What key is standard guitar tuning? The standard guitar tuning key is set at EADGBE. Each string is assigned a note, starting with the thickets string as E, and the next strings after that as A, D, G, B, and thinnest string as E two octaves above the other E.
Let’s pretend you’re about to pick up your first guitar. Either you would have it tuned for you or have it tuned yourself. Regardless, you’d probably have your guitar set to E, A, D, G, B, and E starting from the low string – the standard tuning.
This key signature appears as the central dogma for guitarists, regardless of experience. But like any convention, you might not have questioned how EADGBE became the “standard” – until you came across this article. Well, we did the hard work to help you out!
The Standard Guitar Tuning Key: E, A, D, G, B, and E
What sets apart the guitar from its cousins in the string family (such as the violin and cello) lies in its standard tuning. Most stringed instruments are tuned so that each open string would be set to fifths of the chord that precedes it. On the flip side, guitars are adjusted in the scale of a single minor third sandwiched in a series of ascending fourths.
From the thickest string (the low string) to the thinnest, a guitar would be set in a tuning key of EADGBE. It is important to mind that the two “E’s” do not correspond to one note. Instead, the last “E” (or the highest string) is two octaves above the first – in more straightforward terms, the first “E” would sound more bass-like!
Going back to your essential scales, it was mentioned that the standard tuning has a sequence of perfect fourths and a minor third. Specifically, the first three ascending intervals are perfect fourths (first E to A, A to D, then D to G). The following G to B is a minor third, followed by another perfect fourth (B to the last E).
Despite several ways of tuning a guitar, why has EADGBE become the “standard?” Simple answer – comfort and harmonies. Guitars are held differently compared to violins so that they sit horizontally to your body. Finger work through commons scales would run smoothly as left-hand movement would be kept minimum. This tuning also keeps the chords tightly grouped, allowing you to easily play famous harmonies via manageable patterns.
Here’s a great video analysis detailing the EADGBE standard tuning:
A Little History of EADGBE
Just as the survival of the fittest, the guitar’s standard tuning has its fair share of history.
To appreciate its conception, we have to venture back to the Renaissance. This era has been transitional for science and the arts – music was no exemption. At the end of this time, people were starting to move away from the popular four-course stringed instruments (each “course” is basically a pair of strings tuned to the exact same key).
After which, Europe started falling in love with five-course guitars (Italy’s guitarra battente, just to name one). Each course, starting from the thickest pairs to the thinnest, was tuned to ADGBE – basically the modern standard tuning of the six-string guitar, but without the lower E.
Five-course guitar-like instruments skyrocketed to popularity because of this same way of tuning. The minor third (G to B) sandwiched between the perfect fourths made it physically comfortable to hover through a guitar’s wide scale. Basically, you won’t have to overstretch your fret arm to progress from one chord to another.
Alas, this tuning method was adapted into the 16th century and was later modified for six-string guitars (while keeping the series of perfect fourths) – giving life to EADGBE.
Alternate Guitar Tunings
We’ve established that it’s a convention for guitars to be tuned to EADGBE. But you cannot necessarily deem something like the “standard” without having options, to begin with.
Being introduced to alternate guitar tuning opens a new world of creativity for a guitar novice. With a little of getting used to it, alternative tunings can help you access power chords and certain riffs way easier! You can also use them to add new flavors to your usual piece, as they can alter the way your guitar sounds.
We compiled below three of the most popular alternate guitar tunings:
This alternate guitar tuning was derived from EADGBE (by detuning the first, second, and sixth strings) after British folk guitarist Davey Graham got inspired by Moroccan music. It is often used for Celtic music because of its open strings retained from movable chords. You would also find this tuning well-suited for folk, rock, and metal.
Drop D Tuning
Because it is one of the easiest to learn, this is likely the most common alternate tuning on the guitar. It’s basically the same as standard tuning; only the low-E is detuned to a D. This alternate tuning was trendy in the late 1980s and early 1990s; therefore, you’ll hear it in several alternative rock tunes. It makes playing extensions a breeze.
DFEACD – so you’d probably need to detune all six strings of a standardly tuned guitar. It allows you to create one-of-a-kind tracks that would be impossible to construct on any other instrument (talk about inventiveness!). It accomplishes this by allowing you to play alternate chord variants all across the fretboard.
Keeping Your Guitar in Tune
But let’s say you’re still getting used to the guitar – and hence, would like to keep it perfectly in standard tune. How would you constantly make sure that everything’s well and dandy?
- Treat your guitar like it’s worth a million bucks. This is a no-brainer! Always make sure that your guitar is not exposed to the natural environment (keeping it in a bag or case would help). Always wipe down the strings with a light cloth after each jam session.
- Keep the strings fresh. Noticing that a string sounds a bit “dead?” probably it’s best to have it replaced!
- Strings need warm-ups too. When you get new strings, always make sure to stretch them out before use. You can do this by gently (heavy emphasis on “gently” as you don’t want to accidentally snap your guitar) strumming upward.
When describing the common fifth intervals in violins being applied to guitars, guitarist Richard Lloyd deemed it “god-awful.” These are pretty strong words, but they perfectly encapsulate why EADGBE became the standard. We’ve provided you with a comprehensive story on standard tuning’s rise to fame and some popular alternatives. Thank you for TUNE-ing in (get it?).
Joyce Ann graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies at New Era University. She especially enjoyed her journalism class and was nominated for Photojournalist of the Year. Joyce Anne loves music; she is a self-taught piano player. When she's not writing (or baking or watching documentaries), she's probably playing songs on the piano, mostly by ear.