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What are the advantages and disadvantages of an all-fourths guitar tuning being E, A, D, G, C, F (the high E and B strings being raised a half-step from standard tuning).

One reason to do this is that the fretboard now follows a symmetry of the circle of fifths.

As a consequence a second advantage is that chords can more easily be translated to other fretted instruments tuned in fourths (tenor banjo, mandolin, ukulele, etc.)

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    I thought mandolins were tuned in fifths? And there is at least one popular ukulele tuning that is essentially identical to the highest four strings on the guitar (D G B E), so there's two fourths and a major third in that tuning. – Todd Wilcox May 13 '18 at 4:57
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    Confirmed, you'd have to get a custom string set put together to tune a mandolin in fourths, although it seems like a few people do it. Standard mandolin tuning is G D A E, from lowest to highest, the exact same notes as the violin (I have always assumed a mandolin is a fretted violin with doubled courses that is strummed so it has a flat string profile). – Todd Wilcox May 13 '18 at 5:07
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    And it looks like the most common ukulele tuning is G C E A, which is just the top four strings on the guitar transposed up a fourth, except usually the G string is again an octave higher (i.e., it's a whole step below the open A string on the ukulele). – Todd Wilcox May 13 '18 at 5:10
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    Did you really mean half a up step from "open tuning" as you said? Or did you mean 'regular' tuning? – owjburnham May 13 '18 at 14:05
  • Whoops, E A D G is Ukulele, Bass. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stringed_instrument_tunings And as far and fourths or fifths I am equating them because one is the mirror of the other. – Randy Zeitman May 13 '18 at 15:18
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I've tried all-fourths tuning quite a bit. To me, it definitely makes purely monophonic playing a lot more instinctive (even having got used to standard tuning) - any little one-octave scale shape you learn can be moved anywhere on the neck.

… but many things relating to chords become more difficult. In standard tuning, The D, G, and B strings make a lot of major and minor triads easy - barred, they constitute a major chord by themselves:

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and from that, a two-finger hammer-on can be used to get to a chord a fourth up (as per the standard C-shape), which is a motion found in many rock riffs:

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there's a minor shape playable that spans only one fret (as in the standard A minor shape), that would span two frets in an all-fourths tuning:

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There's also a major shape that spans two frets (as found in the standard E major shape) that would span three frets in an all-fourths tuning:

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...as would the similar minor shape:

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Another thing that makes barre chords a lot easier in standard tuning is that with a full barre, the E, B, and top E strings constitute root and fifth (of an F-shape barre).

In rock soloing, the way that this minor third enter image description here played on the G and B strings can be easily be bent to a major third by bending the B string is one of the archetypal sounds of bluesy playing - and that would be harder in all-fourths.

Subjectively, when 'mucking around' in all fourths tuning, I'd also say I came across many fewer 'happy accidents' in terms of stumbling across interesting-sounding chord shapes and riffs. Standard tuning may seem illogical, but a lot of good stuff seems to 'fall out'!

As a consequence a second advantage is that chords can more easily be translated to other fretted instruments tuned in fourths (tenor banjo, mandolin, ukulele, etc.)

It would do if they were tuned in fourths, but often they're not - mandolins are normally fifths (like violins), the ukulele typically has a re-entrant tuning with the same tuning kink as the guitar, and banjos often use open tunings. All-fourths tuning does make the guitar more similar to bass tuning, though. (Note it may make more sense to tune bass - even 5-or-more string instruments - to all fourths if you are focusing on monophonic playing, which may be more common with bass).

You might find some other information at Why is the guitar tuned like it is?, although I don't think that's been asked or answered from quite the same perspective as this question.

