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When playing the guitar, I find it difficult to fret a string without touching the string on either side and ruining the sound. Open tunings make it very easy to play one type of chord by barring across a single fret, but make it almost impossible to form any type of chord that would require 'lowering' a note. Are there any tunings that allow for a variety of major, minor, and seventh chords without having to fret strings further up the fretboard than the strings on either side?

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+1 'At'sawayta doit! –  luser droog Jan 24 '13 at 9:11
It's a perfectly viable question. However the ability to fret a string cleanly is pretty fundamental for general guitar playing, and you would do well to address that issue rather than work around it. Technique would be the primary focus. If you have particularly large fingers, look at guitars with wider necks - but bear in mind that massive-handed players like BB King and Jimi Hendrix managed just fine. –  slim Jan 24 '13 at 11:12

4 Answers 4

If one is aspiring to become a good guitar player, there really is no alternative to learning to finger cleanly. On the other hand, if one wants to simply have fun playing the instrument, and play chords to back one's favorite songs, alternative tunings may reduce the level of technical proficiency required.

One tuning which makes it very easy to play a wide variety of four-finger chords is minor thirds tuning (tune all strings at intervals of minor thirds). If one keeps D where it is, a minor thirds tuning would be G#-B-D-F-G#-B, though in practice D-G#-D-F-G#-B would be just as useful (it sounds a cool full diminished 7th when strummed) and would avoid over-stressing the lower strings.

Every 4-note closed form of a major or minor triad, in any inversion, consists of a minor third, a major third, and a perfect fourth, in some order. Playing the same fret on two adjacent strings will yield a minor third. Fretting the upper string one fret higher will yield a major third. Any stacked combination of these intervals can be played using four consecutive strings without fingers having to cross over live strings. In addition, a true closed-form 7th chord may be played by barring the top three strings one fret higher than the fourth. This form has a sweet delicate sound when it leads into a second-inversion major or minor chord.

Unfortunately, while there are some styles of music where the four-chord barre chords made possible by minor-thirds tuning sound nice, the tuning effectively turns the guitar into a very-easy-to-play four-string instrument. While continuing the minor-thirds tuning into the lower string would allow one to use the same chord shapes on any group of four strings, trying to strum the middle or bottom four strings would be somewhat awkward, and the downward range of the instrument would still be very limited. Likely for this reason, comparatively little attention seems to have been given to minor-thirds tuning.

It's worth noting, though, that despite its limitations, straight-minor-thirds tuning, using the top four strings, does allow some nice musical possibilities. For example, Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Mermaid Song" from Aspects of Love, may be played using four chords in third position (listed alphabetically)


and three chords in fourth position


After the key-change, use the above chords up a half step. An excerpt from the chord progression is

    Bbm F Bbm    Gb    Db    Ebm   Db    F    Bb    F F7 Bb

(note that the B chord is used in the bridge, which is not included in this excerpt but may be played by anyone who knows the tune). Note that unlike most guitar chord sequences there the notes leap all over the place, here notes which are common to two chords will stay put. An interesting style, and one which may be worthy of more exploration than it has received.

Since the top four strings of a minor-third tuning make a very nice four-stringed instrument, which can even do some things a conventionally-tuned six-string guitar can't (e.g. play the closed-form F7 chord above), a natural question becomes what to do with the bottom two strings. Continuing downward by minor thirds isn't very useful, so what might work better?

Tuning the fifth string to be down a fifth rather than a minor third (i.e. to G) leaves it rather useless for many chords, but greatly improves the sound of second-inversion chords (simply bar it on the same fret as the fourth string). An alternative which sounds great for root-position chords, and decent for first-inversion chords, is to take the fifth string down to D. Unfortunately, doubling the bottom note of second-inversion chords vastly overemphasizes the fifth (e.g. a second-inversion C chord would be spelled G g c' e' g').

If one takes the sixth string down to D and the fifth string down to G, this will allow bass/strum chord patterns to have a good-sounding bass to root or second-inversion chords, simply by extending the first finger. Unfortunately, it's difficult to make a good sounding strum while skipping a string. Fortunately, there's a way--albeit unorthodox--to fix that.

