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Tom Quayle: Tuning In Perfect 4ths

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 50 **

Hi guys, and welcome back to my column for this issue. I’m back after my nasty elbow break – it’s healed well and I am almost back up to full playing strength again, so let’s get back on with some learning.

For this issue, I wanted to talk about something that may have been confusing/interesting some of you for quite some time now. You probably notice that, during the opening section to almost all my lessons, I mention that I am tuned differently, and not worry about it, since all of the TABS will be in standard tuning and I’ll show you any shapes required during the lesson anyway. Some of you may be wondering what this weird tuning is, why I use it and what the benefits and disadvantages of using an alternate tuning for all of your guitar playing are.

Before we start, let’s have a quick discussion of standard tuning and the reasons why the vast majority of guitar players utilise the same tuning. Standard tuning uses the notes E, A, D, G B and E from low to high, giving us the interval of a perfect 4th between all of the strings, except the G and B strings where we get a major 3rd interval. This major third interval is the reason why we tune the B string to the 4th fret of the G string, as opposed to the 5th fret relationship between all the other string pairs. This kink in the standard tuning is very important, especially for chordal playing since, without it we can’t play barre chords, making the transpositional nature of the guitar far less effective. All our open string ‘cowboy’ chords rely on this major 3rd interval between the G and B strings, and so much of the standard guitar repertoire in every genre is based around the combination of the two open E strings at the top and bottom of the guitar.

One of the problems of standard tuning is that it is non-symmetrical. In other words, if you play a chord shape on the middle four strings, it requires a different shape on the upper four strings and a different one again on the lowest four strings. This is to compensate for that rogue major 3rd interval between the G and B strings. It follows that the same will be true for any scales, arpeggios or interval shapes – they will change whenever the shape falls between the D and B, G and B or G and E strings within an octave. This makes learning the fretboard a pretty challenging task, since you have to learn each chord, scale, arpeggio and interval in a number of different permutations, as opposed to just one. Of course, 99.9% of guitars players who ever picked up the instrument have battled this challenge with great results, so I am not suggesting that you all immediately switch your tuning – I just want to tell you why I did.

I use a tuning called ‘4ths tuning.’ As the name implies, this tuning removes that major 3rd kink from standard tuning and replaces it with another perfect 4th interval, giving us 4ths all the way down. In this way, the guitar becomes completely symmetrical, removing the need for multiple shapes for a given chord shape between different string sets. A root position C major7 chord played on the middle four strings at the 3rd fret is the same shape an octave higher on the upper four strings at the 10th fret and in the same octave on the lower four strings at the 8th fret. The same goes for scales, arpeggios and intervals with everything mapping out with just a single shape on the fretboard. This makes the fretboard learning process far easier – it’s like cheating at guitar in a way, since it simplifies the visual nature of the instrument so much. For reference, I have included some chord, scale and arpeggio shapes in 4ths tuning for you to check out, so that you can directly see the symmetrical nature of this tuning.

Since I play over such complex music a lot of the time, with many chord changes, key centres and harmonic structures, this tuning appealed to me a great deal and I decided to switch over all the way back in 1998, influenced by a great guitar teacher I had at the time who used the same tuning. However, this tuning should be used with caution, since there are some pretty significant downsides to changing away from standard tuning.

First of all, you lose a huge amount of classic and important guitar repertoire. If you play Country or Blues, you lose almost all of the open string lick and chord repertoire that these styles rely on so heavily. Chord melody playing is significantly harder because barre chords are no longer an option and you lose some of the coolest chords that standard tuning offers, since the fingerings are now impossible to play. You do gain some gorgeous chords that can’t be played in standard tuning but, for most players, especially those that play covers or particularly guitaristic genres of music, the benefits do not outweigh the disadvantages. Teaching also can become very difficult if your brain has to flip between the two tunings every time you have a student in standard tuning. This is one of the reasons I do very little private tuition these days, especially at the beginner to intermediate stage as it would just confuse the student, and me!

I very rarely play any cover music and am lucky enough to play my own style almost exclusively. For a player like me who improvises over complex harmony a lot, 4ths tuning is perfect for streamlining the process of visualising the fretboard in order that the more musical considerations can come to the fore. It’s certainly worth exploring, but bear these caveats in mind, perhaps keeping only one of your guitars in this tuning for exploratory purposes.

Have fun and don’t hurt yourselves!

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