Tuning the guitar is a necessity before every session on the instrument. Most people tune their guitar to its designated pitches, without giving much thought to the tuning itself.
More often than not, this is usually just a fact of the guitar that is blindly accepted without much explanation. And, unfortunately, most people aren’t the greatest of help if you did inquire about its reasoning.
If you’ve ever wondered the reasoning behind why guitarists tune to EADGBE, you’ve come to the right place.
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What Is The Inherent Relationship Between Pitches In The Tuning?
For those of you who are curious, you might have tried to understand the relationship between the pitches. All scales have intervallic relationships, so it would make sense that a tuning would, as well.
EADGBE (otherwise known as E Standard tuning) does in fact have its own intervallic pattern. For the most part, this is a fairly consistent pattern but does have one small difference that throws people off.
Let’s take a moment to divide the guitar’s 6 strings into sets of 2, and examine the intervals between. Starting from the lowest strings:
- E & A, Perfect 4th
- A & D, Perfect 4th
- D & G, Perfect 4th
- G & B, Major 3rd
- B & E, Perfect 4th
Notice how the only interval that isn’t a Perfect 4th lies between the G and B strings? This is an important distinction to make, with a purpose we’ll get into later.
Let’s also take a moment to analyze the pitches in E Standard and see if there are any chords. Right away, you’ll notice that there are actually 2 different chords present in the tuning.
If you were to play all of the strings simultaneously, you'd have an E minor chord. This has added extensions of the 9th and 11th (which are technically suspensions as they appear within the octave).
Dividing this up even further, you’ll find the standard E minor triad, along with a triad for G major. If you know your Circle Of Fifths, you know that E is the relative minor of G.
What Is The Difference Between The Guitar’s Tuning Compared To The Violin?
Now that you have a basic understanding of how E Standard tuning is built, let’s compare it to other instruments. The most appropriate for comparison is the violin, which is considered the lead instrument of the classical music world.
While the guitar has 6 strings, the standard violin only has 4 strings. These strings are actually tuned a Perfect 5th apart in each string set.
Instead of anything resembling the guitar, the violin’s tuning appears as GDAE. Interesting, right?
So, why is the guitar’s tuning so different from the violin's? Wouldn’t it have been possible to retain a tuning based on intervals of Perfect 5ths?
To really understand this, you have to dissect a few things and consider the guitar’s history.
How Did The Modern Guitar Come To Be?
The guitar is an instrument that has been in production ever since the 1500s. Of course, the guitar you know today is only reminiscent of guitars from back in the day.
As you would expect, a few centuries would have along with it some innovative ideas and evolution of designs. It wasn’t really until the 1800s that the more modern guitar we’re familiar with began to emerge.
Before the 1800s, the guitar wasn’t really used within the context of classical music. This is especially the case when you consider the violin’s presence, which has held dominance for centuries.
Once music began to be composed on for the guitar, the instrument began to be taken seriously. And as such, certain things needed to be developed on the guitar for it to be optimal for its player.
The biggest development would have to be a standardized tuning. Every instrument has its own tuning, but the guitar is unique in that it can be played laterally and linearly.
While the violin’s tuning could have been adapted to the guitar, it wasn’t exactly optimal. For starters, the violin is much smaller and is played in a completely different manner than the guitar.
With the guitar’s longer scale length, this tuning of Perfect 5ths would have proved to be somewhat difficult. Perfect 4ths, on the other hand, decrease this spacing.
But, what about that funky Major 3rd present in E Standard’s tuning? What’s the reasoning behind that?
The Genius Of EADGBE Tuning
If you take some time to explore the realm of classical guitar pieces, you’ll notice something about its sound. Many pieces tend to have a minor tonality throughout the context of the composition.
Now, take a moment to consider how many times you use both major and minor chords within a song. Then, consider all of the different possible ways you can play chords up and down the neck.
If there’s anything that might have stood out to you, it's that E Standard tuning is incredibly convenient. Nearly every string can be used to build chords, with fingerings that are quite easy to manage.
This wasn’t a mistake of any kind. Rather, this tuning was developed to provide the most accessibility for anyone’s hand.
Take the barre chord for instance, which uses the index finger like a capo. Just this gives you an immense range of usable chords, with roots originating on both the 5th and 6th strings.
More often than not, minor chords can be made into major chords by shifting one note. This is incredibly easy on the guitar, often not requiring any position changing whatsoever.
That’s where that odd Major 3rd comes into play. By having a Major 3rd built into the tuning, shifting the 3rd to minor becomes much more simple.
When you really go down the rabbit hole, you’ll discover that the guitar was designed for efficiency and convenience. You can play entire chord progressions in any area of the neck without having to move your hand.
Need to change the key? Simply shift your hand to the appropriate area and use the same shapes.
The fingers are quite limited with respect to their range of motion and how they can be applied. E Standard tuning is the incredible optimization of this limited range.
Are There Any Other Ways Of Tuning The Guitar?
If you’re completely new to the guitar, you might not know that different tunings do exist. Different tunings allow for different sounds and styles of playing and can provide a breath of inspiration.
One of the most popular for heavier styles of music is the Drop-D tuning. This essentially lowers the low E string down a whole step to D.
Some guitarists like to take the E Standard tuning and detune it. Popular choices in this regard include Eb Standard and D Standard.
Open tunings are often the prime choice for those who play slide guitar. They’re also quite useful for getting the creative gears working.
These aren’t the only possibilities, however. When touring, Sonic Youth had a semi-truck trailer full of guitars with unique tunings used for specific songs.
EADGBE Tuning, Why Is A Guitar Tuned The Way It Is, Final Thoughts
Whoever took the time to figure out the mechanics of E Standard tuning is definitely a genius. The guitar is already confusing as it is, and it had to take some serious thought to consider its possibilities.
Unfortunately, like most great things that are normal in daily life, guitarists overlook this act of genius. Without EADGBE tuning, the guitar would definitely not be the same instrument we know today.
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