Metallica Guitar Tunings Over The Years: The Complete, In-Depth Guide!

Metallica Guitar Tunings Over The Years: The Complete, In-Depth Guide!
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Metallica guitar tunings over the years have actually been pretty varied, although they are known mostly for using standard tuning. You would be surprised at how many tunings this legendary band have used! Today we take a loook at the songs, and all of their tunings!

Metallica. Quite possibly the most famous metal band of all time. They have won several Grammys, and released tons of content to the masses. Millions of albums have been sold. My mother knows who Metallica are!

Metallica may be a household name at this point, but it wasn’t always that way. The band started out as a grass roots project, and word-of-mouth was the only advertisement that Metallica had, for years. they had no radio play outside of college radio stations. There was no TV coverage for the band, either. It was not until they were several albums into their career, that they finally had a video for MTV.

After the late 80’s Metallica released some of their biggest albums, and flooded MTV and local radio stations all over the world. Some people say that they ‘toned down” their sound a little, to be more digestible for the public. I disagree, but that is another article entirely!

Metallica is one of the few Metal bands known for using standard tuning almost exclusively. I assure you, though, this is definitely not the case. James Hetfield has often used different tunings, and you probably didn’t even notice it! Today we are going to look at the Metallica guitar tunings, and list the songs that feature them.

There are many guitar tunings out there now, that are commonly used for Metal. But you have to remember, that Metallica blazed the trail when it came to Metal music! They started with Standard tuning, as that is what almost everyone used at the time.

I will not be listing the songs that are in standard tuning, as that is most of their catalog! Let’s get started…

E Flat Tuning/ Half Step Down

These days when playing live, Metallica plays almost every song in standard tuning, but a half step down. This has a lot to do with James and his vocal range. As we get older, our voices naturally deepen, and you may lose some range. This trend of Metallica tuning down started with the album “Load“.

Metallica Guitar Tunings Over The Years: The Complete, In-Depth Guide!

When it comes to Metallica guitar tunings, this was the first real constant change. The whole album was tuned half a step down, which not only made the album heavier in a sense, but it allowed James to sing lower. Since this album, most live shows have followed suit with E Flat tuning.

Personally, I didn’t hear the change until I tried to learn how to play the songs from “Load”“. And when they play live? I really don’t notice the difference much. Lots of classic Metal bands tuned down for these same reasons. The sequel album, “Reload” also featured E flat tuning.

D Standard: One Full Step Down

This is one of the Metallica guitar tunings that most people know about, since it has been used several times. D Standard is just Standard tuning, down a full step. There has been a misnomer that Metallica used Drop D for the songs I am about to list, but this is not true. If you go over the studio notes, you can see exactly how they achieved their sound!

D Standard Songs in order of release:

  • The Thing That Should Not Be
  • Sad But True
  • Whiskey In The Jar
  • Sabbra Cadabbra
  • The Small Hours
  • Crash Course In Brain Surgery
  • Devil’s Dance
  • Dream No More

D Standard is a popular tuning in Metal Music these days, as it is the pre-cursor to Drop C tuning, but it was almost unheard of for the time. Often I have seen tabs of these songs that say “Drop D”. This is incorrect, and makes the song much harder to play! There is no doubt though, that these songs are HEAVY.

But Metallica guitar tunings have used Drop D before. It’s just much more rare…

Metallica Guitar Tunings Over The Years: The Complete, In-Depth Guide!

Drop D Tuning

Strangely enough, the most popular alternate tuning, Drop D, is not a popular tuning with Metallica. There are only two songs that feature Drop D exclusively:

  • All Nightmare Long
  • Just A Bullet Away

I would have thought of all the Metallica guitar tunings, this one would have been much more popular. However, I think that James has a very specific style of constructing riffs, and he is much more comfortable using D Standard. I believe this is just due to how he likes to write songs and is a testament to his play style. Who would have thought that Drop D would be such a rarity among the Metallica guitar tunings?

Drop C#

Of all of the Metallica guitar tunings, this is the one that makes me scratch my head a little bit. Drop C# is basically Drop D, just a half step lower. But going back to the band using E Flat tuning around the “Load” era, it kind of makes sense why these songs were recorded this way.

There are only a couple songs in this tuning, from the 2000’s period of Metallica.

  • -Human
  • Dirty Window

One of these songs is from the live album ” S&M”. “-Human” as far as I know was only performed at this live performance. But since they entire live show was already tuned a half step down, this makes a lot of sense. If it were recorded in their formative years, it would have been in Drop D, I imagine.

“Dirty Window” is an anomaly on the famously-panned album “St. Anger”. Most of this album is tuned much lower, but I imagine this one of the first tracks written/composed for this album. maybe it was even a layover from the “Load” albums? Therefore, it was in Drop D, half a step down. Strangely enough, this is the only song in this tuning on the whole album!

