Standard Tuning on Guitar Explained: Why It’s “The Standard”

Standard Tuning on Guitar Explained

Standard tuning on a guitar is called “standard” for a reason. Here’s everything you need to know about standard tuning, including its history, why it is so popular, and how it came to be…



Go into any guitar shop on planet earth, pick up a guitar and play it. The guitar will be in Standard Tuning. The vast majority of pop music – that use guitars – is in Standard Tuning. And bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Opeth, and the Beatles all used Standard Tuning.

But if you’re completely brand new to the guitar, and no one has told you about you about Standard Tuning you’re probably A) completely confused by what Standard Tuning is and B) why it is called Standard Tuning.

This article is designed just for you, the absolute beginner. Below, we’ll discuss how Standard Tuning became Standard Tuning, why it is used, why it is preferable for beginners to learn in Standard Tuning, and how Standard Tuning applies to other guitar tunings like D Standard or C Standard.

What is Standard Tuning on Guitar?

Standard Tuning on Guitar Explained

Standard tuning on the guitar refers to the way the six strings are tuned to specific pitches. In simple terms, it means tuning the guitar strings to the notes E, A, D, G, B, and E (from lowest to highest).

This tuning has become the most widely used and accepted method for tuning guitars. This is why all guitars, and most modern and classic rock, as well pop, jazz, and blues, are played in Standard Tuning.

The History of Tuning – It’s Pretty Complex…

The origins of standard tuning can be traced back to the 16th century, when the lute or the five-course guitarra battente, both predecessors to the modern guitar, were popular instruments in Europe.

The five-course guitarra battente, which had five strings, was tuned ADGBE, just like the top five strings of a modern guitar minus the low E string.

As the guitar evolved from the lute, its number of strings increased, and various tuning systems were developed. However, the tuning we know today as “standard tuning” didn’t become common until the 18th century.

Kyle Gann has an incredible article on historical tunings which discusses in exhaustive detail how different tuning systems have been used throughout Western music history.

Understanding these historical tunings is important because it helps us comprehend how music was intended to be heard and played in the past.

Here are some key takeaways from the article:

  • Pythagorean tuning: This is an ancient tuning system based on pure perfect fifths (an interval between two pitches where the higher pitch is exactly 1.5 times the lower pitch). It was named after the Greek mathematician Pythagoras. This system works well for simple melodies but can result in some harmonies sounding out of tune.
  • Just intonation: Just intonation is a tuning system that uses simple whole-number ratios between the frequencies of the pitches. This system creates very pure-sounding harmonies, but it is difficult to use in practice because it requires constant retuning when changing keys.
  • Meantone temperament: This tuning system was developed as a compromise between Pythagorean tuning and just intonation. It attempts to make the most commonly used harmonies sound more in tune while sacrificing the purity of less frequently used intervals. This system was popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
  • Equal temperament: This is the tuning system used in modern Western music. In equal temperament, all twelve pitches in an octave are spaced equally apart. This system sacrifices the purity of some intervals to make all keys sound equally in tune. This allows musicians to play in any key without having to retune their instruments.

How Standard Tuning Became The “Standard” For Guitarists

Since way back when, guitars – both acoustic and electric – are played, for the most part, in Standard Tuning, so EADGBE. The reason? It’s comfortable to play, it lets players use familiar patterns up and down the neck, and it is easy to play open chords.

Guitars, however, are typically tuned in a series of ascending perfect fourths and a single major third. To be exact, from low to high, standard guitar tuning is EADGBE—three intervals of a fourth (low E to A, A to D and D to G), followed by a major third (G to B), followed by one more fourth (B to the high E).

The aim was to create a tuning that would ease the transition between fingering simple chords and playing common scales, minimizing fret-hand movement.

Fender

There are a few reasons why standard tuning became the most commonly used method:

  • Simplicity: Standard tuning is relatively easy to learn and understand. The intervals between the strings are mostly perfect fourths (except for the major third between the G and B strings), which creates a simple, consistent pattern. This makes it easier for beginners to learn the guitar and for experienced players to navigate the fretboard.
  • Chord shapes and scales: Standard tuning allows for the efficient use of common chord shapes and scales. The specific arrangement of intervals in standard tuning makes it easier to play a wide range of chords, harmonies, and melodic lines with minimal finger movement. This enables guitarists to play many songs and different styles of music more easily.
  • Tradition: As standard tuning became more widely used, it naturally turned into a tradition. As new generations of musicians learned to play the guitar, they adopted the same tuning that their predecessors used, which further solidified its status as the standard method. And this trend continues even today.

Think about the songs you first learned when you picked up the guitar. For me, it was Beatles songs. Pink Floyd. Black Sabbath. Metallica. Oasis. Hendrix. And they’re all, for the most part, played and composed in Standard Tuning.

Standing Tuning vs. Alternative Tunings

There’s a running theme in modern metal music that lower tunings are better, and there is some truth to this – from a tonal perspective. If you’re after a chuggy-sound, lower tunings like Drop D, Drop C, or D Standard have a lower register than Standard Tuning and, therefore, sound heavier and denser.

Josh Homme of Queens of The Stone Age and KYUSS has been rocking in C Standard since day one. It’s part of his guitar sound and it is one of the main reasons why nearly all stoner rock bands tune down to either D Standard or C Standard.

Hendrix liked to tune down half a step too, although was done because he liked to play Fender Strats and Strats work better when tuned down half a step (no, really – it’s actually pretty interesting why they do as well).

Similarly, Jimmy Page experimented with a myriad of guitar tunings during his time with Led Zeppelin. Moving from Standard Tuning to DADGAD to really obscure ones that I wouldn’t even know where to begin with…

Switching From EADGBE to Lower Tunings on Guitar

But even with lower, alternative tunings like C Standard and D Standard, the same principles that Standard Tuning is based on apply, meaning all the patterns and chord shapes remain the same (although the notes and chords will be different), so you can take what you learned in Standard Tuning and use it in C Standard and D Standard.

They’re just lower tunings and, by proxy, sound heavier.

This is why some metal bands, say, Mastodon, tend to prefer to play in D Standard instead of Standard Tuning. And others, like YOB, go even lower with B Standard. You also have drop tunings to consider too, like Drop D, Drop C, and Drop B, and Drop A.

You get a heavier, denser sound with lower tunings that lends itself more to metal. That’s not to say that Standard Tuning doesn’t sound heavy. Just listen to The Dillinger Escape Plan or OPETH, both play in Standard Tuning and both are extremely heavy.

But if you’re just starting out on the guitar, you will want to LEARN IN STANDARD TUNING. This is super important. It will help you to understand how the instrument works, how chords are made, learn scales, and then, once you have all of that down, you can then use your acquired knowledge to start experimenting with alternative tunings.

Additional Guitar Tuning Guides

Absolute Beginner? No problem.

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