String instruments such as the guitar must be tuned into one key by tuning the pitch of the open strings to a specific selection of notes. Tuning the instrument to a key in a particular way makes the guitar playable and allows guitar players to all learn the same songs, chords, scale shapes, and other vital aspects of playing. This leads many guitarists to find out what key the guitar is in and why the guitar is tuned in this way.
Standard guitar tuning consists of the notes E A D G B E. These notes are found in several different tunings, including C Major and A Minor, but the generally accepted standard guitar key is E Minor. Standard tuning was developed to make the guitar easier to play and keep note grouping within reach.
The standard tuning of the modern guitar never changes, but there are alternate tunings that can be used to bring the instrument into a different musical context. Understanding the standard guitar tuning is the first key to unlocking the instrument and developing your own musical voice. Let’s learn more about standard guitar tuning, what key it’s in, and how it came to be.
What is Standard Guitar Tuning?
Every new guitar player finds themselves learning about the tuning of their instrument. This is a somewhat challenging and sometimes confusing process, as the tuning of the guitar can change depending on the music and particular song the guitarist is learning to play.
Standard guitar tuning is the tuning that is recognized by all guitarists as the standard, default tuning of the instrument. This tuning is an international standard, and it is the tuning that most guitar players learn in and master before moving on to alternate guitar tunings.
The notes in standard guitar tuning are E A D G B E on a regular six-string guitar. The thickest string of the instrument, or the top string, is a low E, forming the lowest note in standard tuning, and the bottom string is also E, but it is two octaves higher than the low E.
Standard tuning follows some specific tuning rules that make it what it is. Standard guitar tuning, also known as E Standard, is tuned in intervals of perfect fourths and one major third.
This means that all of the strings from the low E to the G string are four note names apart in the musical alphabet, while the G string and the B string are three note names apart, and the B string to the high E string return to four note names apart.
These intervals are what define the standard tuning of the guitar.
This tuning system separates the guitar from most other string instruments, which are tuned in fifth intervals rather than fourths and have no deviation from this spacing. Most other string instruments are tuned in fifth intervals only, but the tuning system of the guitar is what makes this instrument so versatile.
What Key is Standard Guitar Tuning In?
Now that we have established the definition of standard guitar tuning, you may be wondering what the key this standard tuning system is in. The key that an instrument is tuned in is an important fundamental characteristic of the instrument and defines how the instrument is played.
The truth is that standard guitar tuning does not refer to any one key. The notes that are in standard tuning only consist of E, A, D, G, and B, which are notes that fit into several different keys.
These notes from standard tuning can be found in the following keys:
- C Major
- G Major
- D Major
- F Major
- D Minor
- E Minor
- A Minor
- B Minor
All of these keys have the natural notes E, A, D, G, and B, which means that the notes on the open strings of a standard guitar in E Standard tuning can be used in all of these keys.
The reason why the notes in standard guitar tuning have caused so much confusion regarding the key of the guitar is simply that the tuning is known as “E Standard.” This implies that the tuning is in the key of E, but these notes are part of several other keys, which is confusing.
To be clear, the fact that the tuning is called E Standard does not define the key of the tuning, and the reality is that the notes in this tuning are not in any one key, and so the instrument is not tuned or defined by one specific musical key, as is true for other instruments such as the clarinet or the saxophone. The guitar can play in any key.
With that being said, we must still answer the question that we posed originally: what key is the guitar in? While the instrument is not defined as being in one particular key, the general consensus among guitar players is that the guitar is in the key of C Major or the key of E Minor.
The key of C major makes sense because the notes fit well into this key, and the key of E Minor works because the first and last notes in the tuning are E, and the only chord that can be played with the notes used in the open tuning together is an E Minor chord.
It is not incorrect to determine that the guitar is in the key of C, and it is not incorrect to regard it as being in the key of Em, but most guitarists will use the key of E Minor as the key of standard guitar tuning.
Why is E Standard the Standard Guitar Tuning?
At this point in the journey, you might be wondering why E Standard has become the standard tuning for the guitar. Most other instruments use an entirely different tuning system, and the guitar can play in any key, so any notes could be used as the standard tuning configuration. So, why do we use E Standard?
The reasons why the guitar is usually tuned to E Standard are for the sake of playability, musical convenience, and playing convenience.
The layout of E Standard tuning keeps most note groupings within four frets on the guitar. This is ideal because guitar players only have four fingers to fret notes with. This tuning configuration keeps notes within clusters that are easier to reach with one hand while playing the instrument.
The way the strings are tuned in specific intervals of fourths and one-third is for the sake of playing chords. Without using this tuning system, most chords would be incredibly difficult or entirely to play on the guitar. Using a standard tuning system with this configuration allows for the use of playable chord shapes that can be moved throughout the instrument.
