Guitar Strings Order: How the Guitar is Tuned and Why

Guitar Strings Order: How the Guitar is Tuned and Why

It doesn’t take much strumming to figure out there is something…odd…about the guitar strings order — specifically, the way they’re tuned. Take the mandolin, which is tuned (lowest to highest string) GDAE. Here, each string is tuned a perfect 5th away from the next. This makes sense. You can be a rank beginner and still manage to crank something tuneful out of your new axe.

But on a guitar, the tuning gods threw players a curve ball. Everything is fine with the first four strings, which resemble the mandolin, only in reverse order (EADG). But then you get to “B”, which instead of being tuned a perfect 4th away from its neighbor like the first four strings, is tuned to a major 3rd away (FYI: this is typically the exact point at which newbie pickers begin to understand the joys of alternate guitar tunings).

Altogether, the guitar strings order from lowest pitch to highest pitch, left to right, looks like this:

E A D G B E

In this post, learn why the guitar is tuned the way that it is, some expert hints on easily memorizing the guitar strings order, and what that crazy “B” string gives you that other stringed instrument players don’t get.

ON A RELATED NOTE: Looking to buy a new set of quality, handmade guitar strings? We can help with that.

A Brief History of the Guitar

Before the guitar was the guitar, it looked much like an early banjo (or an ancient Egyptian tanbur, if you happen to be a stickler for history). Of course, this was 5,000 years ago, and this earliest known incarnation continued to evolve and evolve through lute phases, vihuela phases (a flat-back lute) and finally on to the classical gut/nylon stringed Spanish guitar in 1859.

A brief timeline of the guitar through history.

A brief timeline of the guitar through history. (courtesy RiffInteractive.com)

Along the way, the number of strings was gradually increased from 4 to 5 and then 6 strings, which is also how the current guitar strings order of EADGBE was derived.

As the demand for larger, louder guitars increased, more recent tweaks included enlarging the guitar body and changing the bracing system to permit the use of louder, stronger steel strings, the development of pickups and amplifiers, the invention of effects pedals and the inevitable fork in the road which took acoustic aficionados in one direction and their electric counterparts in another.

So What’s With the Guitar Strings Order?

Why are the guitar’s strings tuned the way that they are? This is a question that has been and continues to be researched, whined, wailed and occasionally celebrated by guitar enthusiasts worldwide. While no one definitive answer has been universally embraced by the guitar-playing community, general historical fact plus a dash of common sense suggests a practical origin that has arisen from musical necessity.

As early guitars evolved into their modern-day counterparts, neck length and fret quantity lengthened while string counts increased from 4 to 5 and then 6 (dropping the double-strings of more lute-like instruments along the way).

In other words, the major 3rd interval (G to B strings) eases an otherwise severe strain on the player’s wrist and fingers that it would take to achieve runs and chords on the larger guitar neck.

As well, it alleviates some otherwise difficult harmonic issues that would have arisen if early tuners had insisted on tuning the guitar’s now 6 strings to perfect 4ths throughout.

How to Memorize the Guitar Strings Order (EADGBE) – And NOT Forget It!

The hands-down easiest way to memorize the guitar strings order is by creating a memorable phrase, or acronym. Some fun ideas include:

  • Every Amateur Does Get Better Eventually
  • Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears

However, you still need to remember which end is which – especially when it is tuning time! Unfortunately, remembering that both the top and bottom strings are “E” strings will only get you so far here.

So here are two suggestions:

  • Learn to sound out your note order (E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E) and count up the perfect 4ths until you get to the major 3rd between the “G” and the “B” strings.
  • Just memorize that the “B” string is on the higher pitched end of the string spectrum.

Also remember, when we refer to guitar strings numerically (1st string, 2nd string, etc.) the lightest string is the first string, and it counts up from there.

So, on a typical six-string guitar, the numerical string order goes like this:

  • E – 1st string
  • B – 2nd string
  • G – 3rd string
  • D – 4th string
  • A – 5th string
  • E – 6th string

A Word About Alternate Tunings

For obvious reason, it is essential for guitar students to learn how to play their axe in the original intended tuning of EADGBE.

Happily, however, once this basic task is accomplished, there is no end of alternate tunings that can open up whole new worlds of musicality as you continue your studies.

Whether your favorite style leans towards the gentler musings of Joni Mitchell or the tireless tirades of Rage Against the Machine, you can learn all about alternate tunings from the greats and even develop your own alternate tunings to use and share.

In summary, the modern guitar tuning of EADGBE (in both 6-string and 12-string models) evolved for reasons of comfort and musical practicality. As well, like all good rules, it is made to be messed with, tweaked, edited and, ultimately, broken. Once you learn how basic guitar tuning works, you can use it at will, or never again!

2 Comments

  1. Some corrections required, standard tuning from 1530 onwards was ADF#BE (vihuella) and EADF#BE (lute), even Bach and Weiss were still using that tuning, as can be seen from their surviving scores for lute. Gaspar Sanz (1640 – 1710) still used EADF#BE for the baroque guitar, just try playing his works in EADGBE and you'll see what I mean. A century later and we get to Dionisio Aguado and Fernando Sor, who are clearly using EADGBE. Why? No-one seems to know, but I think it possible that is comes from the 'Andalucian cadence' which is rather hard to play (Am-G-F-E) in lute tuning, so the Spanish folk players adjusted accordingly. We know that Aguado and Sor emersed themselves in flamenco on their travels, so perhaps they picked it up from them and popularised it in their music -and the rest as they say is history.
  2. Surely the main reason for the Maj 3rd interval is to facilitate Barre chords. Imagine trying to play the E shape Barre with it tuned in straight perfect 4ths...impossible without at least 5 fingers! eg Gm at 3rd fret would be 355322 low to high

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