  • What about using all-fourths solely to learn the fretboard? – Randy Zeitman May 9 at 0:52
  • @RandyZeitman i guess you'd only be learning the "all fourths" fretboard. Every new tuning requires you to re-learn the fretboard to an extent. For bass players, of course, all fourths is usually all they need to learn... – topo Reinstate Monica May 9 at 6:39
  • Learning the all fourths would make it easier to adjust to standard tuning than vise versa because it's a simplified version of standard tuning. – Randy Zeitman May 9 at 22:22
  • @RandyZeitman Maybe, but equally you could argue that once you've learned standard tuning you've already learned all fourths (e.g. across the bottom four strings of a guitar). The chord shape possibilities of standard are more extensive too. – topo Reinstate Monica May 9 at 22:36
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Right off the bat, barre chords are pretty much ruined. Some of the open chords are still ok, but others you'd have to mute the top strings in some cases where you don't currently have to. Some open chords (the C major shape, for example) free up a finger from one of the strings but then you have to use the finger on another string, so it's a wash (e.g., for the C major shape you can leave the second string open but you have to fret the second fret on the first string, or mute it).

Regarding scales, I'm not sure if there's a clear advantage or disadvantage because it just changes the pattern and for a given scale, some parts of the neck get easier and others get harder.

My mental exploration of this (to really get to the bottom of it, I think I'd have to actually try an all fourths tuning for a day or two) doesn't show me one solid advantage, and the loss of barre chords is a pretty significant disadvantage, and that's probably why the standard tuning for guitar has that major third in the first place.

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    Right, bar chords really are a nightmare with any such equal-spaced tuning. Though I would be interested to try all-fourths out on a guitar with fanned frets, which would make a straight bar chord go diagonally across a fret so you'd end up with an octave between the outermost strings again. (I actually have my fretless guitar set up this way, but bar chords don't really work at all on fretless.) – leftaroundabout May 13 '18 at 10:29
  • @leftaroundabout: I've wondered about whether it would be practical to have a guitar where some strings were 1/2 fret shorter than others, and have their own set of frets. If the strings were tuned a perfect fourth apart but the upper string was 1/2 fret shorter, a finger barred across the strings could play two notes that were either a major third or a perfect fourth apart, depending upon whether it was placed in just in front of or ust behind the upper fret. No idea if that would actually work, though, and I lack the budget to get a guitar custom built to try it. – supercat May 13 '18 at 19:10
  • The one solid advantage is to simplify learning the fretboard - the patterns can be simplified. – Randy Zeitman May 9 at 0:54
  • @RandyZeitman I'm not seeing it but you could add your own answer with that. – Todd Wilcox May 9 at 1:01
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Similar to the tuning on most 6 string basses. One of the points for playing a 6 string bass is that chords can be played - albeit 3 or 4 string chords, as much more gets muddy. And often not strummed, as one would with a guitar. But individual strings with individual fingers/thumb. This would work for a similarly tuned guitar, and every pattern in each key would be identical, obviating that M3 interval between 3rd and 2nd strings. So, playing individual runs/scales would be easier to learn and transpose.

Downside? Mainly the fact that barre chords would not be as effective. There would have to be changes in fingering, but mainly it would lose the bottom/top string double octave. As mentioned on bass, any solo work would be far easier to transpose across strings. But, as the guitar is a chordal instrument - I guess 80% of most guitar playing is strumming chords - the disadvantage would outweigh the advantage.

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If one wants to play a triad with a repeated octave on four strings tuned in fourths, the last bottom string will need to be played three frets above the top string. This situation applies to the bottom four strings of the G chord, and it would work fine when playing chords on four strings. Playing a rooted triad on five strings without skipping notes, however, would add another fret to the required stretch, which would put it just beyond the range of practicality. Shrinking the gap between G and B by one fret reduces the reach required to play a five-string major chord, making it much more practical.

Using an all-fourths tuning (e.g. E-A-D-G-C-F) there are a few ways one could try to play a five-string chord barre chord which skipped one note from the triad. One could try A-C#-E-A-E (5-4-2-2-4) which would be playable, but having the only third be more than an octave below the top note probably wouldn't sound good in most contexts. Trying A-C#-E-C#-E (5-4-2-6-4) would require an excessive reach. Trying A-C#-A-E-A (5-4-7-9-9) would require an even worse reach. A-E-A-C#-E (5-7-7-6-4) would be workable, but the only opportunity to fret two strings with one finger would be on the 7th fret, where it would be awkward.

