Let me ask you a question: what sounds better than a guitar? A lower-tuned guitar. I mean, you can play the most simple chord progression ever, and if it sounds boring on your guitar in standard tuning, you only have to play it on a guitar tuned one or three whole steps down, and the sound will drastically change.
If you decide to go as low as B Standard (or Baritone) Tuning, you are about to enter a new territory of richness in your overall tone. Still, you’ll need to consider some significant adjustments that you will have to make to your guitar.
You’ll need to put on some higher gauge strings to accommodate the lower tension caused by the significant difference in pitch, and of course, you will have to tweak your truss rod, action, and intonation. If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry! I will explain everything you need to do step by step, and you’ll be able to play your B Standard guitar in no time.
Interesting Read: How to Find the Best Baritone Acoustic Guitars.
What is B Standard Tuning?
The first impression you will get when you play your B Standard guitar for the first time is one of familiarity. It will be just like playing a standard-tuned guitar, but a perfect fourth lower. This means that you’ll be able to replicate all of your favorite chords and licks that you’re already used to playing in standard tuning, but it will all sound significantly lower in pitch.
If you have any experience playing seven-string guitars, you will also feel quite at home when jumping to B Standard, and that’s because this tuning is almost exactly like playing a seven-string without the high E string. Anyway, let’s take a look at the actual notes that you’ll have to tune your strings to:
- Low E string will be tuned down to a B
- A string will be tuned down to an E
- D string will be tuned down to an A
- G string will be tuned down to a D
- B string will be tuned down to an F#
- High E string will be tuned down to a B
So, you can see that the intervallic structure within the tuning itself has not changed compared to standard tuning. This means that, in E Standard tuning, if you were to play open low E (6th string) to open A (5th string) or open D (4th string) to open G (3rd string), etc… you would be hearing a perfect fourth interval, and that still applies even when tuned to B Standard.
If you want to visualize and compare this to a seven-string guitar without the high E, you only have to mentally adjust to the fact that you won’t have an open G string. Instead, you will find an open F#.
This happens because the interval that you get between your 3rd and 2nd strings (in any standard tuning) is not a perfect fourth like in every other case, but it’s a major third instead. So, like you would go from G (3rd string) to B (2nd string) in E standard, you are going from D (3rd string) to F# (2nd string) in B Standard. Pretty straightforward, right?
The “Best” String Gauges for B Standard
Okay, let’s start to get technical now. String Gauge is the first factor you need to evaluate when tuning down to B Standard, and, before we even begin to talk about diameters, you should know that (up to a certain point) this is entirely subjective. It’s mostly a matter of individual taste and hand-feel.
As you can see from the tuning list above, you could probably guess the gauges of five out of the six strings that you’re going to need. You can assume that your gauges will be the same as in E Standard for what concerns your E (5th), A (4th), D (3rd), F# (2nd), and B (1st) strings.
For example, if you usually play 10-46 in E Standard, like the widely popular set of Ernie Ball Regular Slinky, you could ditch the .010 high E string and use the remaining five for your 5th to 1st strings in B Standard.
The most significant change regards the low B string. Once again, the gauge you’ll choose depends on your personal preference, but you probably wouldn’t want to use the low B string you find in a standard seven-string set.
For consistency, let’s take the seven-string version of an Ernie Ball Regular Slinky set, which would add a .056 gauge as our lowest string. If you were to ditch the high E string from that set and put the remaining six on a regular guitar tuned to B Standard, you would realize that the .056 string doesn’t provide enough tension for you to tune it down to a B note. That’s because you need to accommodate the difference in scale length between a seven-string guitar and your regular six-string axe.
You can expect your typical seven-string (or baritone) guitar to have a scale length of around 27 inches, while a six-string is usually between 24.5 and 25.5 inches, depending on the different brands and models. But don’t panic; you only have to pick a higher gauge string to use as your low B. Generally, I would say that .060 is the minimum, but the best compromise option probably starts from .062.
Once you have considered that, remember that the size of the strings you choose to use is all up to your taste. The most important factor you need to keep in mind when making this choice is that you want to match the feel of your B Standard tuning guitar to what you’re accustomed to on your E Standard instrument as much as possible.
