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Why is there that funny tuning kink between the G and B string on a guitar in standard tuning? I.E. the gap (interval) between the rest of the adjoining strings is 5 frets (or a perfect fourth), but the gap between the G and B string is only 4 frets (or a major third). Why is that?

It seems to make more sense to tune it all in perfect fourths and end up with EADGCF. I understand that other string instruments have the same gap between all of their strings.

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Try it! You'll either love the 'CF' or you'll know why not! (empirically) –  luser droog Oct 29 '12 at 6:23
It helps with the bar chords. Many bar chords would be impossible if not for the G - B interval. –  Neil Meyer Nov 13 '13 at 10:31
I've recedntly been experimenting with E A D G C F (straight 4ths) tuning having played guitar for 20 odd years in standard tuning. Conclusion : * For solos, it's great. You can blat about the neck using the same methods and don't have to pay attention so much to patterns or worry that you're going to miss that semitone and hit a bum note. Makes it quite a lot easier. * "Power chords" with the 1st 3 strings. You can do this anyway with standard tunung of course, but they sound more fulsome with E A D G C F tuning. Also the E and B are a bit tighter than normal so they sound slightly brighter. –  user2808054 Jan 9 '14 at 11:58

10 Answers 10

I've seen it argued that the instrument that became the guitar started with the major G chord set, the second, third and fourth string, probably in pairs, as the entire string set for the instrument. The first string was then added, and the lower strings were added in fourths to provide more bass harmony, much the same way we see the 7th string being brought in these days.

Man, I wish I could source that.

In a more practical manner, I play mandolin, which is tuned in fifths. For melodies, it makes great sense to tune in fifths. Scales that seem kinda haphazard on guitar just lay out so nicely on the mandolin. But chords are ugly hand-stretchers. David Grisman, a great bluegrass and newgrass mandolin player, suggests that if you have to play four-or-more-note chords, drop the root and let someone else play it. Guitars, being tuned mostly in fourths, make chords much easier.

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This: "Guitars, being tuned mostly in fourths, make chords much easier" –  Jduv Mar 13 '11 at 14:15
Yeah, it sounds like the tuning gives a good compromise between playing melodies and chords. –  Anonymous Mar 14 '11 at 9:07
+1 for let someone else play the root. This is what bass players are for ;) –  Agos Nov 29 '11 at 23:55
+1 I played guitar for years and never really understood what I was doing, I just memorized chords and runs... then I started learning the mandolin and poof everything seems to make sense - but the chords are a pain. –  KennyPeanuts Mar 27 '13 at 13:40
My further recollection is that it was Bob Brozman where I found that theory, but I can't recall if I read it or heard it. –  VarLogRant Nov 4 '13 at 17:33

I was under the impression it was more historical than anything else, although Wikipedia tells me:

  • Standard tuning has evolved to provide a good compromise between simple fingering for many chords and the ability to play common scales with minimal left hand movement. Uniquely, the guitar's tuning allows for repeatable patterns, which also facilitates the ease of playing common scales.
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Mandolin (and the bowed string instruments) have repeatable patterns, which lay out nicely per scale, but are crap for chords. –  VarLogRant Apr 15 '11 at 17:24

Actually there is an alternative. There are a few guitarists who tune their entire guitar in "straight fourths", such as


or perhaps

Eb Ab Db Gb B E

There is an article on All Fourths tuning on Wikipedia.

Stanley Jordan is a famous jazz guitarist who uses this tuning exclusively.

Freddie Green, the famous rhythm guitarist with the Count Basie orchestra, effectively played only in all-fourths tuning by virtue of the fact that he only played on the bottom four strings of the guitar, moving up and down the neck a great deal, but virtualy never crossing over that major third to the high B and E strings.

Also the Chapman Stick, a unique 10-course instrument related to the electric guitar, uses straight fourths for the top five strings and fifths for the lowest five strings.

When I studied jazz guitar, I determined to teach myself to play in straight fourths. I believe it has many advantages. The more complex the chords and harmonic progressions you are playing, the more the straight fourths system makes sense.

