Ever try to play along to a recording of a band to see if it is doable for your learners and realize that standard (EADGBE) tuning is not enough? That's likely because they use Down Tuning, Drop Tuning, or some other type of tuning system on these particular recordings. Some groups are known for using particular tuning systems on their guitars. Down and Drop tuning techniques are common in heavier styles of rock music. These tuning systems help the bands sound darker--or heavier--because of the lower pitch.
Down Tuning vs. Drop Tuning
Ok, great, but what's the difference? Down tuning is when every string on the guitar is tuned down equally. A common down tuning is Eb, where every string is down tuned by a half step (Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Bb, Eb). This particular tuning system is sometimes referred to as Eb Standard because the intervals between the strings are still the same as in E Standard. Drop tuning is when the bottom E string is tuned down by a whole step from standard. All of the other strings stay the same. One of the most common Drop Tunings is Drop D. In this case, the E string is "dropped" to D and all the other strings stay the same (DADGBE). Other Drop Tunings that are somewhat common are Drop C, and Drop C#. When tuning to Drop C or C#, for example, the other strings must also be dropped. Dropping the E string to C means that it has been "dropped" two whole steps, meaning that all the other strings must be dropped by one whole step (CGCFAD). So, Drop C# would be--you guessed it--C#G#C#F#A#D#.
OK, I get the down tuning thing, but why Drop Tuning? That would make it really difficult to play standard chord shapes.
Yes, you're right. Bands and artists that choose to use Drop Tunings in their work often are not playing standard chord shapes. They are using power chords and a Drop Tuning makes power chords much easier. In Drop Tunings, power chords can be played using only 1 finger, which helps the guitar player play faster and expend less energy while still getting the characteristic sound of the heavy guitar.
Bands That Use Down Tuning
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are groups that are more well known for using down tuning. Keep in mind, while these groups may commonly use a particular type of down tuning, they also might use other down or drop tuning (or other) system for some specific songs:
Guns 'n' Roses
Our Lady Peace
Queens of the Stone Age
Van Halen (various)
Bands That Use Drop Tuning
Again, this is not an exhaustive lists but these are some of the more well known groups that use Drop Tuning systems. You might notice that more of these groups would more likely classify as metal bands as opposed to rock or hard rock. Also, even though a group may favour a particular Drop Tuning doesn't necessarily mean that every single song is in that particular tuning system (but it's a safe bet).
System of a Down (Drop C)
The Town Heroes (Drop D)
Slipknot (Drop C#)
Deftones (Drop C and C#)
Audioslave (Drop D in some songs)
Bon Jovi (Drop D for about 7 songs)
Creed (Drop D and C#)
Fall Out Boy (Drop D)
Finger Eleven (Various Drop Tunings)
Foo Fighters (Drop D in a few of their popular songs)
Mudvayne (Drop C)
Our Lady Peace
Paramore (Drop D and C#)
Rage Against the Machine
Three Days Grace
Van Halen (various)
But What if the Pitch is Off?
OK, but what if they are using Standard Tuning but the pitch is off a bit? You may have noticed that something is in E Standard but it's not quite lining up to the chords you play. Sometimes tape was sped up in the 60s. That's why many Beatles tunes are somewhat off pitch. Some groups tune to another standard. So instead of the A440 Standard, they might tune to A449 or A435.
You know your kids better than anyone. Sometimes songs will just be easier in a higher key or you can't be bothered to down tune your guitars. If this is they case and you still want them to play along with the recording and hear it in the key they are learning it in, use the Transpose Chrome Extension. With this extension, the user can transpose, slow down/speed up (any %), and pitch shift any YouTube video in real time without distortion. It really has made life easier when teaching popular music ensembles.
Hopefully now you know the difference between Drop and Down Tuning and you know how each of these tuning systems work and why they might be utilized by artists. Most of all, I hope this post has helped you be a better rock coach for your popular music ensemble.