Luckily for us, there are tools that we can use to calculate the resulting tension we get from a string of a specific gauge tuned to a particular pitch while taking into account scale length. I’m talking about string tension calculators, just like this one by Stringjoy https://tension.stringjoy.com/.
Let’s take my gear and string preference as an example:
The guitar I generally use for low tunings is my Yamaha Revstar RS502, which has an overall scale length of 24.7 inches, so I changed that value from the standard 25.5 that the website displays when you first open it.
I use 11-54 Ernie Ball Beefy Slinky when playing that guitar in E Standard, so I typed the gauges for every string individually, and I double-checked that each string’s pitch was correct (the default page is set to E Standard). As you can see on the right of the page, I got single string tension and total tension (on the bottom of the page).
Now let’s take a look at what Stringjoy’s string tension calculator suggests for B Standard tuning on my Yamaha.
So, as you can see, if I wanted to match the overall tension of my B Standard guitar to what I’m accustomed to in E Standard, I would have to put extremely heavy strings on. My set would be a 15-72, which might sound ridiculous to some of you, but you would be surprised to realize that the total tension in B Standard would be slightly less than it is in E Standard, even if I would be going from 11s to 15s.
When comparing the two different tensions string by string, E Standard is higher almost every time (except for the high E string), which means that, overall, it should feel lighter for me to play a 15-72 set in B Standard rather than an 11-54 set in E Standard.
I have to mention that I would not play this set because I’m not a fan of a wound 3rd string, so I would have to look for a .032 plain, but it might be tough to find one. Consequently, I would probably have to compromise, lose some overall tension, and rethink my B Standard string choices.
Thanks to string tension calculators, you can go through this process and get a general idea of what gauges you should look for, but remember that you should experiment and not assume that these calculations will be the best fit for you straight away.
Even if you managed to match the tension exactly, you would have to consider that the feel in your left hand will be drastically different because you are probably not used to handle strings with gauges so high. So, the best thing to do is accept that you might not get it right the first time.
Also, one last thing before I move on: you might have to sand your nut a little bit, probably for the lower strings. The increased size requires some filing because, for example, your nut wasn’t built to have a .062 string (or .072 in my case) go through it.
Don’t panic; it’s an easy process, and you might also get away with just rubbing your new (bigger) string over and over on your nut saddle. If that’s not enough, you can do that with some light sanding paper, but don’t overdo it right away, or you might need to get a new nut! Be careful and patient. This is a matter of millimeters.
Truss Rod Adjustment
The next step in getting your guitar ready for B Standard will be truss rod adjustments. This is a significant factor in making your guitar feel good. The drastically increased size of the strings will put much stress on your neck, causing it to bow forward a little bit, which is something you don’t want at all.
The truss rod is a metal bar that goes through the neck of your guitar, and its purpose is to counterbalance the tension of the strings. Generally, you might want to adjust the truss rod whenever you change string gauge, even if you’re making a minimal change, like going from 9s to 9.5s still in E Standard. So it goes without saying that adjusting your truss rod is crucial when going up from 11s to 15s (like in my case), even if tuned down.
If you don’t get your truss rod set up correctly, this will affect pretty much everything else that regards your neck. For example, if your neck presents too much of a forward bow (or up-bow), you are going to experience too high action, in some cases to the point of making your guitar unplayable.
On the other hand, in the case of a prominent backward bow (or back-bow), you will have action so low that pretty much every note is going to cause too much fret buzz, and your guitar might turn out to be unplayable as well. The overall intonation will also be affected by a poor truss rod setup.
As I said before, if you’re going down from E to B Standard, you should see your neck bowed forward after you finished changing your strings. What you have to do is to tighten your truss rod by turning your truss rod tool clockwise. Here are the steps you need to follow:
- Locate the access to the truss rod on your guitar. In some cases, it is on your headstock, while you might find it at the end of your neck (close to the body) on some guitars. In this case, you have to unscrew the entire neck first. My Yamaha Revstar has it on the headstock, while my Fender Stratocaster 1963 Reissue presents it at the end of the neck.
- Take your truss rod tool. Some guitars use standard Allen hex wrenches in various sizes, while others might use different tools generally included with the guitar when sold.
- Loosen your strings.
- Insert your truss rod tool and turn it clockwise. Please don’t overdo it at first. Try to make minimal adjustments (roughly 1/6 of a complete turn), then tune your guitar and let it settle for a few minutes.
