27/06/2009

Proposal for a new guitar tuning

Something that's always bothered me on the guitar is that the number of semitones between each string is not uniform as you go up. In the standard EADGBE tuning, Of the five between-string intervals, four are 5 semitones (fourths) but the gap between G and B is 4 semitones (a major third).

Why does this matter? To be honest, for 90% of guitarists it probably doesn't. But some of us started off on the bass, and a great thing about the bass is that if you are shifting a riff pattern across strings - say you're going up a fourth (very common in blues, obviously): you can just repeat your pattern one string up. On the guitar, if your pattern involves the G string and then up to the B string, you'll have to remember to go up and to the right one fret (if you're a right-handed guitarist). In most cases this is no great hardship but if you're wanting to play at very high speeds it can be a pain, frankly. At least, I think so.

So what alternative to the standard tuning could we use that would get us to five consistent gaps between the six guitar strings? Well, the most obvious thing to do is to stick with five semitone gaps - i.e. fourths - all the way up. This gives us EADGCF, and indeed some guitarists do use this tuning. However there is one nice feature of standard tuning which is abandoned by this tuning - which is that the top string is no longer 2 octaves above the bottom string. There's a comforting symmetry about this which also helps with the development of harmonic ideas (IMHO). It's not a deal-breaker, but if I could end up with a situation where the top string is an octave multiple of the bottom string, I'd like to.

So how do we get to this holy grail of tunings? My solution is in two steps:
  1. tune the whole guitar in major thirds rather than fourths - i.e. 4 semitone steps rather than 5.
  2. buy a seven string-guitar.

Starting from low E as with standard tuning, this gives you E-A flat-C-E-A flat-C-E. So in terms of the note-span of the open strings, you've got 2 octaves E to E as with the standard tuning, but spread over seven strings rather than six.

the new tuning has certain appealing properties:

  • phrases can be moved up strings without needing to change the shape to compensate for different gaps between one string and the next. This makes transposition of melodic ideas much easier.
  • phrases can be moved up an octave just by going up three strings.
  • Major and minor chord shapes are very simple and can be done over two adjacent frets.
In addition there are certain properties which are interesting - not sure if they are intrinsically positive but I'll mention them anyway:

  • chord voicings become denser than on the standard tuning.
  • the open strings play an augmented chord.
The problem is, of course, that you need a 7-string guitar to do it properly. And not many people have those (although you can buy one from heavy metal guitar specialists Ibanez for not much over £300). Not wanting to blow hard cash on an experimental concept until I'm quite sure I'm happy with it, I've retuned one of my old guitars to G-B-Eflat-G-B-Eflat. This tuning presents a reasonable compromise between not wanting to break the lower strings and not wanting the top strings to be too detuned.

I will be experimenting with the new tuning in the next immersion composition session with Burning Lodge and will let you know how I get on.

4 comments:

Julian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
voller said...

How did you get on with the new tuning? Do any ICS tracks use it?

Vincent Blair said...

fAwesome description of the Major thirds tuning...

I teach the Maj 3rd tuning exclusively..

http://major3rdsguitar.musicteachershelper.com/

-Vince
Founder of Major 3rds Guitar Studio

Anonymous said...

Vince,

I'd love to talk to you sometime about the Maj 3rd tuning. I've been using P4, but I'm thinking about a change.

Cheers,
Alex
alex_d_duncan@yahoo.com