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Since I play bass I will tackle this question from a bass guitar perspective.

I've had some musicians state that the following tuning is Drop C tuning (E is dropped to D, and then all strings are dropped 1 additional step):

C - G - C - F

I've also had other musicians that state the following tuning is Drop C (only E string is dropped to C):

C - A - D - G

I always assumed Drop C was the later version (only E string), since Drop D tuning is when only the E string is dropped. However, many bass/guitar players I talk to disagree with this. What is the correct definition of Drop C tuning?

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5 Answers 5

Well, assuming that sufficient fighting has gone into it, you can take a look at the music typesetter LilyPond's definition.

It has a drop c tuning apparently only for guitar (which then is one step down from drop d) but not for bass. With guitar, the definition makes sense because of facilitating easier chords. With bass, I don't know: chords don't make a whole lot of sense there. I'd lean towards using the same, but frankly, I have my doubts about the sound quality of an E string as loose as that.

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Your second tuning (C-A-D-G) is drop c, because the 'drop' part only refers to the lowest string. The first tuning you showed (C-G-C-F) would be D drop C, because every string is tuned down a whole step to D-G-F-C (D-standard tuning), and the lowest string is tuned down further to a C.

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There is no international registry of names for tunings. There is no "true definition".

You've noticed that saying "Drop C" isn't enough to get your meaning across, so be more specific when saying it, and ask for clarification when you hear it.

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CADG is the most common way I've heard this term used for basses. It could also refer to the drop D tuning with a low C on the bottom according to Wikipedia, in guitar context: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drop_c_tuning

Incidentally orchestral basses fitted with a low C extention have the CADG tuning too, although with the extension no fingering changes are necessary save for having to negotiate the notes below the low E on the string in question.

I'd say both are correct colloquially for the term 'drop-c', although my money is placed firmly on the CADG tuning convention.

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Ugh, that Wikipedia article is pretty bad. Half unreferenced, the other half marked "unreliable" and/or dead links :P –  Matthew Read Dec 13 '11 at 20:12
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Agreed that entry could use improvement. OTOH, the Drop D article is quite a bit better: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drop_D_tuning –  Joe Lewis Dec 13 '11 at 20:26

Coming from a guitar perspective, Drop D is usually used to make power chords easier. If it was simply to gain access to the lower D then you would drop all the strings, to keep their tension more consistent and keep access to all your normal chord shapes.

The same theory then applies to Drop C. Take EADG(Be), lower a step to the DGCF(Ad) tuning, and drop the lowest to C to make power chords easier, and you get CGCF(Ad).

CADG(Be) would just be standard tuning with a low C, I guess!

The important thing, though, is that you're consistent in your terminology; use the definition that the people you're talking to understand.

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If you intend to leave an instrument in an alternative tuning, you should consider getting the proper gauge strings, so that the tension is consistent. Unless, of course, you like having two strings flappier than the rest (which is fine!) –  slim Dec 14 '11 at 11:24
    
@slim Definitely. One could certainly pick and choose strings so that my point about tension is moot, but I generally like playing with sets. Then again, I suppose there are probably string sets designed for alternate tunings. –  Matthew Read Dec 14 '11 at 17:35

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