- Press your low B string on fret 1 (with your left hand) and between frets 15-17 (with your right hand) simultaneously. This will make the string act as a straight line. Use it to compare it to the arch of your neck and check if you solved the problem.
- Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 if needed.
As a basic rule, you want your neck to be either pretty straight and flat or with a slight (almost imperceptible) forward bow. This is totally up to your preference.
If for some weird reason, you find your neck to have a backward bow instead of an up-bow after having tuned your guitar in B Standard, you can still follow all the steps above but turn your truss rod tool counterclockwise to adjust it.
Remember: getting your truss rod set up correctly is crucial for an overall good final result. It might be a little bit scary to make this adjustment, and that’s normal.
You can try to look for help online regarding your specific guitar, and if you don’t find anything, it’s not a big deal to ask a more experienced guitarist or even a luthier to help you with this step.
Action is the distance between your strings and your fretboard, and, once again, this is entirely personal and, up to a certain point, it’s a matter of individual taste.
If you set up your truss rod correctly, you shouldn’t notice much difference between your action in B Standard and how it was in E Standard. Anyway, you might still feel the need to make some adjustments because of the overall increased size of the strings.
Putting on higher string gauges generally means that you might want to slightly lower your action because you’re going to experience more resistance caused by the bigger strings, even if tuned down a perfect fourth.
Generally, having a high action will result in a fuller, more rounded sound without worrying about fret-buzz. The downside of having high action is that you’ll have to put more strength in your left hand pretty much every single time you press down with it to play a single note or a chord. On the other hand, playing with a low action will make everything easy for your fretting hand because you will not have to apply nearly as much force to press down on the strings.
You might have fret-buzzing problems as a result, and even if you don’t experience that, you will probably lose some sustain and overall richness in your sound compared to a higher action. As you can see, both of these options have their pros and cons, and the final decision is only up to you.
You can adjust the action on your guitar by tweaking the bridge, but the process is different depending on your guitar. If you have a Tune-O-Matic style of bridge, like the one you would find on a Gibson, you can adjust the action by turning two little “rolling mechanisms” underneath the bridge itself, one on the left (for the higher strings) and one on the right (for the lower strings).
If you have a Fender-style Bridge on your guitar, there usually are six individual saddles that you can tweak to adjust the action of each string by itself. In some cases, mostly with vintage-style bridges, you might find three saddles instead of six, so you would be adjusting the action of two strings simultaneously.
Anyway, I advise you to look up specific information on setting the action on your guitar. Nowadays, you can find a slightly different bridge on almost every guitar. I mean, you can assume that if you have two guitars of the same brand, the two bridges will work similarly, but in every other case, it might not be as you expect.
Still, adjusting the action is not a risky operation, so you can afford to make a few mistakes, and you will not damage your instrument. I suggest that you experiment with different heights of action because you might find that you like it a little bit higher than you think.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you can play a good-sounding chord on the first frets of the fretboard, only to play the same chord an octave higher, and all of a sudden, it’s out of tune? This happens when your intonation is not set up correctly. Intonation is what allows you to play in tune all over the fretboard. It is essential to set this up only after you’re done with your truss rod and action adjustments.
Now, I have to say that it can be tricky to get perfect intonation on a guitar with a scale length between 24.5 and 25.5 inches tuned to B Standard. This happens because a guitar conceived to be played in E Standard is never going to be ideal when played with much bigger strings and tuned a perfect fourth lower.
Still, you can manage to get your guitar as close as possible to be in tune all over the neck. This means that it will never be perfectly in tune regardless of the area of the fretboard where you are playing it, but it will sound balanced pretty much everywhere, to the point where only a tuner will notice that it might be slightly out of tune.
You need to adjust the intonation by tweaking your bridge as we did with the action. The immense variety of bridges on the market makes it hard to determine only one way to tweak the intonation. Still, I’ll use Gibson and Fender style bridges as examples again.
If you are dealing with a Tune-O-Matic bridge, you will find six individual intonation screws opposite your bridge pickup. On a Fender-style Bridge, you’ll be presented with the same scenario, but (on vintage guitars) you might find only three screws in total, so one for two strings.
