I was always a guitar player and so I never really cared about the difference, but since starting piano it is a bit annoying writing the guitar parts since I always have to transpose by an octave. Is there any reason why you can't write guitar music just the same as piano on the grand staff? I think if you use both instruments then wouldn't it make more sense to keep the guitar in its right octave?

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    Proposal: all guitar music should be written in alto clef instead. Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 11:51
  • Closely related question.
    – guidot
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 13:40
  • @MichaelSeifert - that would most likely work quite well. 'But we've always done it this way...'
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 15:16

3 Answers 3


I'm following up on @Tim's answer. I didn't use a comment because I wanted to show a picture and discuss it.

enter image description here

As you can see, the notes that fit on a typical guitar fret-board fit nicely on the treble stave. There are roughly the same number of ledger lines above and below the stave.

I personally have trouble with more than 3 ledger lines and in the picture you will notice that this takes you neatly from bottom E on the open 6th string to top E on the twelfth fret of the 1st string. Ok there are a few higher notes but these are much more rarely played.

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    Thanks for the diagram. I agree that they do fit nicely but they fit rather nicely on the grand stave without having to use any additional ledger lines and those playing piano are already used to these notes and the grand stave. I guess I am just not so convinced that writing the guitar like this is right if you are already used to piano. Yes, if you only play guitar then it is better because you dont need to learn the bass stave.
    – user35708
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 6:01
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    @armani - if you're used to piano (maybe 10% of guitarists) then just using treble clef is no big deal. Often the r.h. in piano music uses ledger lines. I reckon if guitar music was written on grand stave, even fewer guitar players would bother with dots!
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 9:12
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    So why is guitar music not written in a tenor clef? That looks just like the treble clef, but with a subscript ‘8’ indicating that it's written an octave higher than it sounds. It has the benefits of fitting nearly on the stave and being precise about the actual pitch. (Which is exactly why it's used for tenor voices, of course.)
    – gidds
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 13:56
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    @gidds - Have a look at this ---> classical-guitar.net/Pic/classical_guitar_score.gif .You might spot a little subscript lurking there. This is the norm for classical guitar. Transcriptions of popular music tend to simplify. They don't want to constantly field questions about "What does that little 8 mean?" Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 14:04
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    @npostavs That page says: “As the true tenor clef has fallen into disuse in vocal writings, this "octave-dropped" treble clef is often called the tenor clef.” I've never heard of nor seen this ‘true’ tenor clef in any vocal or choral music, so that ‘often’ may if anything be an understatement :-)
    – gidds
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 15:57

If it was written in the same octave that it was played in, it would stray too often into the much lower parts of the grand stave. By keeping it where it is written, apart from the notes on the bottom and 5th string, most of its notes are happily placed within the treble clef, with only three ledger lines needed below that for the lowest notes.

Putting the notes into the bass clef would mean that too often, the notes played would be on even more ledger lines above that stave.

  • This is most interesting. I did read that if you play a C Major chord on the guitar, you also have to play the C and the E an octave higher in order to make it sound "fuller". Why do you have to do this, Tim?
    – cmp
    Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 20:19
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    @JohnnyApplesauce - no, you have the guitar upside down!
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 4:58
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    @Tim thanks. So what if it strays into the bass clef? It sounds like you are saying that the bass clef should be avoided.
    – user35708
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 5:58
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    @cmp You don't have to do that; it's just that in the most common position, the C chord includes an extra C and E above.
    – Javier
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 12:40
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    @MichaelCurtis - what would be the point in complicating the issue with changes of clef? With a range of a comfortable 3 octaves without going too far up the neck, the treble clef one octave out works, and has worked for a long, long time. If it ain't broke...
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 12:52

As to the original question, I think it was answered somewhere in there. But there was a lot of convoluted speculation about the issue. The rule is simple: the actual pitch intended is to be written higher (so it sounds an octave lower) on the treble staff with the guitar's open, low E string in the space below the third (F) ledger line. Unfortunately, many arrangers/orchestrators and composers were never taught this, so sometimes it's up to the guitarist to figure out the intention. It is currently (and for a very long time) the best way to do it. And the reason is, as suggested, you'd get blurry-eyed and frustrated counting ledger lines below the staff. On the other hand, and though it probably will never happen, a grand staff for guitar might work because modern electric guitar playa way above the staff. Now I'm speculating 🤔. Sorry. Anyway, the use of 8va etc. is a reasonable approach.