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Why not the high E at the top and the low E bottom? I haven't even heard of an alternate tuning that's similar. Is there a reason for this?

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I don't think this is a duplicate, because this is specifically about why it's low to high, not why it's EADGBE –  Alexander Troup Apr 4 at 8:56
    
I think about playing chords from root upwards when I play a guitar. I like that the lowest notes are close to my thumb. Coincidence? I doubt it. –  Warren P Apr 4 at 15:10

7 Answers 7

There are left handed guitar players who just turn a right stringed guitar over and play that way, so it is possible. With very good results even, see e.g. Albert King:enter image description here

So it is not unheard of to play that way. Like others have indicated, you need more power for the lower strings, which is suited for the thumb. Plucking chords becomes more difficult with the reverse order too. That is probably some of the reasons why the current order survived.

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Try playing something complex on the top (thin) string. Now try the same on the fat string. The fretting hand is more comfortable not being stretched. I suppose more intricate note patterns are traditionally played on the high strings, whereas the E and A would be used for more static bass-like patterns. It gives a slight advantage to the player the way it is.Chord fingerings may also be slightly easier, particularly the 'open'type chords which acoustic players prefer, as they're often played on the 'top' strings, rather tan 'bottom', which would involve arching the fretting hand more.

Also, as with a lot of things, once the trend was thus, it was easier to perpetuate it. Think of right-hand screw threads, and probably hundreds more examples - driving on a particular side of the road.

Look forward to many interesting answers.

Having said all of that, I play with a bass player who is left handed, and he uses 4-string, 5-string and 8- string basses, all of which are strung for right-hand playing. Since he learnt that way, it appears to be no trouble to him.

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+1 Scrolled down to say the same thing. The guitar evolved from earlier instruments, mostly with fewer strings. Extra bass strings were added and placed out of the way of the melody strings. –  luser droog Apr 4 at 12:09

Looking online, there are plenty of explanations for particular guitar tunings (open, drop etc.), but I haven't found a definitive explanation of why the lowest string is "at the top" and the highest string is "at the bottom", to help reinforce this answer.

Like Tim, I can't wait to see how other people answer this question, particularly as I often tell my guitar pupils that this is the only (!) confusing thing about playing the guitar. (If only…)

However, let me suggest a couple of possibilities. They relate to two main uses of the guitar and its predecessors: playing homophonic (in the case of the guitar, usually strummed) chords; playing melodic and/or contrapuntal music.

When strumming the strings of a guitar, the pick, thumb or fingers strike the bass note of the chord first when playing a downstroke (which, as the hand is falling, tends to be a stronger stroke). This gives particular emphasis to the bass note, upon which the resonance and harmonic character of the chord is built. In relation to this, when one arpeggiates a chord by playing a downstroke (which is arguably the most natural stroke), the harmony-defining bass note is heard first; this is also the natural way to arpeggiate on a number of other instruments (piano and harp, for example).

It is also worth noting, that using the thumb for bass notes (which this ordering of strings allows) has benefits in terms of chord voicings too, whether playing contrapuntal music or playing non-strummed chords (i.e. when each finger and the thumb play one note each). In these cases, the fingers can play notes on adjacent strings easily, as they are close together, and the thumb can easily play strings further away from the strings played by the fingers; and this is conventionally the most resonant way to space a chord, with larger spaces between notes at the bottom, than at the top.

When playing contrapuntal music (music with at least two independent melodic lines), one would often expect the lower, bass line to progress in slower note values (partly because of the harmonic function it serves, but also because lower pitches "speak" more slowly), and the higher line to progress in quicker note values. The "single" right-hand thumb is better suited to this bass role, while using two or more right-hand fingers allow faster articulation of higher melodic lines. Certainly, from a classical guitarist's perspective, this more than any other reason explains why the strings are ordered high-to-low in this direction.