Here are the steps you need to take to adjust your intonation:
- After tuning your guitar play the open low B string, then play the same note an octave higher (so 12th fret on the same string).
- Look at your tuner and check if the fretted note is higher or lower in pitch than the open string.
- If higher than you need to move back the saddle, further away from the neck. Do the opposite if the pitch is lower.
- Tune-up and check again (open string and 12th fret). If there still is a noticeable difference, repeat the process.
- Move on to the remaining strings following steps 1,2,3 and 4.
We are getting close to finishing the setup of your B Standard guitar. There is only one last step you need to take.
When switching to heavier gauge strings, you need to adjust your pickups accordingly. Guitar pickups are magnets, and when you increase the mass of the strings (which are made of metal), you might find that they could be sitting too close to the pickups.
Generally, you want to aim for a well-balanced distance, but there are pros and cons, like with action. When your strings are too close to the pickups, you might experience an increase in volume and a slightly longer sustain, but you will have to sacrifice clarity and definition in your sound. On the other hand, when your strings are too distant from your pickups, you’ll get less volume and a shorter sustain, but you will also have a more transparent and defined tone.
Pickups usually have two screws (one on the top and one on the bottom) that you can use to adjust their height. You should set up the height of your pickups by starting with the one closer to the bridge. Set it relatively close to the strings, around 3mm of distance, then plug your guitar in your amp with a clean sound.
Play some power chords decisively, and if you hear your guitar saturating, it means that your pickup is probably too close to the strings. In this case, you should increase the distance a tiny bit and try again. The optimal height is the one right before it starts to saturate. Do this process for each pickup, and your guitar will sound great!
Let’s establish a few ground rules: pickups should increase in height proportionally to how close you are to the bridge. So, for example, on a Strat, your lowest pickup should be the one closer to the neck, your bridge pickup should be at the highest, and the middle pickup should sit somewhere in between.
The two screws are meant to adjust the pickups in two positions: closer to the lowest or highest strings. As a general guideline, you might always want to incline your pickups a little bit. For example, your bridge pickup might sound a bit too bright on the higher strings, so you could tilt it to make it closer to the lower strings and further away from the higher strings. It goes without saying that your neck pickup has precisely the opposite issue.
After you’re done setting your pickups, you should be good to go. Your B Standard guitar is ready!
Let me answer a few of the questions you might have on your mind after reading this article.
Question: Can I tune every guitar in B Standard?
Answer: Yes, theoretically, but some are definitely better than others. I suggest that you avoid guitars with a floating bridge because it might be tough to make them deal with the much higher string gauges. Also, the longer the scale length, the better. In my opinion, the ideal guitar is probably some sort of Telecaster with a 25.5 inches scale length and a fixed bridge.
Question: Should I buy a baritone guitar instead?
Answer: If you feel like that’s a better option for you, then why not? But the scale length of a regular guitar is a defining factor in the way it sounds and the general feel you get while playing it. A baritone guitar has a longer scale length, and because of that, it might feel and sound more like a “short bass” rather than a “long guitar”. Anyway, they’re great instruments as well!
Question: Is B Standard Tuning used only for Metal?
Answer: Not at all. Of course, Metal guitarists are renowned for being the ones that down-tune the most, but it doesn’t mean that a B Standard guitar will be useful only to play heavy “chugged” riffs. I suggest you check out players like Ariel Posen and Joey Landreth, whom both have really soulful bluesy styles of guitar playing.
Posen plays a strat in B Standard, while Landreth usually plays a Les Paul in Open C, just one semitone higher than B Standard (and the intervals between the strings are different).
I hope you found this guide helpful and that after reading this, you won’t feel intimidated by having to do some setup work on your guitar by yourself. It is doable and fun, and, after you’re done, you might find that you know and understand your guitar better.
Even if you end up not keeping your guitar tuned to B Standard, you will be more conscious about how you like your guitars to be set up and about what you really need (guitar-wise) to feel good while playing your instrument. You might go back to E Standard and realize you like thicker strings, or a higher action.
Remember that if you are experiencing trouble at any point during this process, you should look for help from a luthier or a more experienced player who has already done this before.
I don’t want you to ruin your beloved instrument! But if you follow this guide and be careful, you will be on your way to having a great-sounding B Standard guitar.