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Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar

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DonMeixner 08 Aug 03 - 03:50 PM
greg stephens 08 Aug 03 - 05:21 PM
Uncle_DaveO 08 Aug 03 - 05:37 PM
Bee-dubya-ell 08 Aug 03 - 06:09 PM
JohnInKansas 08 Aug 03 - 06:18 PM
GUEST 09 Aug 03 - 08:13 AM
Willie-O 09 Aug 03 - 09:15 AM
Frankham 09 Aug 03 - 11:53 AM
DonMeixner 09 Aug 03 - 07:39 PM
Mark Cohen 10 Aug 03 - 04:06 AM
Peter T. 10 Aug 03 - 10:44 AM
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Subject: Theory:Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: DonMeixner
Date: 08 Aug 03 - 03:50 PM

How are these intervals determined. Why fourths like the current standard tuning is generally stated to be and not thirds or fifths.
Is it strictly a matter of ease of chord construction for a given number of strings? Is it a compromise amounting to what sounds best.
How much does instrument construction, string length, octave relationship of starting tones, and material have to do with it?


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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: greg stephens
Date: 08 Aug 03 - 05:21 PM

Don: the people who decided on the standard guitar tuning are no longer with us. They've been dead for centuries, and I dont believe they left notes of their intentions. You can guess at their motivation if you want,but it will only be a guess. Your question is unanswerable! Could be fun guessing, of course.

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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: Uncle_DaveO
Date: 08 Aug 03 - 05:37 PM

I imagine that various of those old, dead predecessors used different tunings, and some of them liked this, and some liked that or the other, and eventually a lot more found the EADGBE tuning useful than the others.

Dave Oesterreich

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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: Bee-dubya-ell
Date: 08 Aug 03 - 06:09 PM

I'm sure that the reason for standard guitar tuning being in fourths instead of fifths is a matter of just scale length. Fifth tuning would place first position notes at the fifth and sixth frets which would be beyond the stretch of most players. It's the same reason why the bass violin is tuned in fourths while the rest of the violin family is tuned in fifths. Generally speaking, the scale length of an octave mandolin is about as long as most people would want to deal with in a fifth-tuned instrument.   

Conversely, third tuning would lower the number of available first position notes considerably. Third tuning starting with the same low E as standard would be EGBDFA, with that high A being the equivalent of third string second fret in standard tuning. That would put the E which is standard's open first string at the 7th fret.


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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 08 Aug 03 - 06:18 PM

The common concept is that the "melody" instruments, like fiddle, are tuned in fifths since 3 or 4 notes is about all you can play on one string without moving the hand. You thus play up through the fourth, and then go to the next string. Tuning in fifths gives the greatest range - from lowest note on the low string to highest "first position" note on the top string.

With strings tuned in fifths, however, it is virtually impossible to play full (triad) chords, since two of the notes in any triad always fall on the same string (unless you can reach both ends of nearly an octave span, to play one of the notes an "octave up" on a lower string).

The interval of a fourth, between strings, is simply the widest string-to-string tuning that allows you to invert any triad to some form that can be played (all 3 notes) on three adjacent strings, or at least on some three strings you can reach. You could use any smaller interval, say a third, between strings, and it might even make chording simpler(?); but that would reduce the total range of notes you can play (without going down (up?) the neck). In the extreme, you could reduce the interval to a semitone - but then you'd need a separate string for each note and you'd have a piano strapped around your neck.

The "tuning in fifths" used on the "melody" instruments has the advantage that, for scales in "first position" at least, when you move to the next string in a scale you're at the same "fret positions." With tuning in fourths, when you move to the next string, you also have to shift to an adjacent fret. This makes it a little awkward to play a melody line, hence the "drop" in interval on the B string. Most melody lines are played in the top pitches, and the shortened interval between the G and B strings "lines up" the frets used in typical scales played across those two strings. (It may also help with the "adds," since the 6s and 7s, out of normal triad spacing, are usually tacked onto the "top" of a chord.)