If one swaps the position of the D and G strings, such that the sixth string is a G and the sixth string is a low D, then one will be able to make root-position chords sound nice using five strings, rendering them as a four-note chord, plus the lower note doubled down an octave. Second-inversion chords play all six strings. The sixth string, which is strummed earliest, supplies the root. The fifth string is lower, playing the fifth of the chord, but since it is strummed later, it's less prominent.

Adding the lower two strings makes first-inversion chords not sound as good as they would with just the top four strings, but the extra bass they offer makes the tradeoff worthwhile in most cases. A chart of fingerings for the tuning appears below. Although each chord is only shown in one form, other forms are possible as well.

Chord diagram

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This is a great way to share your novel tuning, but I think it would be polite to the reader to explain that this is very unorthodox indeed. –  slim Jan 24 '13 at 11:09
@slim: Do you like the new first paragraph? –  supercat Jan 24 '13 at 16:06
I don't think the comment about learning to finger cleanly was my most important one -- I made it a comment not an answer because it's a tangent to the actual question. But I do think it's important to note that the tuning you're suggesting is not "conventional wisdom". It's not a well-known solution to a well-known problem. There are common alternate tunings. This is one that you've invented and as far as we know, nobody else uses (yet?). –  slim Jan 24 '13 at 16:37
@slim: Straight-minor-thirds tuning is not unknown, though a web search some months ago only found one article that made more than passing mention. It noted that such tuning was not without advantages, allowing closer 4-note chord spellings than other tunings, but was inferior for anything else. After having given up on guitar a few times, I decided to try minor-thirds tuning one Friday, and by the end of the weekend I could play along with recordings of both Mermaid Song (Lloyd Weber) and Amazed (Lonestar), and for months I enjoyed playing "four-string" guitar. –  supercat Jan 24 '13 at 17:03
@slim: With regard to the minor-thirds tuning on the upper strings, I'm sure I'm not the first person who's tried it. I may or may not be the first person to realize that four-string minor-thirds tuning can provide even a newcomer to the instrument (I have played violin, cello, and keyboard) with an immediate sense of being able to connect with and play it. A "four-string" guitar, rather than six, but an instrument with real musical possibilities nonetheless, which can do some things standard tuning simply can't (e.g. play a four-note root-position closed F7 chord). –  supercat Jan 24 '13 at 17:23

The upper four strings in open G (D G D G B D) comprise a harmonic series and offers shapes with some of the advantages of supercat's fine answer.

$6 d 0.$5.2.$4.0.$3.2.$2.3.$1.4   $6 dm 0.$5.2.$4.0.$3.2.$2.3.$1.3

$6 g 0.$5.0.$4.0.$3.0.$2.0.$1.0   $6 or 0.$5.0.$4.0.$3.4.$2.3.$1.5

$6 gm 0.$5.0.$4.0.$3.3.$2.3.$1.5  $6 or 5.$5.3.$4.5.$3.3.$2.3.$1.5

Since the spine is a major chord, deviations and substitutions are pretty straightforward and there are myriad possibilities for inversions due to the close intervals at the top.

Similar shapes are available in "Double-Drop-D" (D A D G B D), by adjusting the fifth string to the nearest chord tone.

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Of the "reasonably-orthodox" tunings, I find that double-drop-D seems like the most sensible. Open-G is close to that (except for the fifth string, which wouldn't be used in the four-string application). The first-inversion movable major chord seems like it would be a slightly awkward stretch as a movable chord, but not terrible. For four-string playing, I wonder how it would work if one dropped the lower D to a Db or C? The G chord would require fretting the fourth string one fret above the upper three, but if the string below it wasn't needed, that might be doable. –  supercat Jan 24 '13 at 16:27
PS--Is there a guide to the diagramming options available on this site? –  supercat Jan 24 '13 at 16:47
For tabs and chord diagrams, there's jTab. . –  luser droog Jan 24 '13 at 16:49
@supercat You may be right that double-drop-D offers this and more. I'm not sure how to talk it up properly; so if you want to make another answer, go right ahead. Otherwise I'll add it to this one eventually. :) –  luser droog Jan 24 '13 at 19:14
Double-drop-D and open-G would be equivalent if one is only using the top four strings. I know some people use double-drop-D, and I was thinking that having a tuning which could be useful for playing invertible chords, and also be somewhat "normal" could be advantageous. –  supercat Jan 25 '13 at 3:32