The purpose of E Standard tuning is to make the guitar easier to play, to keep all of the notes within reach at any given time, and the notes used in this tuning simply sound great when played on the guitar. Using lower notes or higher notes would not produce the same note clarity as the notes in E Standard tuning.
Do Guitarists use other Tunings?
E Standard is the most commonly used guitar tuning, but the guitar is a highly versatile instrument that can be tuned to almost any configuration. Do guitar players limit themselves to using standard tuning only, or do guitarists branch out into alternate tunings?
Most guitar players learn to play the instrument in standard tuning. This makes it possible to come to grips with the instrument in a measurable way and allows the guitarist to use the vast amount of guitar learning resources that are made in standard tuning.
However, most guitarists branch out of standard tuning once they become more advanced and begin learning to play with alternate tunings as well as E Standard.
Using alternate tunings is a great way to push the limits of the instrument and allows the guitar to play and produce music in ways that standard tuning does not.
Learning to play in alternate tunings expands the ability of the guitar player as well and opens doors to sonic spaces that regular E Standard cannot open.
Here are some examples of guitar players who use tunings other than the accepted E Standard tuning to create unique and interesting music on their guitars.
Jimmy Page – Led Zepplin, Kashmir
Among the greatest examples of guitarists using alternate tunings is the tuning that Jimmy Page used in the Led Zepplin song, Kashmir.
The guitar in this particular song is tuned to an open tuning with the notes D A D G A D. This tuning is an interesting combination of notes, including a D note from three different octaves. When played together, all the chords create a D suspended 4th chord.
Page was famous for using this tuning in Kashmir, a song that sounded unlike anything else and was a truly groundbreaking sound when it was released.
Tom Morello – Audioslave / Rage Against The Machine
Tom Morello is among the greatest modern guitar players, and he is well-known for playing in an alternate tuning known as “Drop-D.”
This tuning is similar to E Standard, but the lowest string on the guitar is tuned down to a low D note. This creates a powerful tone and simplifies the sonic characteristics of power chords into something very clear and punchy.
Almost every song performed by Morello in Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine is recorded in Drop-D tuning, and this tuning has defined the overall sound of both of these iconic bands.
Paul Gilbert – Mr. Big
Paul gilbert is among the greatest rock guitar players of all time. He is well known for his role in the bands Mr. Big and Racer X. Gilbert is known as a virtuosic guitarist and specializes in highly technical guitar playing.
Gilbert used Eb Standard tuning when playing guitar for Mr. Big. This tuning is identical to standard tuning, except every note is tuned down a half step.
This lowers the overall pitch of the instrument and changes its key, allowing the vocalist of the band to sing in a register that is more comfortable for his voice.
This is an ideal example of using an alternate tuning for the sake of a musical direction, and this tuning allowed the band to perform at their best for many years.
Keith Richards – The Rolling Stones
Another excellent example of alternate tunings used by great guitarists is the tuning used by Keith Richards of the rolling stones.
Richards famously used a highly unique version of an open G tuning. This tuning forsook the top string of the guitar and only used the bottom five strings tuned to G D G B D. this creates an open G Major chord when strummed together, and this tuning is responsible for the iconic Rolling Stones guitar sound.
Very few other guitar players use this tuning, and so it has remained forever associated with The Rolling Stones and the historical music that they created.
Do Extended Range Guitars use Standard Tuning?
An important question regarding tuning that many guitar players find themselves asking is whether or not extended range guitars use standard tuning. Do seven or eight-string guitars use standard tuning even though they have more than the standard six strings?
The simple answer is yes; extended range guitars do use standard tuning. The tuning that seven, eight, or nine-string guitars use follows the same configuration pattern as standard six-string tuning.
Seven-string guitars have either a low or a high B string above or below the regular six strings, which keeps the pattern of having a Major third interval between the E and B strings in standard tuning.
Eight-string guitars have a low B string and an even lower G string, while nine-string guitars have an even lower D string. All of which follow the same standard tuning layout as regular six strings. They simply repeat the tuning pattern when more strings are added.
The standard tuning for guitars is typically E Standard. Most guitar players use this tuning but will dabble in other tunings for certain songs and particular situations. Alternate tunings are widely used, and they are very useful for creating fresh music on the guitar, but the E standard will forever remain the most commonly used guitar tuning.
Learning to use E Standard tuning is part of learning to play the guitar well. Focus on this tuning, understand it well, learn to use it extensively, and then branch out into alternate tunings once you have a good grasp on how tunings work. This will provide the best launchpad for you to experiment with the true versatility of the instrument.