But if you want to learn music by exactly copying your favorite solos and pieces transcribed from famous guitarists, you're going to need to use the same tunings that those guitarists used.

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I kinda like the idea of straight fourths, if only because it could mean fewer unreachable stretches for my small hands. 15 years of having the standard tuning ground in, though, is a significant barrier. –  slim Sep 27 '11 at 14:04
There are a lot of fourths tuning resources here: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Perfect_fourths_tuning –  user3104 Oct 27 '12 at 0:00

I think it's tuned like it is to maximize the number of strings we can use in chord voicings.

If the guitar were tuned in fourths, barre chords would be out.

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I should also make reference to the practice of tuning the guitar in 5ths. "Crafty" tuning, or "New Standard Tuning", popularized by guitarist Robert Fripp of the rock band King Crimson, is based on this principle.

In Crafty tuning, the lowest note on the guitar is the "C" below the usual low "E", as on the cello, and the strings go up in 5ths from there, except for the highest string. Special string gauges are required to get this to work correctly.

There was an active guitar education movement called Guitar Craft built around the "Crafty" system some years ago.

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That little kink is essential if you're trying to play slide in standard tuning. If you play slide on EADGCF, you can't make any chords!

For folk guitar (with/or without a slide), it's often useful to make it a curve by dropping the E to D. It makes possible the stacked-thirds that piano players (and horn sections) are so proud of. And that minor third on top makes slide playing really fun.

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I'm sure someone's invented an "elbow slide" or something that would address this ;) –  Mr. Boy Dec 16 '14 at 12:13
Also, it wouldn't be unusual for one particular style to need a special tuning - so sliders could still use EADGBE. –  Mr. Boy Dec 16 '14 at 12:16

In Bill Edwards, Freboard Logic books, I remember him explaining that the interval mix of EADGBE is pretty optimal if the goal is to find a compromise between easy scales and easy chords.

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I wouldn't exactly call the guitar's chords "easy", though I've tried writing an experimental program to identify what barre chords would be available for a tuning given certain constraints (e.g. up to three fingers doing one note each, within 3 frets of the "bar"), and standard tuning comes out pretty decently, with two 6-string, two 5-string, and one four-string barre chord for major. Many other tunings end up with far fewer possibilities. –  supercat Feb 5 '13 at 1:53

Just a bit of an addition to all the excellent answers so far ...

The renaissance lute has a very similar tuning system, although the "kink" in the tuning is between a different pair of strings (or "courses" of double strings, usually). Standard guitar tuning can be converted to renaissance lute tuning by two simple steps: tune the g string down to f-sharp, and put a capot on at the third fret.

So, it would seem that the presence of the "kink" in the tuning goes back a long way before the modern day guitar tuning.

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To add to @OldJohn's answer, renaissance viols also followed this "kinked" tuning pattern, e.g. D G C E A D (6 strings) or A D G C E A D (7 strings).

Clearly this tuning meme was applied to a range of different types of fretted instruments. One possible explanation is that it helped to accommodate them to non-equal temperaments, using "unequally" spaced frets. For example tuning a 7-string instrument in fourths, A D G C F Bb Eb, the first fret would either give A# D# G# C# F# B E or Bb Eb Ab Db Gb Cb Fb. Either you have a clash between A#/Bb and D#/Eb on the outer strings if an group (consort) of viols are playing together, or the flats and dbuble-flats go way outside the conventional key range of the period.

That said, some music for viols was apparently intended to be played in (an approximation to) equal temperament, but that may have been "avant garde experimentation" compared with the customary unequal tuning. Unlike modern guitars, the frets on both lutes and viols were adjustable, being simply loops of gut tied around the neck of the instrument.

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Short answer: tune your guitar in 4ths EADgcf and strum your EMaj chord. Can't hear it? Play your E and f strings together. That's why we don't tune it in 4ths.

Why B instead of C? Look at your cycle of 5ths/4ths with E as the I note. You'll see A is the V and B is the IV

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