I learned early in my guitar playing journey that what I would naturally assume would be the first string (the fattest string) is actually known in proper guitar anatomy parlance as the sixth string. And the skinniest string you play (which is the last string) is known as the first string.

This seems very counterintuitive and is very confusing for almost every beginning guitar student and often causes much tribulation and frustration when they forget what they learned in the first chapter of the lesson book. And for those aspiring guitarist who start out on random YouTube lessons, it may hinder their progress until they stumble across something that tells them that the strings are named the opposite of what they (logically) assumed.

On a piano the first key is the lowest key. On a harmonica, the first hole blow is the lowest note. Why is it opposite on guitar (highest string is called first string even though it's the last string)?

The down strum is the most natural strum on guitar and the one most beginners learn first. The FIRST string you strum in a down strum is called the sixth string. Why not call it the first string?

When you look at your guitar from playing position, the first string you see is the sixth string. Why can't we call that the first string?

I have googled this but can only find multiple articles that recite what I already know - (basically that the first string is the last string and vice versa).

I am absolutely certain it would be far less confusing if the "first" string (you come to) was called the first string and the 6th string was called the sixth string.

Does anyone know the origin of this illogical naming convention for strings on a guitar and can anyone offer any logic for it? I can't think of anything that makes any sense at all personally.

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    The number one is small, whereas 6 is bigger. So small (gauge) string is a smaller number?? – Tim Mar 2 '16 at 16:11
  • @Tim - your "guess" is as good as mine. There is some logic there. But logic better suited for string manufactures and not for musician learning the instrument. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 2 '16 at 16:16
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    Let's face it. There's a 50:50 on this. Not great odds. If it's not one way...and who said the first note on a piano is the lowest? Just 'cos it's on the left? And - you don't get a first key on saxes, etc! However - it's a moot point, and I want a good answer. – Tim Mar 2 '16 at 16:23
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    I never refer to strings by a number, I'd say low (or bottom) e and high (or top) e, as that way how my guitar teacher always indicated strings. But it would confuse me sometimes because the string that is lowest in pitch is the string which is highest in altitude and vice versa. – Dave Halsall Mar 2 '16 at 16:32
  • music.stackexchange.com/questions/22181/… – user6164 Mar 2 '16 at 16:55

It had to do with the evolution of guitar. And the fact that we've been extending the range ever since it was originally an ancestral instrument.

5-course baroque guitars

From Wikipedia:

...Meanwhile, the five-course baroque guitar, which was documented in Spain from the middle of the 16th century, enjoyed popularity, especially in Spain, Italy and France from the late 16th century to the mid-18th century...

Followed by:

...The Spanish vihuela, called in Italian the "viola da mano", a guitar-like instrument of the 15th and 16th centuries, is widely considered to have been the single most important influence in the development of the baroque guitar. It had six courses (usually)...

These short excerpts showed that although many shapes resembled the guitar (and most tunings as well), no one really agreed on the number of strings. They still don't actually.

But music was being written for it. And that's a problem when one note appears 5 times or more on a traditional instrument. Guitar staff notation should include string/finger markings.

Since guitar evolved, and added strings over time, the tuning became more and more standardized. Someone must have imagined that more strings would be added (presumably lower) over time, and so a reasonable assumption about string numbering was to start with the constants and add from there.

This theory is sound, even to the 9 and 10 string guitars we see now (With the exception of the Yepes 10-string Classical). The 9th is always assumed the lowest, and the 1st is always that high E we know and love (assuming no down-tuning). However, when people take 6+-string guitars and begin extending the range in the opposite direction, we run into a problem with this. Although it is still acceptable to assume the 1st string is always the highest in pitch.

Some of this answer is speculation, but I'm filling in holes as I come across evidence.

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    How would your theory work with bass guitars? Normally 4 string, but would you say G is the first string? If going on to 5 stringers, it's the 5th when there's a low B, maybe, but with a high C instead, does that become string 0? – Tim Mar 2 '16 at 17:13
  • Yes, and no. I mention the fringe case where extended range is above the norm instead of below: Although it is still acceptable to assume the 1st string is always the highest in pitch. – user6164 Mar 2 '16 at 17:28
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    @Tim I've never seen a "5 string bass" with a high C instead of low B. I'm not saying they don't exist, just that saying "the fifth string is the low B" makes perfect sense to me because it takes into account the vast majority of situations. – Todd Wilcox Mar 2 '16 at 18:56
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    I like that theory. If I read you right, you are saying that it is more likely to add heavier strings to the bass end if one is inclined to extend the range of a guitar like instrument by adding additional strings. I suppose there is a limit to how far you can go in the thin direction and still have a string that will have enough mass to vibrate the soundboard of an acoustic instrument. But you can add beefier strings with no problem. You may be on to something - plus 1. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 3 '16 at 0:10
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    Carcassi's method uses this numbering. I don't know if he was the first, but he certainly would have set a precedent. – hpaulj Mar 4 '16 at 7:47

Lutes, the predecessors of guitars, were notated in lute tablature. The highest string (like the highest notes in other scores) were written on the top of the system. Why would you number other than from top to bottom? Particularly because lutes came with various resonance strings (usually not fingered or even struck) and a varying number of bass strings. The top strings, in contrast, were rather dependably available and tuned and played.

