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Why Are Guitars Tuned in Fourths (And What Are Fourths)?



Exploring the Reason Behind Guitars Being Tuned in Fourth: Delving into Musical Intervals and the Anomaly Found Between the 3rd and 2nd Strings.


Have you ever wondered why guitars are tuned the way they are? The tuning of a guitar plays a fundamental role in how it sounds and how it's played. In this blog, we'll explore why guitars are tuned in fourths, what fourths are in the context of music theory, and why there's an exception between the 3rd (G) and 2nd (B) strings.


  • What Are Fourth Intervals?


In music theory, intervals refer to the distance between two pitches. A fourth interval spans five semitones (or half-steps) between two notes. For example:

- C to F is a fourth: C - C#/Db - D - D#/Eb - E - F

- G to C is also a fourth: G - G#/Ab - A - A#/Bb - B - C


These intervals form the building blocks of melodies, chords, and scales in music.


  • Why Guitars Are Tuned in Fourth?


1. Consistency in Chord Shapes: Guitars are primarily tuned in fourths (with one major third interval between the G and B strings) to maintain consistent chord shapes across different positions on the fretboard. This consistency makes it easier for guitarists to learn and remember chord fingerings.


2. Playability and Range: Fourth tuning allows the guitar to cover a wide range of pitches while keeping fretting hand movements manageable. This is crucial for both melodic lines and chord progressions.


3. Historical and Practical Development: The tuning of fourths on guitars has evolved over centuries, influenced by musical styles and instrumental technique. It balances harmonic possibilities with practical playability, shaping the guitar's versatility.


  • The Exception Between G and B Strings


1. Purposeful Design Choice: The major third interval between the G and B strings is deliberate. It enhances chord voicings and harmonic richness in guitar playing.


2. Chord Voicings: This interval enables unique chord shapes and open-string voicings, such as C major and A minor chords, which are integral to many guitarists’ styles.


3. Melodic Fluidity: The proximity between G and B strings facilitates smooth melodic phrasing and scale runs, aiding in soloing and improvisation.


4. Musical Tradition: The specific tuning configuration of guitars, including this interval, is rooted in historical tradition and practical musical application.


  • Practical Application


Understanding both the fourth tuning and the major third interval between the G and B strings empowers guitarists to:


- Explore Chord Variations: Use open-string voicings to create unique chord textures and harmonic colors.

- Enhance Melodic Playing: Leverage the close interval for expressive melodies and fluid solo lines.


- Expand Musical Horizons: Recognize how these intervals shape musical compositions and contribute to the guitar's expressive potential.

Can we tune the guitar differently? From Standard to Alternate Tunings


Guitar tunings play a pivotal role in shaping how music is played, creating unique sounds, and expanding creative possibilities for guitarists. While standard tuning (EADGBE) and the rationale behind its fourths with a major third exception are widely recognized, alternate tunings offer a fascinating exploration into the diverse sonic landscapes guitars can traverse.


  • Why Standard Tuning?


Standard tuning (EADGBE) on the guitar provides a balanced foundation for learning and playing. Its consistency in fourths (except for the major third between the G and B strings) facilitates chord shapes, scale patterns, and melodic lines that are accessible and familiar across various musical genres. This tuning system has been honed over centuries, reflecting both practical playability and harmonic versatility.


  • Exploring Alternate Tunings


Beyond standard tuning, alternate tunings alter the pitch relationships between strings, offering unique sonic textures and expanding the guitarist's toolkit:


1. Open Tunings: These tunings create open chords when strummed without fretting any strings, such as Open G (DGDGBD) or Open D (DADF#AD). They are popular in slide guitar playing and for achieving rich, resonant chord voicings.


2. Drop Tunings: Drop tunings involve lowering the pitch of one or more strings from standard tuning. For instance, Drop D tuning (DADGBE) lowers the sixth string (E) to D, facilitating powerful, heavy riffs commonly found in rock and metal music.


3. DADGAD Tuning: Used prominently in folk, Celtic, and fingerstyle guitar, DADGAD (DADGAD) provides a modal sound with drone-like qualities, enhancing harmonic possibilities and facilitating unique fingerstyle patterns.


4. Half-Step and Whole-Step Down Tunings: Tunings like Eb Standard (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb) or Whole-Step Down (D G C F A D) offer a lower pitch range, providing a darker, more resonant tone ideal for certain genres and vocal ranges.


  • Benefits of Alternate Tunings


- Creativity: Alternate tunings inspire new chord voicings, melodic ideas, and compositions, encouraging experimentation and musical exploration.

- Expressiveness: Each tuning imbues the guitar with distinct tonal qualities and resonances, enhancing emotional expression and storytelling through music.


- Genre Specificity: Different tunings cater to specific musical genres, allowing guitarists to authentically capture the sound and feel of folk, blues, jazz, and more.


  • Conclusion:


Embracing Guitar Tunings, Including Alternate Tunings

The tuning of guitars in fourths, punctuated by the major third exception between the G and B strings, represents a harmonious blend of tradition, playability, and harmonic richness. This tuning system has been meticulously crafted over centuries to provide guitarists with a balanced framework for musical expression.


However, beyond standard tuning lies a vast landscape of alternate tunings that offer unique sonic possibilities. For instance, Open G tuning (DGDGBD) popularized by blues and slide guitarists transforms the instrument into a resonant powerhouse, capable of producing rich, open chords effortlessly. Similarly, DADGAD tuning, favored in Celtic and folk music, imbues the guitar with modal qualities and drone-like resonances that evoke landscapes and storytelling.


Embracing these alternate tunings not only expands your sonic palette but also enhances your understanding of guitar mechanics and musical creativity. Each alternate tuning opens up new chord voicings, melodic pathways, and harmonic textures that inspire fresh musical ideas and compositions. Whether you're exploring slide guitar in Open D tuning or delving into fingerstyle in DADGAD, alternate tunings invite you to explore and innovate within the realm of guitar playing.


Whether you're a novice guitarist embarking on your musical journey or a seasoned player seeking new avenues of expression, the diverse world of guitar tunings—from standard to alternate—offers endless opportunities for discovery. Embrace these tunings, experiment fearlessly, and let your guitar resonate with the richness of tradition and the boundless creativity of musical exploration.


Unlock the full potential of your guitar by exploring alternate tunings today. Discover the magic of harmonies, the thrill of new sounds, and the joy of musical discovery. Happy tuning and playing!



For more guitar tips visit my other Guitar Lessons Tips blogs. For Guitar Lessons you, may contact me directly.

Guitar Lessons @ The Pijp Amsterdam

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