Perfect fifths tuning allows four-string movable "open" chords to be played with fingerings that are similar to those of minor-thirds tunings; if the bottom string is tuned the same, the six fingerings will generate the same six chords, but in a different sequence

    - frets   m3 tuning           P5 tuning
    - open    D  F  G# B          D  A  E  B
    - 1124    Eb Gb Bb Eb (Ebm)   Eb Bb Gb Eb (Ebm)
    - 1224    Eb G  Bb Eb (Eb)    D# B  F# D# (B)
    - 1134    D# F# B  D# (B)     Eb Bb G  Eb (Eb)
    - 1244    Eb G  C  Eb (Cm)    Eb Cb Ab Eb (Abm)
    - 1334    Eb Ab Cb Eb (Abm)   Eb C  G  Eb (Cm)
    - 1344    Eb Ab C  Eb (Ab)    Eb C  Ab Eb (Ab)

Whereas all six of the chords in m3 tuning sound pretty good, and some of the chords in P5 tuning also sound pretty, though in a different way, the sparseness of the chords in the P5-tuning chords makes some of them sound a bit harmonically vague. Having an "octave fold-back" (e.g. so the second string was a major second above the fourth, and the first string a major second above the third) might be interesting, but I've not explored such a thing.

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I originally learned to play in regular 5ths. Robert Fripp calls this his 'Gentleman's Tuning', which should be rather embarrassing to take credit for, since it's nothing other than typical violin / concert bass tuning applied to a guitar. With large hands, consistent melodic lead playing with a lot of range is a breeze. However for chords the intervals are too large unless you wish to introduce inversions or octaves instead. I suppose I'm rare coming from piano theory. It seems other guitarists take for granted that chords shall contain inversions, octave jumps, or miss notes altogether. –  Kristal McKinstry Apr 7 at 12:46
@KristalMcKinstry: Using perfect fifths tuning, it's impossible to avoid playing broken chords; what I found interesting, though, is that flat-finger bar chords can be used to play (broken) triads (e.g. C-G-E or E-C-G or G-E-C) much as they can play "dense" triads in minor-thirds tuning. Calling it "Gentleman's Tuning" isn't nearly as presumptuous as "New Standard Tuning", which is Mr. Fripp's name for C-G-d-a-e'-g'. –  supercat Apr 7 at 16:14
Ah right, he's reintroduced it again, this time with the same trick on #1 I use. I was using C# on #6. (I wish they would call that #1 instead. Too late now.) Possibly he's well intended, more interested in promoting it than himself towards expediting guitar theorists. I myself feel strongly that m3 theoretically deserves to be the standard, except that music diversity would suffer as people would no longer need to seek inversion alternatives. - I use either F# or G for #6 in m3. Reg 5ths was a good all around tuning for international music. It has equal access to intervals, & easy 5ths. –  Kristal McKinstry Apr 7 at 23:26

I've been using regular minor thirds ("diminished") tuning for 20 years. As best I can tell, this was also Django Rheinhardt's secret trick. Some early delta blues players used it as well.

The tuning lacks a bit of range, and I make up for this by making the highest interval (2nd to 1st string) increase by a perfect fifth (7 frets) instead of minor 3rd. This gives access to 13ths. You may also wish to substitute a heavier gauge 2nd string.

The only disadvantage I find is that 2nds and 4ths are unavailable as ergonomic diagonal barre chords, but who wants to play those anyhow?

The advantages are several: * All 12 semitones are in consistent sequence over a span of three frets, making any sort of rapid arpeggio in any scale available from any position. * As supercat's groovy graphics show, all common piano chords become simple four string diagonal; you never have to cross over open strings or stagger frets in both directios. If you really do want those 2nds and fourths, you can play ergonomic inverse diagonals from the other side of the neck. * Barre chords automatically lend themselves to nice bridge transitions. * Because the diagonals are so easy to finger and maintain without contortion, slide-guitar / slack key of any chord becomes child's play. Also a full range of chords becomes available using a bottleneck by adjusting the diagonal angle. * Not only is the left hand an ergonomic diagonal, but so is the right hand. With both hands sliding along the neck in unison it becomes simple to do full chords and scales as hammer-ons /offs with tappistry technique. For instance you can use your left hand as a background root scale, while the right hand does a lead up a M-third or 5th. * Because of the narrow regular tuning, it becomes almost as easy as piano to conclude what scale or chord you are playing, and thus rapidly advance your theoretical knowledge. * Chords no longer rely on open notes to accomplish and are thus also consistent from any position, so chord progressions can become as simple as sliding along the neck without much rethinking for a simple MI-MIV-mV.

