers.
As indicated by the Week One example, dropped D is great for fingerpicking melodies above a bass line. I have written several songs by doing just that—finding a melody with my fingers and then singing along with it. A case in point is Example 2, from a tune of mine titled “Somehow.”
Rather than using an alternating bass, play a steady monotone bass—all on the sixth string except for one measure of A on an open string. Use a little palm muting (rest your picking hand palm lightly on the bass strings by the bridge) to deepen the slow blues feel.
To bring this melody to life, use hammer-ons and pull-offs as indicated. On beat 4 of measures 1 and 5, pull quickly off the third string for a grace-note ornament. The slide in the last measure is also a grace note: simultaneously slide up the fifth string and pick the open fourth and sixth strings, creating a three-string D drone.
In the full version of “Somehow,” I sing in unison with this guitar melody. When I wrote the song, I was essentially trying to find words that matched what the guitar was singing—because of dropped D.
Beginners’ Tip #2
For 12/8 time, count four sets of triplets: 1 and uh, 2 and uh, 3 and uh, 4 and uh.
Thanks again to those open-string bass notes, dropped D gives you a lot of latitude to move up the neck. In Example 3, start up at the tenth fret on the treble strings and then stay in seventh position from measure 3 till the last two beats. Use the alternating bass on strings 6 and 4 for the D chord. On the A chord, fretting the fourth string at the seventh fret gives you an octave bass note.
Example 4 provides more practice with fingerpicking up the neck, this time in the key of D minor. Stay in fifth position throughout, adding the open first string under Dm to create a Dm9 chord, and the open second string under Am for Am(add9). When you hit G in measure 5, fret the sixth string with your first finger so you’re still in position to hold down the seventh and sixth frets in the next measure.
Beginners’ Tip #3
For the smoothest sound, keep your fretting hand in the same position on the neck when you can.
Obviously, when fingerpicking in dropped D, you can do much more than play with an alternating or monotone bass—and you shouldn’t limit yourself to the key of D, either. Example 5 comes from an original instrumental of mine titled “Side by Side,” which began as a solo guitar piece and is now arranged as a guitar and flute duet. This tune is in the key of G, which works beautifully with dropped-D tuning because you have the low bass note available under the V (D) chord. The picking style is mostly arpeggios with a melody articulated on the second and third strings.
This excerpt opens with a long position shift. In bar 1, start with your first finger at the third fret of the B string and slide up to the eighth fret while the open fourth and third strings ring below, and then stay high on the neck for the Bm and C chords. Throughout, open strings facilitate the position changes up and down the neck. Let the notes ring as long as possible for a flowing sound.
I hope these examples inspire further explorations in dropped-D fingerpicking. Any type of fingerstyle will adapt well to the tuning, and you can try a variety of keys—not just D and G, but A (major and minor) and Em, for starters.
Beginners’ Tip #4
In Example 5, fret only the notes you need—there are no more than two or three in each chord.
Take It To The Next Level
Try your hand at improvising your own little tunes in dropped D. First, play through these scales: D Mixolydian (D E F# G A B C) with the b3 (Fn) and #4 (G#) notes added, in two positions. Get a D bass line going on the low open strings (alternating, monotone, or just half or whole notes) and try making up melodies using these notes.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, the founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is author of the new AG Guide Beyond Strumming. beyondstrumming.com
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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