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I do know that the guitar with standard tuning is a transposing instrument sounding an octave below written pitch.

But what about a guitar with transposed standard tuning, can it be considered as a transposing instrument which isn't "in C"?

For example, if all the strings are tuned 3 semitones (minor 3rd) lower, it will sound a minor 10th below the written pitch (written/played C5 will be concert A3 etc.), so can it be named as "guitar in A"? As far as I know, it fits well into the definition of a transposing instrument.

  • A ukulele is commonly tuned a forth higher, often described as putting a capo on the 5th fret of a guitar. So the highest string is tuned to A (440) instead of E. – hpaulj May 15 '16 at 1:07
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Yes, this is--sort of--how it works. I've never seen an actual classical score which calls for a detuned guitar, but if you look at transcriptions of rock and blues, they'll write the music "in C" (i.e., as if the guitar were tuned to the most common pitch level of the tuning it's in) and then tell the player that the music will sound some interval lower or higher. Sometimes you'll actually get two sets of chord labels above the staff, the written and the sounding chords.

I've not seen anybody then actually call the guitar a transposing instrument (i.e., if you tune all strings down a whole step, then it's a "Guitar in Bb"); perhaps this is because the guitar uses so many alternate tunings that the relationship between fingerings and pitches is just too loose for that to be a practically useful concept.

For instance, the baritone guitar, tuned a fourth lower than a regular guitar (B-E-A-D-F#-B), is not considered a "guitar in G." You just have to suck it up and transpose. (This might have been done back in the days of banjo-mandolin-guitar orchestras; anyone know?)

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Ok, let's clear up some confusion.

First: The guitar is a transposing instrument. It sounds one octave below written pitch.

Second: The guitar is a "C instrument". What this means is that the guitarist reads "C", they play "C", and we all hear "C". Regardless of the tuning of the individual strings, this fact still applies.

In music, with respect to strings, we don't call it a "transposed standard tuning". The fancy word here is scordatura which just basically means "alternate tuning". What you're talking about is merely scordatura, which is something that all string players deal with.

To be absolutely clear with respect to transposition: If you did have a guitar "in Bb", then the guitarist would read a "C", would play a "C", and we would hear a "Bb". Since this is obviously not the case for many styles of music, the guitar therefore is, the large majority of the time, a C-instrument.

However, especially in popular styles (rock & roll, blues, funk), utilizing a capo may cause the guitar to be treated as a transposing instrument (though fairly common, this practice is not a universal standard among musicians). In popular styles, the notation will inform the position of the capo, with the chord-notation indicating the shape of the chord relative to the capo and not the sounding pitch. For example, a 1st-position C-major chord on an open guitar will sound as a C-major chord, but a 1st-position "C-major" chord on a 3rd-fret capo'd guitar will sound as an Eb-major chord.

That said, it should also be noted that even capo notation only relates to chords and that any individual notes traditionally notated on the treble clef will not be transposed, despite the capo. Further, it should also be noted that in addition to transposition being a non-standard performance practice of guitarists, notation I described in the preceding paragraph (which includes numbered tablature) is also non-standard, with both performance practice and notation usually associated with the lay musician (not a concert-trained classical guitarist).

If anyone here (or elsewhere) knows of specific, traditionally notated "serious" concert music wherein both chords and individual notes are notated for a transposing guitar, please add the resource in the comments. Many thanks to Todd Wilcox for the suggestion.

  • 5
    A guitar with a capo on it is most commonly treated as a transposing instrument that is no longer in C. The staff, tablature, and chord names usually indicate what to play as if the capo is the nut, rather than indicating the sounding notes. For example, music might say to place a capo on the second fret, and then indicate middle C on the staff and the third fret of the A string on the tablature. That means the player should actually fret the fifth fret on the A string (three up from the capo) and the sounding note will be D above middle C. Sometimes a guitar is not in C. – Todd Wilcox May 15 '16 at 3:23
  • @ToddWilcox Quite right, I made my answer with respect to classical guitar style and neglected to specify for popular guitar style. I'll amend my answer to be more specific; thank you for pointing that out! – jjmusicnotes May 15 '16 at 13:29

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