For intermediate/advanced players there is one more critical compositional trade-off to remark upon. Minor 3rd tuning is ergonomically optimized for formal chord definitions such as those played by piano. In contrast, standard tuning forces one to artistically choose alternative chord spellings instead, except for simple chords near the nut employing open strings. Standard tuning involves various inversions or missing notes, which becomes a nightmare for comprehension by beginning students of music theory. Thus m3 is great for playing piano pieces directly as originally written without requiring crazy transpositions. On the other hand, if you wish to accompany a keyboard, mirroring chords, you might prefer the additional color of inversions, if you know how to find them. To a beginner this limitation of playing only true chord definitions may sound like no concern at all, however consider Paul Simon's 'Kodachrome' which opens with three alternative spellings of G Major - simply not accessible in m3 unless you wish to play chords 'bass arpeggio' style (which is what I often do actually, since it becomes so easy to do).

I wholeheartedly recommend regular minor thirds tuning to both novice and advanced players. The only significant disadvantage is that you can't learn fingering of songs by watching YouTube or buying tablature (but simple chord calls, i.e Bb-9th are immediately obvious anyhow, quicker than scanning tablature even). The intuitive consistent ergonomic layout which hastens both physical ear-hand response and theoretical understanding more than compensates for it's unconventionality.

[If you do want transcribe melodies from m3 or other alternative tunings, I've developed a more ergonomic system for that too. Write your tuning to the left of the string lines. However, instead of writing a 14 for a fret number, write a 12 above the lines when your hand switches to a position where the top index finger plays the 12th fret. The tablature to follow then has a 3 instead of a 14 on that line to indicate the third fret of that position. 'Third finger' is easier to navigate than '14th fret', and there is no more guessing which hand position will achieve the next frets you need to play.]

Kristal McKinstry Mar.2015

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Thanks much for writing. I've read various descriptions of regular tunings, but minor-thirds tuning always seemed to get a brush-off. What do you think about my tuning the fifth string tuned an octave down from the fourth, and the sixth string a fourth up from that? Since I asked the original question, I've decided to try stringing an Ovation guitar (hollowbody electric) with ball-end nylon strings, using a G string (the heaviest unwound one) on the fourth-string spot. Non-uniform string tensions are slightly annoying to play with, but I've gotten used to them, and... –  supercat Mar 28 at 16:14
...with many accompaniment patterns the guitar sounds like two instruments. On electric guitars, I've achieved a somewhat similar effect by sticking metal bars to the top four "strings" on the bridge pickup (so the bridge pickup adds a lot of treble to the bass strings, but not the upper ones). I've gotten myself a domain and started to set up a blog, but got stalled for lack of inspiration. Would you like to work with me on that? Chat me if so. –  supercat Mar 28 at 16:17
I considered trying your tuning, but it loses several of the advantages I created m3 for in the first place. I can adapt to other tunings intuitively, but like being able to instantly recognize my chord spelling in m3. –  Kristal McKinstry Apr 5 at 22:36
... I'm mostly playing fretless bass or fretless acoustic with six individual string pick-ups toggled to stereo effect channels, so the ergonomics are even more crucial playing slack-key (sliding my chords). My technique already sounds separate on #6. An easy way to get prepared guitar is to wrap a snip of brass wire around strings near the bridge, to accentuate harmonic (anti)nodes. –  Kristal McKinstry Apr 5 at 22:47
Stack overflow has a built-in chat facility; visit to chat there. Seems like we have a bit in common, since I could talk your ear off about the PIC as well as the benefits of tuning the top four strings to minor thirds. –  supercat Apr 6 at 3:43

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