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    In maths, graphs with positives number from bottom to top. – Tim Mar 2 '16 at 17:07
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    At the moment the Lute connection looks the most likely to me. I'm not a historian but I believe the top lute string (the Chanterelle) was usually single, rather than a double course, and intended for playing the melody. Is there a Lutenist in the house? – Andy Mar 2 '16 at 17:08
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    @Andy Not I, I've had to go luten-free for (mental) health reasons. – Todd Wilcox Mar 2 '16 at 20:56

This is probably one of those more or less arbitrary conventions that must simply be learned. If I had to guess why the highest sounding string of the guitar (and most stringed instruments as far as I know) is called the "first" string, I would say because it is the string most likely to play the melody. But I doubt we'll ever know for sure why this convention arose.

  • If it is indeed arbitrary - as is quite likely, I wonder what it would take to change the conventional nomenclature to a more logical system that would name the first string first string. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 3 '16 at 0:06
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    @Rockin Cowboy- I think the reason that it's arbitrary in this case is that there isn't really a more "logical" system. The lowest pitched string and the highest pitched string can both be "logically" considered to be the "first" string, no? – Scott Wallace Mar 3 '16 at 14:50

It's simple. The guitar strings are arranged top to bottom (high to low). So the top strings (the highest strings) begin at the top (i.e. strings 1,2,3) and the bottom strings (i.e. the lowest strings 4,5,6) are, well, at the bottom. That's why they are referred to as the 'bass' strings.

It would be far more confusing to the beginner if he or she was told to play a 'bass run' on the 'top' strings??

  • Sounds like a guess. Historically, guitar evolved from the lute, and tablature conventions may play a role here. Note that they are not referred to as base strings and base runs, but bass strings and bass runs. – ex nihilo Jun 13 '18 at 12:52
  • Thanks David for pointing out the mis-spelling of bass - however, the word bass means 'deep or 'low' [adjective deep, low, resonant, sonorous, low-pitched, deep-toned (e.g. a bass guitar)] It comes from the Middle English variant of base with the SS spelling taken from basso (i.e. a bass singer - operatic bass) [1400–50; late Middle English, variant of base with ss of basso] thefreedictionary.com/bass – Richard Jun 13 '18 at 14:21

A student learning classical guitar starts on the highest string. This makes a lot of physical sense since it is much easier to reach those notes. It also makes it easier for them to learn the relationship between the frets before having to reach all the way across the neck to the lowest string. The first string learned, the first string one physically arrives at, is the first string.

  • Except the first string isn't the one you first arrive at - 1st string is the thinnest string. The one closest to the ground. – Doktor Mayhem Dec 31 '18 at 15:28
  • @DoktorMayhem, how do you figure that one is not the first you arrive at the way one holds a guitar? It is the string closest to the first finger. – Heather S. Dec 31 '18 at 20:17
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    The thinnest string is the highest string (pitch, not distance from floor.) My answer is correct. – Heather S. Dec 31 '18 at 20:40
  • thinnest string is highest pitch, closest to floor, 1st string - yes, that is correct. But it is not the 1st string learned or 1st one arrived at, hence the downvote – Doktor Mayhem Jan 1 '19 at 14:57
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    @DoktorMayhem, my husband teaches guitar. I asked him what the first string taught (and he uses a curriculum) was, and he said the thinnest string. I also do not understand what you mean by not the 1st arrived at since it is closest to the first finger. Please explain. I suppose which string is first taught is dependent on which book one is using. I assumed (I guess wrongly) that this was standard. – Heather S. Jan 1 '19 at 15:03

Why is the first string the top one? Because the first strum you do is from top to bottom. Because the lower tone has lower frequency. Because when you place guitar in it's up position the first string is from left to right. Because when you play the guitar you press on frets from left to right to get higher notes. Because you start the scales from the lowest note.

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    You do know that the first string is the highest skinniest string and the bass or fattest string is called the sixth string? Seems counterintuitive and that is why I asked the question. So the open sixth string is the lowest note on the guitar. I think it would make more sense to call that one the first string. – Rockin Cowboy Apr 2 '16 at 13:29

Well, the highest string (E) is called 'chanterelle', both in guitars and violins, for it suits the tuning of the instrument. Baroque guitars are tuned (from lowest to highest): AA DD GG BB E

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    I'm sorry but, while being interesting, this doesn't seem to answer the question: "Why is the last string on a guitar called the first string and the first string called the sixth string?" – Tim H Oct 10 '18 at 8:14

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