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Considering that pitch goes up from low E to high E through all 6 strings, why is the high E called the 1st and low E the 6th string?

I find it a bit confusing... just curious if there are any historical reasons.

EDIT just a couple of reasons why I find it confusing:

  • scales are written/practiced going up first
  • chords are usually described starting from the lowest notes
  • the most intuitive way of strumming is going down

In general lower notes make up the basis of harmony and higher notes add subtlety, which is why I consider lower notes to come first.

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1  
It might have something to do with the fact that many historic precursors of the guitar were played in a rather more upright position. In such a position, you read the string order more "left to right" than "upmost to downmost". –  leftaroundabout Jul 18 at 16:15
    
Pitch also goes down from high E to low E through all 6 strings. Your question doesn't really make much sense. –  EJP Jul 19 at 18:52
    
@EJP yes, but think of scales, they are conventionally depicted going up first on a score. This is why I and apparently others intuitively feel low pitch to come before high. –  krookedking Aug 2 at 8:27

3 Answers 3

I could reword the first phrase of your question:

Considering that pitch goes down from high E to low E through all 6 strings (...)

When pitch is concerned, we never really consider "low" to come before "high", or the other way around. Leftaroundabout made a good comment about that: when guitars were still held in a more upright position, the strings were ordered from high to low, left to right (from the player's perspective). However, the piano (which is one of the most prominent instruments throughout history of music) has keys ordered from low to high, left to right. This indicates that there's never really been a link between "low to high" and "left to right"/"first to last". The order of notes/strings is just a matter of what is most convenient for the instrument in question.

A convention that we do have in notations and reading (or at least, Western culture does), is that we read everything from top to bottom. Scores as well as tablatures have the high notes on top and the low notes on the bottom, and I think the analogy can be found there. When we see a chord, our instinctive reaction will be to read it from top to bottom, which means that your highest string will come first, etc. (Note: this is just a habit we have because we have learned to read everything this way. A trained musician will of course read bottom-up in case they feel this is easier.) (Second note: this is just my speculation. Somebody with thorough historical knowledge will probably be able to provide a better answer.)

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I see I may be biased coming from piano, but even so scales on a score are always written going up first, which makes me think low comes before high. The analogy with text reading is interesting but I believe unfounded: we don't read all notes on the high string first and then the second, right? Also I'm not convinced most musicians would read a chord "from the top", I myself always seek the lowest notes as they form the core of a chord. –  krookedking Aug 2 at 8:22

If anyone asked you to write down numbers in a vertical line this is how you would probably write it:
1
2
3
4
5
6

Now place the guitar on your laps with the string facing you and then number them. That is probably how even the Guitar Tabs are written.

1 ---------- e
2 ---------- B
3 ---------- G
4 ---------- D
5 ---------- A
6 ---------- E

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I don't know how much historical instruments play into the numbering scheme, but various types of lutes had rather wild collections of bass and resonance strings while the melody strings were mostly standard. Numbering from melody to bass would make it easier to write string indications that stay useful when switching between different lute types.

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