|The Hipshot Guitar Extender Key is an easy way to add Drop D tuning to your guitar. With a flip of the thumb lever, you can move between standard and slack key tunings.
You wouldn’t think that the songs “Blackwater” by the Doobie Brothers, “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles and “I Love This Bar” by Toby Keith all have something in common. They are all different genres of music, they are all different styles and come from different eras, yet each one uses one of the coolest tools a guitarist has available – Drop D tuning.
I use Drop D tuning (aka drop tuning or slack key) about a third of the time live and frequently in the studio. It really opens you up to a lot of new possibilities on the guitar. Drop D is one of the simplest alternate tunings that you can use, and it is also one of the most versatile. If you’re not familiar with it (which rock have you been under?), Drop D basically takes your standard tuned guitar (EADGBE) and “drops” the low E to D, resulting in DADGBE.
Bands like Nirvana, John Mellencamp, the Stones and Van Halen have given us some of the baddest guitar riffs using Drop D. In country music, it’s common practice for the acoustic player on a session to default to drop tuning any time he’s playing in the key of D or Eb in the studio because it allows you to get the full range of the instrument in those keys. To make it work in Eb, you would drop your low E to D and capo on the first fret. Naturally you can do that for any key – for the key of E, you would capo on the second fret; for F, you would capo on the third fret; F# on the fourth, and so on.
One problem that you’ll encounter once you drop your low E down to D is keeping that low string in tune. When I first started using Drop D a lot I was unhappy with how poorly the low string would stay in tune. What I discovered is that a heavier gauge string in place of your normal low E will keep better pitch when tuned down to D. The heavier gauge uses more tension than its lighter counterpart tuned to the same pitch.
My normal string setup is a set of Dean Markley Regular Signature Series nickel steel electrics strings, gauged 10-46. When I’m on tour, I keep one guitar tuned to Drop D; I use the same 10-46 set, but I replace the low .046 with a .052. It stays perfectly in tune, no matter how much I beat on it.
I also carry a guitar with a Hipshot Extender Key installed on it. The extender was developed in 1983 by Dave Borisoff in Van Nuys, California. It’s one of the coolest developments for the guitar since the Floyd Rose tremolo. The Hipshot was originally designed for the bass in order to get a little bit more range out of the instrument before the 5- string was added to the mix. The extender soon became all the rage with guitarists who realized that it was a great tool for all the drop tuning songs they were doing in their set, giving them the ability to switch back and forth between standard and dropped tunings without having to change guitars. It’s especially useful for guys who have developed a “sound” on one guitar. They can keep the sound they like and add the extender for Drop D tunes.
It’s extremely simple to use and painless to install. It replaces the existing low E tuning key with one that has a flip lever on it. When you flick the lever, it releases the tension of your string and drops pitch down one full step. The amount of the release is regulated with an adjustable set screw so it always drops to the same pitch. When you’re ready to go back to standard tuning again, you just flip the switch back and you’re right back where you started. It works perfectly with the fast paced rock n’ roll flow of our stage show – I don’t have to hold up the concert while trying franticly to change guitars in time for the next downbeat.
I mentioned earlier that this was a versatile alternate tuning. It makes it easy to play aggressive, in-your-face power chords as well. By barring your index finger across the three lowest strings and cranking your overdrive pedal to max stun, it won’t take long before you can break into Metallica’s “St. Anger” with confidence! Whether your thing is metal, rock, jazz or country, you can find some room in your arsenal of tricks for Drop D tuning.
Until next month, keep jammin’!
Rich Eckhardt is one of the most sought after guitarists in Nashville. His ability to cover multiple styles has put him on stage with singers ranging from Steven Tyler of Aerosmith to Shania Twain. Rich is currently playing lead guitar with Toby Keith. His album Soundcheck is available now, with another due this summer. richeckhardt.com