What guitar tuning does Metallica use? How it changed over the years

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  April 26, 2022

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I can bet there’s no hardcore music fan who hasn’t heard about Metallica at least once in his life!

The dudes are the pioneers of heavy metal music and one of the greatest metal bands ever to grace the stage in the genre.

What guitar tuning does Metallica use? How it changed over the years

If you are one of their fans or a guitarist studying their songs to polish your skill, it’s pretty natural to wonder what guitar tunings Metallica has been using in all of your favorite albums.

Well, let me tell you something!

Metallica has used a lot of different tunings throughout its career. When we study each album, we find everything, from E standard to A# standard tuning and everything in between. 

When and why? And why do we always see them tuning down in live concerts?

This, and much more, will be discussing this rather detailed article. So if you are a metal freak like me, this article is just for you!

Also read: here’s how you tune an electric guitar

Metallica guitar tunings throughout the years

Metallica is known for introducing something new with each album without losing its uniqueness.

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Best strings for electric guitar

And thanks to the rather outspoken and frank attitude of the band members towards their works, we now know each and every tuning they have adopted throughout the years.

Below is everything you need to know about the different tunings, their specific albums, and their current tuning.

E standard

Metallica dominantly used E standard tuning in their first four albums.

However, we also hear a bit of E standard in their fifth and self-titled album, the “Black Album,” along with four other tunings.

It’s also said the second album, “Ride the lightning” was a bit sharper than what one would call an authentic E standard, but that’s a debate for another day.

It technically fits in the E standard range if I tell you the bottom line.

How? Well, there are a bunch of exciting theories surrounding this debate.

Some sources say that the band actually wanted to keep the sound frequency at A-440 Hz in their album, which is the frequency range for an E standard.

However, something went wrong during the mastering process, and the frequency jumped to A-444 Hz.

But guess what? It sounded much better, and they were like, why not? It’s not that much of a difference, and it sounds pretty good!

And thus, it was a fortunate accident that created one of the biggest metal masterpieces of the time.

Check out the 5 Best Solid State Amps For Metal reviewed (Buyers Guide)

D standard: One Full Step Down

Even the not-so-hardcore Metallica fans know about the D standard. It’s simply one of the most used tunings in Metallica songs.

For those who don’t know, D standard, as the name suggests, is pretty standard tuning; however, one whole step down.

The advantage of a step-down D standard is its versatility that only complements the overall theme of metal music.

It’s heavier, beefier, and fits quite perfectly in the hard metal genre, as evident from the success of one of Metallica‘s all-time favorite albums, “Master of Puppets.”

Following are some of the songs where you will dominantly see D standard tuning:

Just to give you a hint, the D standard goes as:

Listen to The Thing That Should Not Be (live in Seattle in 1989, a classic Metallica concert):

Drop D Tuning

Of all the guitar tunings, the fact that Drop D tuning allows a fast transition between power cords alone is enough to give it a staple status in the heavy metal and other connected genres.

Ironically, it doesn’t seem to be the case with Metallica.

In fact, Metallica has only two songs in their career that exclusively feature D tuning. Those include:

Why is that? Perhaps it’s due to the unique singing style of James Hetfield and the way he likes to write and present his songs? Who knows?

But to completely ignore such a heavily used tuning in hard metal? That’s a rarity!

Drop D tuning goes as:

Did you know James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica are both known to play ESP guitars?

Drop C#

Drop C# is just a half-step-down version of Drop D, also known as Drop Db.

It’s one of the most versatile guitar tunings in heavy metal because of its “low-end” sound, which is ideal for creating heavy, dark, and melodic sound riffs.

However, just like the Drop D, Drop C# is also a rarity for Metallica. There are only two songs by Metallica that I remember having this tuning. Those include:

I don’t know what Metallica had in mind when they used a Drop C# in Dirty Window.

Nevertheless, with ‘Human’, going for a Drop C tuning makes more sense, given that it was performed live. Had it been studio-recorded, it indeed would have a Drop D tuning.

Drop C Tuning

Despite being one of the heaviest tunings, Drop C tuning was one of the biggest and probably the first mistakes Metallica had made in their long successful career.

Of course, there were reasons behind it. The trends were changing, the band lost its main bassist Jason Newstead, and James Hetfield went to rehab; it was all chaos!

Anyways, after getting things together, the band came up with the St. Anger album.

The main intention behind the album was to introduce something new, something different from the conventional “Metallica” sounds while staying true to the raw image of the band.

However, the plan badly backfired. And what could be one of the heaviest metal albums ever produced was unanimously panned and even disliked by the Metallica‘s hardcore fanbase.

Some of the most famous (not in a very good way, though) songs in which Metallica used Drop C tuning include:

That being said, the Drop C tune goes as:

The simplest way to define a Drop C tuning is taking Drop D tuning; however, with all the strings tuned a whole step lower.

See Frantic from the album St. Anger here (official Metallica music video):

Drop Bb or Drop A#

This is the lowest Metallica has ever gone…in terms of tuning. The album name? Hah! You guessed it right! The Drop A# tuning, too, was used in St. Anger.

As much as I know, there are only two songs that Metallica has recorded with this tuning, and one of them is The Unnamed Feeling.

Ironically, this was the song with the heaviest riffs ever by Metallica; however, it is still considered an underrated masterpiece compared to the songs recorded in Drop B, which were highly panned.

Perhaps it’s the only good thing that came out of the St. Anger album.

One thing I find pretty funny is the number of people who think the song to be in Drop C. No Bucko! It’s just the Bb power cord in the chorus.

The Drop Bb tuning goes as:

Why does Metallica tune down live?

The reason Metallica tunes half a step down in live concerts has more to do with the vocal range of James.

You may know it or not, but as we get older, our voice gets deeper. As a result, we lose a lot of range.

Thus, tuning half a step lower gives the singer a helping hand in keeping his voice consistent and low without losing the “feel” of the song.

Plus, giving it the characteristic heavy vibes of heavy metal.

Another reason could be to give the man’s vocal cords a bit of relief.

This is quite a common practice in a lot of touring metal bands; they don’t want their lead singer to lose his voice halfway through the tour!

That too, when the singer has a history of losing voice once in his career and might lose it entirely if he came too harsh, as with James.

Although this might surprise casual fans, Metallica has been tuning half step lower ever since their album “Load”, released in 1996.

Conclusion

No matter what anyone says, Metallica redefined heavy metal music for generations to come. In fact, they completely redefined the meaning of heavy metal with their heavy riffs and unique tunings.

So much so that their compositions and tunings now hold a status of nothing less than a legend, setting a benchmark for everyone at the time and anyone to come.

In this article, we briefly studied every guitar tunings metallic used over time. Also, we discussed some tidbits about the reasons, speculations, and history behind it.

Next, check out my round up of the best guitars for playing metal

          Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of his passion, and together with his team, He's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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