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What Is The Standard Tuning For a Classical or Acoustic Guitar?

Learning to tune a guitar is one of the first skills a musician must master.

The process may feel daunting for beginners, but, in reality, with patience and the right steps, it can become second nature.

Standard tuning plays a vital role in the ease and quality of playing, vibrancy of sound, and the overall musical experience. It is also important to learn the standard tuning of a guitar since it will be the basis on which you will learn most songs. Also, most other guitars are tuned in this way, so if you find yourself playing someone else's guitar you will understand how to play it correctly.

Here is the standard tuning that you need to tune your guitar to...

E, A, D, G, B, E

Starting from the thickest string to the thinnest, the standard breed tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E. This is also known as EADGBE tuning.

So let's go through it

Commencing with the lowest sounding (and thickest) string, the sixth string, this is tuned to 'E'.

The fifth string tuning follows (the second thickest string), set to 'A'.

Next, we have the fourth string, traditionally tuned to ‘D’.

As we progress, our third string is calibrated to ‘G’, a pitch that is often associated with the guitar.

Penultimate comes the second string, which resonates 'B' when appropriately tuned.

Concluding our tour across the guitar neck is the first string. The highest sounding string is also tuned to ‘E’, albeit at a higher octave than the sixth.

This sequence, often reverberated as E-A-D-G-B-E, provides the foundation for the vast majority of music written for classical guitar, offering diverseness in chord structures and melodic lines.

Methods of tuning—how to tune a classical or acoustic guitar to standard tuning

ONLINE TUNERS: One easy way to tune a guitar is by using an online tuner like the one found at tuner-online.com. If you have a laptop or a computer with a microphone connected the program can listen to your guitar and tell you where you should tune your string.

SMARTPHONE APPS: In addition to online tuners, another popular method is using a tuning application on your smartphone. These applications operate on the same principle as their online counterparts but have the added advantage of portability.

Numerous tuning apps are available for both iOS and Android platforms. They use your phone's in-built microphone to capture the sound of your guitar and provide real-time feedback on how to adjust your strings.

DIGITAL TUNERS: Digital tuners are clipped onto the headstock of the guitar and tune using the vibrations of the instrument when a string is plucked. Kennedy Violins sells a number of digital tuner options.

Regardless of the method chosen, it is essential to understand that tuning a guitar is not a one-time activity. Due to factors such as temperature changes, humidity, and regular playing, guitars can often fall out of tune. Regular tuning ensures the instrument is always ready to produce the correct sound, contributing significantly to the overall quality of the music you play.

Steel strings of classical guitar in room

Why is standard tuning, well... standard?

History of standard tuning

The standard tuning for guitars, EADGBE, differs from the fifth-interval tuning common to instruments like violins and cellos. This tuning sequence was borne out of a mix of musical convenience and physical comfort, aimed to streamline transitions between basic chords and scales. It marked a departure from the four-course guitar-like instruments prominent since the Renaissance era.

The five stringed guitarra battente (an Italian instrument first seen in the 1500s) used ADGBE tuning. The major-third interval between the third and second strings (G and B) was introduced to simplify fingering and maintain a perfect fourth interval between the first string (E) and the second string (B). Notably, Richard Lloyd, a former guitarist and respected music instructor, reasoned that larger-scaled instruments like guitars, played resting in the lap, are better suited to fourth-interval tuning. This approach has been carried forward, forming the basis of today's standard guitar tuning.

The musical reason behind standard tuning

The arrangement of pitches largely came about from the needs and habits of musicians and composers, shaped by factors such as playability, versatility in chord voicings, and the range of the instrument.

One notable aspect of standard tuning is that it is mostly tuned in perfect fourths. This means that each string (starting from the lowest, or the 6th string) is tuned to a pitch that is a perfect fourth interval higher than the previous one. The term 'perfect fourth' refers to a specific musical interval - in Western music theory, a perfect fourth spans five semitones.

This tuning in fourths facilitates certain chord shapes and scale patterns that are easier to play and remember, which in turn makes the guitar an accessible and versatile instrument. The 'fretting' hand can maintain a relatively consistent shape while moving up and down the neck, and it's possible to transpose chords and scales across strings without having to significantly alter fingerings.

There is, however, one exception to this rule: the interval between the G (3rd string) and B (2nd string) is a major third, not a perfect fourth. The reason for this is twofold: it extends the range of the instrument and allows for common chord voicings and fingerings. This tuning provides a greater range of pitches on the guitar without having to add more strings, and it also allows for more convenient chord voicings, since many commonly used chords can be played with fewer finger movements. The major third interval between the G and B strings makes it easier to play many common chord shapes, especially those used in popular and folk music.

what is the standard tuning for a classical guitar

Alternative tunings... are there more options than just standard tuning?

Alternative tunings, often called open tunings, offer a different approach to playing the guitar and can be advantageous for several reasons. These tunings adjust the pitches of one or more strings, creating new tonal possibilities, chord voicings, and scale patterns that might be challenging or impossible to achieve in standard tuning. Some of these tunings, such as DADGAD or open G tuning, are designed so that strumming all the strings without pressing any frets results in a complete chord, which provides a resonant, full-bodied sound that can be especially useful for slide guitar playing or fingerpicking styles.

In some cases, musicians use alternative tunings to facilitate the playing of certain pieces or styles of music. For example, folk and blues guitarists often use open tunings to enable drone-like sounds and slide techniques. Others might use them to explore new soundscapes and create music that breaks away from traditional harmonic patterns, making their work more distinctive.

In genres like metal and rock, lower tunings (where strings are tuned lower than standard) are popular for their ability to provide a heavier, deeper sound. Meanwhile, singer-songwriters may prefer alternate tunings because they can offer unique chord voicings and harmonic textures that can enrich the emotional impact of their songs.

Additionally, alternate tunings can sometimes make it easier to play certain chords, making them accessible to beginner guitarists or those with physical limitations. Ultimately, the choice to use alternative tunings depends on the artistic vision, musical preferences, and technical requirements of the individual guitarist.

Highlighting some common mistakes while tuning and how to avoid them

Tuning a classical guitar perfectly can indeed be tricky if you're not familiar with the proper techniques.

One common mistake to avoid is failing to check the condition of your strings. Old, worn-out strings are challenging to keep in tune, as the tension tends to destabilize. Begin by thoroughly inspecting and maintaining your strings regularly.

Over-tightening is another common misstep. While tuning, it's critical not to stretch the string too much, as this could potentially lead to breaks. Start from a lower pitch, incrementally tightening until reaching the desired tone.

Misunderstanding string notes often leads to improper tuning too. The standard tuning, starting from the thickest string towards the thinest, is E, A, D, G, B, and E.

Remember, using a good tuner and tuning frequently will improve your skills over time. It gets easier, and before you know it, you may even start tuning by ear.