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Where Did 'Standard Tuning' Come From?

Diving into the Tuning of the Traditional Guitar

John Marvin Scott

How long have you been playing guitar? Some people can't even remember that far back. But what if I asked you how long you've been playing in standard tuning?

The largest collection of guitar music is played in what we know as standard tuning. Standard tuning is a tuning mostly based on the interval of a perfect fourth, but with a major third between the fourth and third string. We see the fourths consistently from E-A-D-G, then we see the third come in from G-B, and then another perfect fourth from B-e.

When I began studying music, and started to learn more advanced shapes, chords, and learned more and more about music theory, a couple of questions rose into my head.

  1. Why is the guitar tuned like it is?
  2. What is the history of standard tuning?
  3. What if I didn't play in standard..?

I'm going to show you a little bit of music history by talking about the history of standard tuning, where it comes from, and why it is the most prominent tuning used on the guitar today.

First things first, in order to find out why the guitar is tuned the way it is, we must go WAY back to when the first guitars were invented. According to Michael Kasha's A New Look at the History of the Classic Guitar, the guitar was traditionally defined as an instrument which was "a long, fretted neck, flat wooden soundboard, ribs, and a flat back, most often with incurved sides." In musical terms, something with a definition as this can be called a chordophone.

Now ... What is a chordophone? It is an instrument that produced sound with the use of vibrating strings. Makes sense for a definition of the guitar, right? Well, now let's talk about other instruments that fit this definition.

The guitar's history is long! There are tons of factors that dive into what the instrument came from, but from looking at history, the modern guitar as we know it (classical and acoustic instruments) came somewhere from Spain. The guitar as we know it also has two main cousins, the European lute and the Middle Eastern Oud.

If we look at these two instruments and see how they were tuned we might be able to come to a general idea as to why the guitar was tuned the it is. Let's take a look at the lute first. Unfortunately for us, the lute was made in all different sizes, and all different courses (a course is a string pair since the lute usually had multiple strings on one pitch). With this being said, a six-course Renaissance lute was generally tuned to the same tuning as a tenor viol, which was ALMOST tuned to the same intervals as the guitar we know today! A perfect fourth up until the fourth and third string, which were separated by a major third.

The Oud, on the other hand, has a very different tuning structure. It is possible that the guitar took some of the tuning ideas from the Oud, but it is more likely that the technique of using a plectrum was the main thing that was taken from the guitar, and even this concept wasn't taken until far into the history of the guitar.

There it is! The history of standard tuning! We can see that the guitar takes its tuning from the European Renaissance Lute, which in my opinion is pretty wicked. Now to answer the next question ... Why is this tuning so common?

The reason commonly agreed upon by many guitarists in the community is that the tuning is used because of its ease to play "open chords." This is absolutely correct. The real reason is that historically, the lute was also tuned this way. Since the guitar is based on the lute, we must consider that everything we do on the guitar regarding tuning comes from that of the lute. If we changed the tuning of the guitars, the traditional "cowboy chords" that we all first learn on the guitar would be drastically more difficult to learn.

There is an argument that the guitar is tuned this way due to the way the intervals and frequencies resonate with the guitars. This has less to do with the tuning and more to do with the design aspects of the guitar. For example, if someone wanted a guitar that resonated with different tuning, they could do that, but the design of the guitars internals would be drastically different.

Okay, so ... Everyone and their dog plays in standard tuning. It's part of the history of the guitar, and it makes basic triadic shapes and chords easy to play. What if I want a challenge? This is where the world of alternate tunings comes into play!

I will be writing an article VERY soon about the history of alternate tunings on the guitar with a list of the most common tunings from symmetrical tunings, to open tunings, to custom based ones! I will also go into detail with why learning multiple tunings is worth your time.

If you like what you're reading, and feel like you're learning something while reading my posts, I would greatly appreciate a tip. Your support helps me and inspires me to continue to write.

Until next time!

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