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Drop Tuning Guitar Strings: What Gauges Are Best?

Photo of a man playing a white telecaster on stage.

Is there anything more satisfying than drop tuning your guitar and letting those low notes drone? Personally, I don’t think so. However, drop tuning your guitar opens up a whole new web of issues that need to be addressed if you want your guitar to feel, sound, and play as best as possible. 

The biggest of these issues is string gauge. Finding the right string gauge that provides the sound and feel you want out of a drop tuned guitar can be difficult. Standard sets become flimsy and loose when drop tuning due to string tension, and many of the sets on the market aimed at drop tuning fail to properly accommodate drop tuned guitars. 

So what gauges are best for drop tuning? What should you be looking for in strings for drop tuning? Don’t worry—this guide will cover the common misconceptions about drop tuned strings and what string gauges are best for drop tuning. So put on your favorite metal record, sit back, and get ready to learn about drop tuning and string gauges. 

Why You Need Different Strings for Drop Tuning

First, let’s start by addressing why you need different strings for drop tuning than standard tuning. The main reason is string tension, which is how “tight” the strings are. String tension is measured in pounds and has a huge impact on the feel of your guitar. 

High string tension means your strings are more tightly taught, which results in increased volume and decreased playability. Fretting and bending your strings becomes more difficult with high string tension. When string tension is low, you get decreased volume and easier to play strings. However, if your tension is too low the strings can become “floppy,” resulting in an unsatisfactory playing experience. 

When you drop tune a guitar, you lower the string tension. Even if you are just going down a half step, there is a noticeable decrease in string tension. Players who go farther and tune to something like drop A, this is even more noticeable and impactful. It can make the guitar feel unplayable, especially for the kinds of parts many players who drop tune are playing. 

The end result of this is a need for larger strings that increase string tension. Larger strings can help balance out the tension for drop tuning, resulting in a drop tuned guitar that feels much closer to a guitar in standard tuning. Most professionals who drop tune use heavier strings to compensate for their drop tuning. The ultimate question though is how heavy of strings do you need to compensate for your drop tuning? 

Close up photo of a red guitar, focusing on the body.

Common Misconceptions

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the best strings for drop tuning, let’s cover some of the common misconceptions that often appear in the guitar community. 

Light Top, Heavy Bottom

One of the most commonly suggested solutions to the drop tuning problem is to use a light top, heavy bottom set of strings. These strings, as the same suggests, are smaller on the high strings and larger on the low strings. The hope is that the larger bottom strings will increase the tension on the drop tuned strings, making for a relatively balanced set of strings. Logically, that all sounds great. However, things are a bit different in practice. 

If you crunch the numbers, like we did in this video, it doesn’t add up. You’ll notice that a light top, heavy bottom set of strings still leaves your tension unbalanced, even if you’re only going to drop D. The tension on the low D (or whatever note it’s tuned to) is still lower than most would like it. That disparity only increases as you further drop your tuning. Light top, heavy bottom strings just don’t quite balance out the tension for drop tuning like one would hope.

Progressive Tension

Another thing that pops up in this discussion a lot is the idea of progressive tension. Progressive tension is having the tension be lowest on the highest string and slowly increase until the tension is highest on the lowest string. In theory, this provides a balanced sound that accommodates for drop tuning. In practice though, progressive string tension may not be as good as it sounds. 

First, progressive tension requires a lot of work to “get right.” You have to do a lot of work at the nut to make the strings fit properly. Also, since progressive tension means each string is going to be higher tension than the last, there will be a volume disparity across your strings; going from high to low, each string will get progressively louder. While this can be addressed via adjusting your pickups, it’s still an issue. 

On top of that, many feel that progressive tension results in an unnatural playing experience. The jumps in gauge required to achieve progressive tension mean that your strings will be wildly different in size. Moving across the strings can feel cumbersome and odd when their size varies so much. For example, you can end up with a high E string that is super easy to bend and a G string that feels impossible to bend. While some players may prefer that, many do not feel the tradeoff is worth it. 

It should also be noted that many companies selling progressive tension strings do not list the actual sizes of their strings. This is troublesome, especially for those who want to do the math and see if the strings actually result in progressive tension. 

Photo of three flying V guitars on a wooden porch.

Best Strings for Drop Tuning

Okay, so what are the best strings for drop tuning? Well, there is sadly no definitive answer. It all depends on your guitar, the scale length, how low you are tuning, and your personal preferences. That said, there are still guidelines you can use to find the best set of strings for you and your situation. 

Ultimately, the goal is to find balance. You want to increase the tension on your lower strings, but you still want to keep a good feel and balance across the strings. You don’t want to go too heavy and get strings that are hard to play, and you don’t want to end up with wildly different size strings. The general principle of a light top, heavy bottom set still applies, but you want to find a set with a better balance across the strings that actually accommodates properly for drop tuning.

Custom Strings

One option is to order individual strings. By purchasing them individually, you can create a set that is perfectly fit for your guitar and your tuning. If you go this route, try going up or down in size in small increments instead of jumping three or four sizes at a time. This allows you to really dial in on what gauges work best for you. We sell custom sets of strings where you can pick every individual string gauge, giving you complete control over your string gauge.

Drop Tuning Sets

Alternatively, the easier option is to purchase a set of strings that are meant for drop tuning and balanced for drop tuned guitar. For every gauge of six string guitar strings we sell, we have a set that is designed so they will be balanced in drop tunings. This set of 10s has larger 2nd and 6th strings, resulting in more balanced tension. They are a great option for drop D tuning in particular. 

For lower tunings like drop C, our drop 11s are a great option that will give you a balanced experience while playing in lower tunings. If you prefer a bit more tension for drop C, our 11.5s are a great option. For even lower tunings like drop A or B, we recommend our drop 12s or balanced 12s. If you prefer higher tension or want to go even lower, we also have balanced and drop 13s available. 

Close up photo of a maple necked Stratocaster, focusing on the 12th fret area.

Conclusion

Finding the right strings for drop tuning can be a challenge. Between string tension, volume, and playability, picking a set that strikes a balance between them all is difficult. Though many manufacturers sell light top, heavy bottom and progressive tension strings to address this, they often fail at properly balancing the strings when drop tuned. The best option is to either get custom gauge strings that are perfectly suited for your needs or purchase strings that are balanced for drop tuning, such as Stringjoy’s drop string sets.

Want to dive even deeper? Check out our video on the subject below, or head over to the Stringjoy Guitar String Tension Calculator to explore all the different possible custom string sets you can build for the tuning you play in.

8 Responses

  1. I would love to try it, but I play 100% slid over a O-18 Martin 100% of the time. I had to raise the bridge up for a set of 52s. 90 would really be wobbling. (smile) But I don’t really know. If you drop a .90 wound string down an octave, does it become a .45? I’m thinking it doesn’t work like that. But I can almost feel playing it. Chunky. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. If you want to have some real fun, use a set with 90, 68, 50, 36, 28, 19 gauge strings then tune down a full octave! It’s actually light tension but, you’ll need to get the guitar set up for that.

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