Drop C: St. Anger Album

Metallica guitar tunings

I would like to talk about this album a little bit, before we get to the songs on it, and their tunings. Metallica guitar tunings up until this point were mostly basic, with the few exceptions that I have listed. “St. Anger” came about in a weird time for the band, and for music in general.

The late 90’s and early 2000’s saw the rise of “Nu-Metal”. This new style had a huge impact on the Metal community. Around this time you saw bands like Korn, who were tuning down to A standard, which is incredibly low. Now Metallica had not made many missteps in the career at this point (My opinion). They had stuck to the famous Metallica guitar tunings, and their usual formula for writing a song.

Lots of things happened during the recording of “St. Anger”. The band lost their long-time bassist, Jason Newstead. There was also a ton of internal conflict within the band, and it was documented in the movie “Some Kind Of Monster”. James had went to rehab for drinking problems while recording the album. Tensions were very high between the band members, and they held try-outs for a new bassist. The famous Metallica guitar tunings were the last things on anyone’s mind.

Of all the Metallica guitar tunings, this one is the most different. Personally, I believe Metallica wanted to keep up with the times, while also producing something new and raw. I never blame a band for doing this, as change is generally good. Unfortunately, it did not work for the band. At all.

When you are faced with “keeping up with the times”, it’s not always a good idea to embrace it. The band had built a legacy sound on the usual Metallica guitar tunings. Don’t get me wrong, it is good to experiment! But not for these reasons.

What should have been the heaviest album of all for Metallica, was badly produced and widely panned. They also decided to affix the trend of eliminating guitar solos from the songs. Fans of the band almost always list this album as their least favorite. I can understand why, but I applaud the band for trying something new. It just did not work.

Songs in Drop C Tuning:

  •  Frantic
  • St. Anger
  • Some Kind of Monster
  • My World
  • Sweet Amber
  • Shoot Me Again
  • Unnamed Feeling
  • Purify
  • All Within My Hands

Drop B Flat Tuning

Only two songs are in this tuning. One is from the “St. Anger” sessions. I do not know the story behind these two tracks at all, unfortunately! What I do know, is that ESP Guitars sent James and Kirk a few 7 string guitars when the band decided to try out new tunings.

If they were using a 7 string guitar tuned half a step down, then it would make sense how these songs came to be. personally, I would have loved to hear a Metallica album with 7 string guitars! But I suppose this is probably just a fluke when it comes to Metallica guitar tunings.

Drop B Flat Tuning Songs:

  • Unnamed Feeling
  • We Did it Again

1/4 Step UP

Metallica Guitar Tunings Over The Years: The Complete, In-Depth Guide!

Well…this is awkward.

The entire album, “Ride The Lightning” is out of tune, ever so slightly. There are a lot of rumors as to why this is, and the internet is full of them. But if you try to play along with this album, even if your guitar is perfectly in tune, it will sound very “off”. So this isn’t really about Metallica guitar tunings, as much as it is about a slight screw up!

The rumors say that the band recorded the album at one speed/tempo, and then sped it up ever so slightly to make the playing seem faster. This is actually a trick used in pro studios these days. Slow down a hard to play passage, play your guitar at half speed, and then speed the track back up. This is “cheating” if you ask me. But that is NOT what happened.

The rumors also say the tape was left in the sun, and therefore it shrunk. But these are all just “legends” and rumors. What really happened was much more…pedestrian. It was a simple engineering mistake!

“Ride The Lightning” was recorded/produced/mastered in a hurry. The band had been touring non-stop around Europe. This album was rushed to say the least, when it came to production. And if you remember what I said in the beginning of this article, Metallica was doing almost everything on their own.

What we hear on this album, is not one of the famous Metallica guitar tunings. It was a simple mastering accident!

Everything was recorded on analog tape back in those days, so there was no trickery going on. The playback speed was just set slightly higher when they went to press the records and make the cassette tapes! Now, the real mystery to me, is why have they never fixed this? My recent copy of this album is slightly tuned up.

Metallica Guitar Tunings Over The Years: Wrapping Up

Whether you are a die-hard fan, or just a casual listener, there is no doubt that Metallica changed the Metal scene forever. The famous Metallica guitar tunings, even the songs in standard E, were so unique for the time. They changed the genre forever, and everyone else was left to play catch-up in the wake of Metallica’s surge.

The Metallica guitar tunings are something of legend now. I remember hearing “The Thing That Should Not Be” and being blown away by how heavy and slow it was! There is no doubt that Metallica left it’s mark…forever.

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Why Is Ride The Lightning in a different tuning?

If you try to play guitar along to the album, you may notice that the pitch is slightly off. This is due to a mastering issue when the album was completed. The playback speed on the recorder was slightly too fast.

Does Metallica play in E Flat now?

Yes. The band made the switch in the 1990’s and now even their live shows are tuned down half a step, to accommodate James and his voice.


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