But, this doesn't, of course, explain why so many other string instruments also have their strings ordered in the same direction. The techniques, particularly when using a bow, and horizontal/vertical playing positions of these other string instruments, have little or no relation to my reasoning above; and it does seem unlikely that the playing techniques and construction norms for so many string instruments developed entirely independently…

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I tell my pupils that the first guitar builder actually had the blueprint upside down. That works !! –  Tim Apr 4 at 12:28
    
Nice! I'll use that if you don't mind... –  Bob Broadley Apr 4 at 12:29
    
Not sure about the harp analogy - natural hand movement is towards one's body, when plucking, and the high notes are further away, aren't they ? So an arp. will go 'the wrong way'. –  Tim Apr 4 at 12:32
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Very, very interesting. I have a few ideas about why harps have their strings this way round, but certainly don't feel qualified to answer; would love to see this as a question... –  Bob Broadley Apr 4 at 12:38
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At least for double bass and cello, there are also bowing reasons for the string order: on the low strings, you need most power and rigid arm control close to the frog, while the high strings actually benefit if the bow hand is held higher, more "open" and lightly movable. Moreover, thumb positions are much easier to play this way. For violin and viola I don't know much about what the consequences would be of inverting the string order. –  leftaroundabout Apr 4 at 20:51

Guitars have not always been strung from low to high, the baroque guitar use re-entrant tunings, e.g.

enter image description here

See Monica Hall's excellent website for more information about the Baroque guitar, including stringing.

Essentially stringing low to high is a bizarre newfangled idea! ;o)

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Excellent, thanks Dikran! I'm wondering if one of the reasons for this, is because older instruments were smaller and less robust. Having strings placed not in pitch order means that it easier to have similar string tensions at each side of the neck, particularly in an era when accurately gauged strings would not have been available. Otherwise, necks would have been prone to warping towards the side with the highest pitched strings. –  Bob Broadley Apr 5 at 18:36
    
I think it is more to do with the strumming style that was used at the time, where players wanted less of a distinction in sound between the up- and down-strum. AFAIK the baroque guitar was gut strung, with fairly low tension strings, like a lute, and they even made theorboed guitars (shoheiurata.com/hideki/images/11.jpg) , so they must have been reasonably solid. I'm planning to build a baroque guitar at some point, and find out! –  Dikran Marsupial Apr 5 at 18:51
    
Brilliant info, thanks! I assume this strumming style could explain the ordering of Ukelele strings, too... –  Bob Broadley Apr 5 at 19:01
    
The tuning also helps with a technique known as "campanella" (little bells), there is an excellent demo of that here: youtube.com/watch?v=cFXaRorc10U . I'm no expert on this though as I am a lute player for the moment, but there is lots of great music for baroque guitar I want to try. –  Dikran Marsupial Apr 5 at 19:16
    
and strumming technique here : youtube.com/watch?v=gArlVOJW4ME –  Dikran Marsupial Apr 5 at 19:19

Because you're looking at it wrong? Guitars are typically strung with the BASS/LOW strings ON TOP. That is - the guitar is typically held with those strings at a higher altitude, closer the player's head. This is only convention and it has very little practical reason and there are plenty of people who play it "upside-down" or string a guitar upside-down and play left-handed. With the exception of some minor tuning issues which can usually be fixed, there is nothing wrong with that.

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Play a barrée. Now try fingering something melodic on the high strings, and in comparison, on the low strings.

The typical blues pattern in F consisting of 1-3-1-2-1-1, 1-5-1-2-1-1, 1-6-1-2-1-1 actually does so. But it is rather a stretch and more playable on the flimsier fretboards of electric guitars or in higher positions.

Doing the more melodic stuff on higher strings instead requires less of a hand/finger bend/stretch.

Also if you are playing in the highest positions way off the neck, you'll arguably be doing that for playing high notes. And the traditional string order makes the high sounding strings easier accessible in those positions.

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Take a look at the piano. The ring finger on your right hand will play a higher note than the thumb. Now back to the guitar. The high E is more likely to be picked by your ring finger while the 3 low string will be usually picked by the thumb (at least by certain classic schools).

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Actually, classical fingerings tend to never use the right pinky at all. –  User8773 Apr 5 at 10:39
    
@David, I edited my answer, of course I meant the ring finger. –  András Hummer Apr 5 at 14:44

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