Why is Standard Guitar Tuning EADGBE? There are TONS of different guitar tunings, so why is this one the norm?
For the last 1000 plus years most musicians have been in agreement that the perfect fifth is the most naturally powerful and pleasant sounding interval. Indeed, many stringed instruments are tuned in perfect fifths, such as the mandolin, cello, and violin.
But for some reason the guitar has decided to buck that trend and is instead tuned in a series of perfect fourths, and one major third interval.
Let’s find out why!
Why is Standard Guitar Tuning EADGBE?
The reason standard tuning on guitar is EADGBE is because it lays the fretboard out in a manner which is physically ergonomic to play, as well as being musically intelligent. It helps to ensure a relatively comfortable shift between playing the most popular chords and scales, by keeping fretting hand movements to a minimum, thereby increasing efficiency.
Let’s examine this in a bit more detail…
What Are The Advantages of Standard Tuning?
In terms of musical intervals, standard tuning consists of a series of 3 ascending perfect fourths (low E to A, A to D, and D to G), a major third (from the G to the B), and one more major fifth (from the B to high E).
The four pairs of perfect fourths provide a great symmetry for fingering patterns, while the major third breaks up the finger pattern of the chromatic scale to enable more diverse fingering opportunities.
Why Not ALL Perfect Fourths?
If the guitar had been tuned in a series of perfect fourths, this would have resulted in the 2nd string being tuned to C and the high string to F (EADGCF). This alternate tuning is known as ‘all fourths tuning‘.
Although this is a perfectly acceptable alternate tuning, it was felt that that the minor second interval between the E and F strings would be naturally irritating.
A further problem of ‘all fourths tuning’ is that it creates wide and unergonomic stretches when fingering chords, namely on the two highest strings.
By instead using the major third interval between the 2nd and 3rd strings in standard tuning, the chord notes on the higher strings are moved down a single fret. As a result the chords are much less of a stretch to pull off.
Another issue associated with ‘all fourths tuning’ rears its head when attempting to play barre chords – a staple in any guitarist’s arsenal. They are totally ruined as constant compensation would be required to avoid that jarring minor second interval.
What Are The Advantages Of All Fourths Tuning?
A well known user of ‘all fourths tuning’ is guitar maestro Alex Hutchings. Check out the video below in which he explains and demonstrates why this tuning makes so much sense to him (and others!).
Why Are Guitars Not Tuned In Fifths?
On a 6 string guitar, ‘all fifths tuning‘ would be CGDAEB, which is not massively practical due to the increased stretches your fingers would need to make to reach the required notes. In addition, tuning to a high B is almost impossible, even with modern day strings! There is a way around this however…
All Fifths Tuning
As mentioned above, violins, mandolins and cellos are all tuned in perfect fifths – so why not guitars?
It is generally accepted that shorter scale length instruments such as the violin lend themselves better to ‘all fifths tuning’. Although the cello is a larger instrument, it is played vertically, which allows the fretting hand to more easily reach notes.
Since guitar is more or less played horizontally, the resultant flexion in the wrist makes it more difficult to reach notes with the fretting hand fingers.
So on guitar, perfect fourths were a great compromise as this layout brings the notes closer together.
Another reason why ‘all fifths tuning’ is not the norm is because it would mean that the 1st string would need to be tuned to a high B. The gut strings used on early guitars would get nowhere near this note before they snapped. Even today with modern strings you would struggle to tune to a high B. So it’s just not a practical tuning for guitar.
What Is New Standard Guitar Tuning?
However if you are interested in trying this style of tuning you can take a look at New Standard Tuning, which was developed by Robert Fripp of King Crimson. This provides a good approximation of ‘all fifths tuning’ and uses a more practical high G instead of the B.
Check out the video below which does a great job of explaining and demonstration ‘New Standard Tuning’.
When was Standard Tuning Invented?
Standard guitar tuning dates back many centuries, but is generally thought to have been widely adopted in the 16th century with the introduction of the 5 course ‘chitarra battente‘, or Italian folk guitar. It was tuned ADGBE – the same as the top 5 strings on a modern guitar.
If you’re interested to know, a 5 course guitar simply means an instrument which is double strung, with pairs of strings tuned in unison. You can see one in action in the video below.
The 5 course guitar quickly found popularity in Europe, and was the first guitar to be played with a plectrum.
Why is E The Lowest Note On A Guitar?
When 6 string guitars were finally introduced in the 18th century, it was deemed sensible to add the low E to continue the layout of perfect fourths (apart from the major third interval between the 2nd and 3rd strings) from the popular 5 course guitars.
And thusly, standard tuning was born!
Why These Specific Notes?
So we now know why this specific series of intervals was chosen. But why these specific notes? Why is standard tuning not a full step lower (DGCFAD) for example?
Nobody really seems to know for sure! Some people have hypothesized that these specific notes were settled on due to the limitations imposed by the gut strings used centuries ago.
A second theory relates to where the earliest guitars were first introduced. In these locations the Phrygian and Aeolian modes were very popular at the time, and EADGBE is a great match for their native keys.
To Sum Up
So it turns out that there is good reason for why EADGBE is standard tuning on a guitar!
If you’re still hungry for a little more information on this topic, check out the excellent video below.
But remember that there is a whole world of weird and wonderful alternate tunings out there to experiment with (I mentioned a few of them in this article!), so make sure to expand your horizons and try a few out!