Why is a guitar tuned to E? The answer is actually pretty simple. It’s tuned as E-A-D-G-B-E to prevent your fingers from tangling! Yes, the main reason why guitars are tuned to E is to ensure that you can play them easily.
Violins are tuned in G-D-A-E. Cellos are tuned in C-G-D-A. Tenor banjos are tuned in G-D-A-E or C-G-D-A. Harps are tuned in C-D-E-F-G-A-B in multiple octaves. You’ll notice that these stringed instruments have tunings that begin in either G or C.
However, when you look at a guitar, the tuning is E-A-D-G-B-E. Of all the instruments in the string family, the guitar is perhaps the only one that has an E tuning. Have you ever thought about why that is?
In this article, we’ll take a look into the history of string instruments’ tuning and how the E-A-D-G-B-E tuning of guitars came to be.
Tuning in Fifths
One thousand years ago, musicians who used stringed instruments had decided that the best way to tune their violins, harps, cellos, and the like, is in fifths. What that means is that the interval between each string is a perfect fifth.
The main reason for this is to make it easier to play double stops. Additionally, this sequence is also proven to produce richer overtones compared to instruments tuned in fourths. However, a guitar’s tuning is a different story.
Guitars are tuned in ascending perfect fourths and one major third. So, from low E to A, and from A to D, and from D to G, all of these are ascending perfect fourths. The next string, however, is a major third, which is from G to B. Then, it’s followed again by another perfect fourth, which is the B note to the high E.
It seems as though the guitar is the black sheep of the string family, but it’s all for good reasons.
The E-A-D-G-B-E Tuning of Guitars
One theory as to why keyboards use the QWERTY sequence of letters instead of the alphabetical ABCDEF is for ease of writing. As you see, when you’re typing, you’re likely to press some letters more than others.
If we use the ABCDEF sequence of letters, it would be difficult for our fingers to work together because there are spots where you’re likely to press more. Additionally, the QWERTY sequence also prevents the strikers in typewriters used in the late 1800s from locking up.
So, why are we telling you this? Well, because the basic principle of this story is how we came up with the E-A-D-G-B-E tuning in guitars.
Nearly five hundred years ago, musicians came to the conclusion that guitars should be tuned in E-A-D-G-B-E for better playability. However, guitars used to have five strings only. Nonetheless, these five strings had already adopted the A-D-G-B-E tuning of guitars, which means it’s perfect fourths with the exception of a major third interval between G and B.
In the 1700s, a sixth string was added to the guitar so that musicians could play more notes. To continue the perfect fourths of A, D, and G, the sixth string that was added is tuned at the low E. Hence, we arrived at the standard guitar tuning of E-A-D-G-B-E.
How Does the Standard Tuning Help Guitar Players?
The main reason why we use this standard tuning is to find the balance between playing chords and playing scales while minimizing the movement of our hands along the frets.
You see, when you play scales or melodies in string instruments like violins or cellos, it’s relatively easier if the strings are tuned in fifths or fourths. The repetitive sequence of the strings means our hands don’t have to reach far into the fretboard of the instrument to play the next note.
However, guitars are played not just in scales or melodies but also in chords. The problem with the all-fifth or all-fourth tuning is that the two high strings, which are the two strings at the bottom of the guitar, would require farther stretches of your finger to play the chords.
So, instead of using mainly ascending perfect fourths, guitars use a major third between G and B. Because of this, the tones on the higher strings would be reduced by one fret when you’re playing a chord. This sequence makes it easier to play simple chords on the guitar.
Additionally, the standard tuning also makes it favorable to play sharp keys. Since the E, G, A, and D, are all tuned to the right notes for sharp keys, guitarists would just have to leave these strings open. Because of this, sharp keys would be more resonant since you don’t have to press on them to play them.
The Ergonomic Benefit of Standard Tuning
A guitar falls under the classification of large-scale instruments when compared to a violin or ukulele. It’s in the same class as a cello. However, one major difference is that the cello is played upright while the guitar is played on one’s lap.
So, when you’re playing the cello, you’d only have to move your left hand vertically, making it easier to reach various notes. On the other hand, a guitar’s fretboard is diagonal or perpendicular to the player’s body.
Because of this, the guitarist would have to bend his/her wrist to press on the strings. One problem with that is when you bend your wrist, it becomes a little more difficult to spread your fingers. Cellos or violins often only require you to press one or two strings, but when playing the guitar, you usually have to press three, four, or even six strings simultaneously.
This is one of the reasons why a guitar is not tuned in fifths. Tuning it in fourths would make the notes closer to each other, which means you don’t have to spread your fingers too far to play two or three notes at the same time.
So, if tuning it in perfect fourths is ergonomically beneficial, why does the standard tuning use a major third? Why not use an all-fourths tuning? What would happen to the guitar if it’s in all-fourths?
What if the Standard Tuning is All-Fourths?
If the guitar uses an all-fourths sequence, the tuning would be E-A-D-G-C-F. Even though this sequence uses ascending perfect fourths, there would be an interval of minor 2nd between the high and low string since E and F are only half-step apart.
The minor 2nd interval does not always sound great, so guitarists would frequently avoid this. However, avoiding this would mean you’d have to compensate when playing barre chords in an all-fourths sequence, which is almost impossible.
The guitar is the most widely used instrument in the entire world. Most musicians started their journey by learning this instrument. That’s probably because of how versatile they are.
Guitars can be used and enjoyed by children, amateurs, and professional musicians. It doesn’t matter if you’re very skilled or have little knowledge about the instrument, because there’s always something new to learn about the guitar.
Just be sure that the one you’re using is at the proper tuning, which means it’s tuned to E. This will guarantee that all the notes, scales, and melodies you play on the guitar will sound great!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.