In standard tuning, a guitar is tuned EADGBE (from low to high). This creates a series of perfect 4ths with a perfect 3rd between the G and the B strings. This probably seems strange. After all, why not make the tuning all perfect 4ths? It’s easier to remember. Why not tune a guitar in perfect 5ths like it’s done on instruments like the violin? What about other intervals like 3rds?

There’s a lot of good reasons why a guitar is tuned the way it is and, once you find out why, the standard tuning of a guitar will make perfect sense. Of course some people prefer other tunings like a drop D tuning or open tunings. These alternative tunings have their positives, but that’s for another article.

The Short Answer Of Why The Guitar Is Tuned The Way It Is

The easiest and shortest answer to why the guitar is tuned EADGBE is that it balances convenience of playing chords and scales with hand positioning. Other tunings would require the hand to have to stretch too far for play chords and wouldn’t be good for playing scales, and therefore difficult for lead lines.

That’s probably not much of an answer, but it is a great answer at the same time. The guitar was suddenly “invented.” If evolved from other instruments with similar and different tunings. People tried different ways to tune the guitar, experimented, and found what we call standard tuning to be the best.

Why There Is a 3rd Between The G And B String On Guitar

For a longer explanation, let’s explore the fact that most of the strings are a 4th apart, except the G and the B strings, which are a 3rd apart. If the guitar was just tuned in perfect 4ths, this question wouldn’t come up. It would seem consistent.

So think about how you would play guitar if it was tuned all perfect 4ths. The strings would be EADGCF. Why wouldn’t this work?

Chords Would Be Uncomfortable And Weird

Guitar chord diagram showing an open E chord.Take the open E chord for example. The open 2nd string (the B string) is the 5th of E. If it was tuned to a C, then when open you’d be playing a flat 6th. To fit into the chord you need to be either playing the root (E), the 3rd (G#), or the 5th (B). With the 2nd string tuned to a C, to hit any of those notes you’d either need to be fretting the 4th fret (E), 8th fret (G#), or the 11th fret (B). You might be able to do the 4th fret, but it wouldn’t be terribly comfortable.

Then, of course, the 1st string would be tuned to an F to be a 4th above the C. F is the flat 2nd of E, so get a third you’d have to fret the 3rd fret of the first string. Unfortunately you’ve already run out of fingers…

I’m not going to go through the other chord shapes to show why that B string makes things a lot more convenient, but you run into similar problems.

Why Isn’t The Guitar Tuned In 5ths?

Tuning a guitar in 5ths may actually work well for people with larger hands. However, having the strings tuned in 4ths creates a lower musical gap between the strings and therefore makes things less of a stretch.

Of course, as mentioned, instruments like the violin are tuned in 5ths, but these are smaller instruments. Richard Lloyd from Television goes into this in a lot more detail in this article by Fender.

Lloyd notes that the cello is also tuned in 5ths, which is approximately the same size as a guitar. However, since the cello is played upright, the musician is better able to stretch their hands over the wider gaps.

Why Isn’t The Guitar Tuned To A Specific Chord?

While you can tune a guitar to an open chord, it makes scales more difficult. Since the guitar is (mostly) tuned to perfect 4ths, you’re given easily repeatable patterns across the the fretboard. Learn a few guitar scale patterns and you’ve learned them all.

Of course that pesky B string gets in the way, which disrupts these patterns somewhat. However, it’s a consistent change and easy enough to adapt to while still creating relatively consistent patterns.

Can I Tune My Guitar To Different Notes?

Of course. There are plenty of alternative tunings out there, most commonly drop D tuning (where the low E is tuned down to a D) as well as open tunings (where the guitar is tuned to be a chord). There are also tons of tunings out there that are designed to make certain playing styles easier and more efficient. 

My suggestion would be to get used to standard tuning before you start playing with an alternative. Learn the rules first, then break them.

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