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I usually use some some of tuner to tune my guitar, but occasionally I will try to use the 5th fret method. In attempting to do so today, something puzzled me about the string setup on the guitar.

The 6 strings are as follows (from top to bottom): E A D G B E

The 5th fret method works based upon the fact that E is 5 notes from A, A is 5 notes from D, and so on.

However, G is only 4 notes away from B!!! If I play the 5th fret on the G string, the result is a C (verified by my tuner as well). Because of this, the 5th fret method does not work for me for the G and B strings: if my B string is tuned correctly (as a B) then it will be a B while the 5th fret of G will be a C.

What is going on? I have heard the mnemonic phrase "Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie" all of my life. But it does even seem to be right?

Summarized, here are my questions.

(1) Does the 5th fret system work, or not?

(2) Why was the standard guitar built the way it was, with each string being 5 notes apart except for G and B? I know that other versions of guitars (say with more strings) exist. Is there a good reference I could have that compares the setups for guitars, weighing their pros and cons.

Thanks so much for your time!

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    It’s standard knowledge that the B is a major 3rd from the G, not a perfect 4th like all other strings. When taught, the 5th fret method of tuning accounts for this exception by using the 4th fret only to tune the B string with the G. Jul 29 at 19:35
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    EADGBE might be top to bottom physically, but guitarists know the top string to be the thin E. Therefore it's clearer to state 'bottom to top' as being EADGBE.. And - 5 'notes' away is better stated as 5 'semitones' away. We don't call each fret a note, in interval terms. Pretty sure this is a dupe, also!
    – Tim
    Jul 30 at 6:55
  • one minor point to mention is that if the guitar intonation if off, then this method of tuning may give you well-tuned strings at the 5th fret area, bu the open chords are sometimes out of tune. If you hear this, maybe get it set up properly
    – Yorik
    Aug 4 at 14:11

4 Answers 4

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Don't get hung up on the idea that a method name like "5th fret method" provides an adequate description of the method. I have never heard it called the 5th fret method myself, but of course that is one common way to tune by ear. There are many other ways to tune by ear, too.

Does the 5th Fret System Work?

Standard tuning for a guitar is E A D G B E. The notes are all a fourth apart, except for G and B which are a third apart. To tune by ear, you compare the note on the 5th fret of a string with the open string above it, unless you are comparing the G string with the B string, in which case you compare the note on the 4th fret of the G string with the open B string. This is a very common way of tuning by ear; of course you need to get at least one string in tune by other means, e.g., using a tuner, tuning fork, pitch pipe, or some other reference (say, another instrument you are playing with).

When you tune like this what you are really doing is finding the same note in the same octave in different places on the neck and comparing the two sounds. I often tune by comparing the notes at the 10th fret with the notes on the 5th fret. That is, D on the 10th fret of the sixth string and D on the 5th fret of the fifth string, etc., but F at the 10th fret of the third string compares with F at the 6th fret of the second string (because the sixth fret of the B string is an F in standard tuning). I do this because I spend a lot of time playing in the middle region of the neck, and this can help get things to sound the most in-tune in the places that I am usually playing.

Another method I sometimes use is to play across the neck: the harmonics at the 7th fret of the sixth and fifth strings, the fretted notes at the 9th fret of the fourth and third strings, the open B and high E strings. Here the harmonic on the sixth string, the fretted note on the 4th string, and the open B string are all B in the same octave, and should sound as the same pitch. The harmonic on the 5th string, the fretted note on the third string, and the open E string are all E in the same octave. With this method there are three points of comparison for two notes spread out over a part of the neck that gets used a lot. This can be a very useful comparison for tuning.

Pros and Cons

The standard tuning evolved over many years. There are other ways to tune. One of them is "all-fourths tuning" which makes the tuning symmetrical by removing the third between G and B. This tuning is E A D G C F.

This has what some consider an advantage in that scale and chord shapes do not change from lower string sets to higher string sets. Say you are playing a chord that uses only the 6th, 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings. If your guitar is tuned in all-fourths, you can just move the same shape to the 5-4-3-2 string set, or to the 4-3-2-1 string set without any changes to play the same chord (possibly with a different root). In standard tuning you would have to modify the first shape to play the same chord on 5-4-3-2, and then modify the shape again to play the same chord on 4-3-2-1.

