Why is the Guitar Tuned the Way it is? (EADGBE)

Have you ever stopped and thought about why the guitar is tuned the way that it is? 

This particular set up of intervals from the 6th to the 1st string (EADGBE) is fairly odd. Why was this tuning selected as the standard tuning for the guitar?

Daily Deal:

The standard guitar tuning (EADGBE) contains both a minor chord of "Em" as well as, a major chord of "G." Strummed open, all of the strings form an "Em11" chord. And, all of the notes together can form both "E Minor and G Major" Pentatonic scales.

While these are interesting points, they are not the most useful. An "Em11" is not exactly a pleasant chord, nor do the tones form any sort of universally useful note groupings. So why has this been the standard tuning of the guitar for over 500 years beginning from the earliest 5-string guitars back in the 1500's?


Ever wonder why the “standard” tuning of a guitar is EADGBE? That series of intervals is interesting. Almost every other stringed instrument (like the; violin, cello and mandolin) are tuned in fifths. In other words, on those instruments, the interval between each open string is a perfect fifth.

Guitars, are different, they're tuned in three intervals of a perfect fourth, followed by a major third (G to B). With one more perfect fourth (going from the high B "2nd string" to the high E). See the diagram given below...

NOTE: The diagram above shows the relationship of the string to string tuning method for a standard six-string guitar. Notice how the tuning of the 3rd to 2nd strings are out a 1/2 step from the relationship of the other string sets.

Now, the reason for this tuning is based upon two closely related areas.

#1). Musical Accommodation to Harmony:
This means ease of playability for popular harmony. With this tuning, the scales, arpeggios and chords for all levels of harmony on the guitar are easy to lay out in tight manageable patterns anywhere upon the neck. The big factor with a guitars scale length is how large it is. This tuning keeps all of the scales and chords tightly group within a 4 to 5 fret span. A tuning of 5th's would greatly widen that span, making many basic scales nearly unplayable.

#2). Keeping Things Physically Comfortable:
This is obviously closely tied to point number one above, but it focuses more upon how we hold the guitar. The guitar is held upon our lap and sits very horizontal to our body. This posture is quite different as to how a violin or viola is held. Or, to how a cello is held. The reach of the fingerboard on guitar is unique and the tuning we have for guitar helps to keep the physical end (posture) of playing it far more manageable.

Around five-hundred years ago, (back in the 1500's), tuning for the top five strings had already been established on the earliest of guitars (the Guitarra battente) — before a lower sixth string (tuned to E) was even added.

 Guitarra battente

Later on, when guitar builders added that lower E it was easy to continue the arrangement of perfect fourths used for all string pairs (except for the major-third interval adopted from the 2nd to the 3rd strings). Which resulted in the standard guitar tuning that still remains today.

So, essentially, guitar builders (hundreds of years ago), wanted to create a method of tuning that would both cater to how the guitar was held, and at the same time, allow for easy transitions between the fingering of common chords. These included; triad, seventh, extended and altered chords along with ease of performing all of our common scales and arpeggios - while at the same time - minimizing the amount of overall fretting hand movement.

The guitars unique major third interval found between the 3rd and 2nd strings (G and B), simply makes fingering the two main levels of harmony (triad and seventh's) a lot easier than continuing with a series of all perfect fourths.

Another factor that should also be mentioned here is that while other popular stringed instruments like the violin and the cello do lend themselves nicely to tuning in fifths (because of their small scale length, and how they're held), the same thing doesn’t necessarily hold true on a larger-scale instrument such as the modern electric and acoustic guitars.



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