Having the B string tuned down a fret makes five-string and even six-string barre chords much more practical. Indeed, Standard tuning is in some ways mathematically optimal from the standpoint of allowing a maximum number of practical and useful five-string and six-string chord voicings to be played with a barre finger plus three others that are within three frets.

Personally, I use a different tuning which places the upper strings much closer together (minor thirds) so that when playing consecutive notes of a chord the higher strings get played with fingers higher on the fretboard rather than lower. That tuning, however, does not allow for chord notes to be skipped between the upper strings the way Standard Tuning does (the lower strings are much more widely spaced, so chord notes are automatically skipped there). Having developed and explored my tuning, however, has given me an increased appreciation for Standard.

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I started playing all-fourths a couple of years ago and I immediately noticed that my ability to construct chords from intervals improved, as I was able to visualise the intervals much more easily. It also improved my ability to play in different registers, as I now only need to memorise a single moveable chord shape for a given chord rather than different ones depending on the set of strings used.

Many of the answers mention barre-chords, and this is definitely a disadvantage if you're playing the kind of music that calls for lush six-string chords. If the music can live with four-string chords then you might want to consider all-fourths.

  • Finally ... logic. As I said Ziltoid, the Open Tuning is for OPEN PLAYING. If one is strumming folk pop chords, or playing other's compositions then you'd switch to Open Tuning. Open Tuning be the secondary tuning. People who want to compose or become at least semi-serious players and learn music theory should learn the guitar in all-fourths. Would you say it's easier to switch to playing Open Tuning as needed once you learn All-Fourths or vise versa. – Randy Zeitman May 18 '18 at 14:56
  • I agree with the other answers that barre chords are made more difficult using the all-fourths tuning, but for me the main reason to avoid this tuning is that it limits fingering options in general when compared with standard tuning. I play lots of four-note voicings, and there are four note close voicings on the top four strings that are easier there. Drop-2 major 7th voicings in 1st inversion are quite a bit easier to play on the top four strings; I love these, and will play them anywhere, but they are easier on the top four strings. – David Bowling May 19 '18 at 7:01
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The "symmetry" of all 4ths in guitar tuning is a huge red herring. No one will likely play all the same chord type throughout a song. In fact the tuning of the guitar actually allows you to use the EXACT SAME FINGERING for all chords in the minor ii V7 i (e.g. B-7(b5) --> E7 --> A-7) in one position. You can't really get more symmetric than that.

I will not provide chord charts but consider the above progression in the key of D minor (F major) played at the 5th fret (A phygian mode, C-form for F maj). Playing E-7(b5) in it's first inversion (3rd on bottom), the fingering is equivalent to the D-7 but playing on the string group (D, G, B, E). That same fingering works for the D-7 with (A, D, G, B) string group, and finally for the A7 with (E, A, D, G) string group. Most guitarists would not play the progression exactly like this but (1) it works harmonically, and (2) makes soloing over the progression very easy and smooth as the arpeggios of those chords connect very nicely. The same idea works for many other three string and four string groupings in that common geometric structures are embedded in all the chords of a typical progression. Think of the history of the guitar, what type of music was traditionally played on it and the most common keys and progressions for those tunes. The tuning as is is pretty optimal.

  • Is your basic point that symmetry mitigates the possibilities of inversion fingering? – Randy Zeitman May 23 '18 at 21:17
  • Not at ALL. The original post appealed to symmetry to support the 4th tuning. – ggcg May 23 '18 at 22:20
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    Then I don't understand. You say it's a red herring (bad) then say you can't get more symmetric than that (good). – Randy Zeitman May 24 '18 at 1:17
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    But my point is that the 4th tuning sacrifices a natural beauty of chord forms within a key for a symmetry that is really not very useful (performance wise). – ggcg May 24 '18 at 1:25
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    Now it just seems that your getting defensive and we are talking past each other. "It mimics the cycle of fifths" is an opinion. The cycle is there for standard tuning. To be adept one should not be afraid of a single tuning. – ggcg May 24 '18 at 10:37
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Gotta say, one thing that gets waaaaay easier? Quartal Chords! :) Seriously, you can get some great sounds from this tuning, particularly if you like that open, suspended sound.

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