There are also disadvantages to all-fourths. Barre chords become much more difficult to play. In Standard tuning when you barre across a fret with a single finger you get the fifth and root of the chord on top, with the top root doubling the bottom root on the low E string. In all-fourths you have to form a "crooked" barre to catch the notes of the top two strings one fret lower than the root on the low E string. Not impossible, but not for beginners. Another disadvantage of all-fourths, in my opinion, is that it reduces the variety of possibilities when chording. That is, in standard tuning some fingerings that are difficult or impossible to play on the lower strings become playable on a higher string set, and vice-versa. With all-fourths there is no variation in fingerings across the fretboard so an impossible fingering on one string set is an impossible fingering on all string sets. As I said before, this is an advantage for some, but can also be a disadvantage for others.

All of that said, there have been some notable players who use all-fourths tuning. Off the top of my head, I believe that Stanley Jordan and Tom Quayle both use or have used all-fourths.

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This method works only for the strings which are a five semitones apart, you cannot tune the B string from the G string this way as you noticed. You have to do it with fourth fret with this couple of strings.

One reason the guitar is tuned this way is that it's fairly convenient to have the lowest and the highest strings playing the same note, which would not be the case if they were all spaced the same.

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  • What about using the G string 4th fret to tune the B? Jul 29 at 19:32
  • Yes of course, but this does not imply harmonics, harmonics are cool no?
    – Tom
    Jul 29 at 19:32
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    @JohnBelzaguy Actually, I misread the question, and though the op was talking about tuning with harmonics on fret 7/5...
    – Tom
    Jul 29 at 19:34
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    @JohnBelzaguy Especially the beating is way easier to hear IMO, especially with a bit of disto ;). Thanks for the correction!
    – Tom
    Jul 29 at 19:42
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    @JohnBelzaguy - more good ideas! Off piste, but I use 19th and 24th frets for bass tuning, played with r.h. finger and thumb, leaving left hand free to twiddle the knobs.
    – Tim
    Jul 30 at 9:05
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Answer 1). Bass guitars are usually tuned by what you call the '5th fret method'. That's mainly because basses aren't used for chord playing. (They can and are, of course, but nowhere near as much as guitars!)

Whereas guitars are often played as chordal instruments, with barre chords being utilised as we go up the neck to the dusty region. To facilitate that, the top and bottom strings are best tuned to play the same note name - namely E in most circumstances. That means that in order to achieve that, somewhere along the strings' tuning, there has to be an oddity - 4 frets to the next, rather than 5.

After many tries at reconciling this, the 3/2 string interval was found to make it easiest to play all sorts of chord shapes (beginners may disagree!), rather than any other pair of strings. Thus we have it. 5 frets between strings, except 3/2, which bottomed out at 4 frets.

7 string guitars continue the lower pattern, and retain the 5 frets interval, which is sort of in keeping with basses, and, again, works best.

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A visual would seem to make this much clearer...

enter image description here

I've not heard the name "5th fret method" but I understood what you meant. The important thing is to see that the tuning method is not all on the fifth fret.

Why was the standard guitar built the way it was

Standard tuning is almost all in perfect fourths. It's the B string that isn't tuned to a perfect fourth above the G string. Instead it's a major third. Why? If you tuned to all perfect fourths, the last two strings would be C and F. As an experiment you can actually to that tuning, then try playing the different open chords and barre chords. It's a big fingering problem! Tuning those top two strings down to B and E - the high E then being on the same fret as the low E string (think of the open strings as fret zero) makes chord fingering a lot easier.

There is a similar method of tuning the guitar using harmonics that may interest you. Here is a picture...

enter image description here

Notice how the B string again is the odd one out with the tuning pattern. You need to compare open B with low E string 7th fret harmonic. You can find lots of web pages and videos demonstrating it too.

Is there a good reference I could have that compares the setups for guitars, weighing their pros and cons.

I think you may be asking about alternate tunings. There are many ways to tune a guitar beside standard EADGBE. I don't have a handy reference for alterative tunings, but you should be able to find a lot online. There are a few reasons to use alternate tunings:

  • you can get different chord voicings that aren't easy in standard tuning
  • some alternate "open" tunings tune to an open chord and are popular for playing with a slide
  • many alternate tunings lower strings and that will change the guitar timbre (tone) and provide a deep resonant sound different from standard tuning.
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