This is a pretty simplistic outline of what's been given me as the "traditional" explanation. The real answer to why that's the way most people do it is "because it works pretty well."

Alternate tunings (Scordatura, for the theory snobs) have been used for centuries. von Biber wrote several pieces in the 1600s(?) for which he demanded that the fiddles tune to his unusual specifications - and tabbed the finger positions they should use.
It's also a well established and fairly common procedure for folk fiddlers.


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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
Date: 09 Aug 03 - 08:13 AM

Good answers Bruce and JohninK,
And for physical evidence of the phenomenon -- try playing a Weber octave mandolin like you would a mandolin. It's scale length is so close to that of a guitars (probably is the same as my gibson's) that you almost can't do a melody line on it.

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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: Willie-O
Date: 09 Aug 03 - 09:15 AM

or maybe, they just wanted to make it hard to play fiddle tunes on guitars. Perhaps they didn't like fiddle music!

John's detailed explanation makes a lot of sense. It is however not difficult to play complete triads on a mandolin, which of course is tuned in fifths. The standard bluegrass chord forms include all three notes. Unless of course you want to get fussy and have them in order of 1st, 3rd, 5th bass > treble, but the concept of 'bass' is of course irrelevant to a mandolin.

Having owned a few longer-scale instruments tuned in fifths, like an oud, (well I tuned it in fifths anyway) I can testify that they are quite quite difficult to play those same chords on though.

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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: Frankham
Date: 09 Aug 03 - 11:53 AM

Don, I think it's because the top three strings are tuned to facilitate a consonant harmony. The top three string constitute an E minor chord in third position. (Or a G6 chord). These are generally the chordal part of the guitar especially for beginners. The bottom three strings are in fourths which would constitute the movement of bass notes. The reason for this is that if you put an interval of thirds in the bass notes, you would have mud.

So it was arrived at to accomodate both the use of chordal and bass lines in combination. The lute, and it's antecedent the Vihuela have a slightly different tuning and does not accomodate the bass-chord approach as well.

Frank Hamilton

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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: DonMeixner
Date: 09 Aug 03 - 07:39 PM

Thanks everyone. THis is why I enjoy this place. Readearch at the drop of a hat.


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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: Mark Cohen
Date: 10 Aug 03 - 04:06 AM

Just to confirm John in Kansas' statement about nonstandard tunings being used fairly commonly by folk fiddlers, Bruce Molsky's album "Lost Boy" includes these tunings:

Wolves a-Howling (GDGD)
Sally Cooper (GDAD)
Bill Brown (AEAC#)
Lost Boy (GDAE)
Salt River (AEAE)
Yellow Barber (GDAE)
Buck Hoard (AEAE)
8th of January (ADAE)
The Cuban Two-Step Rag (GDAE)
The Drunkard's Hiccups (Tommy Jarrell) (AEAC#)
Buffalo Girls (AEAE)
The Blackest Crow (Tommy Jarrell) (F#C#F#C#)
Indian Squaw (GDAD)
Arkansas Traveler (ADAE)
The Brushy Fork of John's Creek (AEAE)

I'm sure there's a reason Tommy Jarrell tuned his fiddle to F#C#F#C#...probably because he didn't want any guitar players butting in!

And of course, the old Hawaiian slack-key guitarists would keep their tunings a closely-guarded family their recipes for poke or lomi-lomi salmon!

By the way, thanks, John, for a very neat explanation.


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Subject: RE: Theory: Tuning Intervals, Guitar
From: Peter T.
Date: 10 Aug 03 - 10:44 AM

While we are on this subject, I wonder if the use of open tunings "D" and "G" are played by blues guitarists because they are easy (this is the usual explanation), or whether the use of a blues scale does something with the playing across the frets as discussed above. The scale notes do seem to be very comfortable.


Peter T.

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