notes on tuning guitar in fourths

Guitar Tuning in 4ths facebook group
Check out the guitar tuning in fourths facebook group

Influenced by the chord voicings employed by McCoy Tyner and the harmonic patterns used by John Coltrane, Justin Perdue began tuning his guitar in fourths (E-A-D-G-C-F, low to high) in 1990. Initially, this was intended as an experiment to explore that possibilities it opened up for more symmetrical scalar patterns and chord voicings than the conventional guitar tuning – and also to develop “outside-the-box” guitar techniques that his studies with trumpeter Bill Dixon encouraged.One of the immediate (and lasting) effects of this change is that standard bar chord voicings and open position chords are no longer workable options. As it turns out, many guitar cliches one takes for granted become significantly altered – making one realize that these phrases have become cliches due to how readily they fall under the fingers in conventional tuning — a convenience which is often not the case when tuning in fourths.

By the same token, the 4ths tuning lends itself to its own set of cliches spawned from certain types of more easily executed phrases and voicings. For example: Any chord voicing spanning 4 strings can be transposed by simply moving to any other set of strings without changing the fingering. Octaves, for instance, use the same fingering regardless of the string pairs being played. The same holds true for any scalar patterns – gone are the asymmetries resulting from the third between the G-B strings in standard tuning.

So, while tradeoffs include some oddities — for instance trying to cop a Wes Montgomery line or chord solo note-for-note may or may not fall under the fingers more readily in all fourths tuning — the symmetrical nature of the fourths guitar tuning greatly simplifies playing one of Wes’ signature octave runs. Similarly, Coltrane’s pentatonic and sheets of sound patterns are readily transposed anywhere on the fretboard without changing the fingerings.

Read & learn more about the tuning at the Guitar Tuning in 4ths group on facebook.

7 Replies to “notes on tuning guitar in fourths”

    1. Never studied with Bianco (can’t even find a copy of his book!). A bassist friend of mine and I had been discussing the possibilities of 4ths tuning (especially as they related to Coltrane’s patterns and McCoy Tyner voicings – and just having things be symmetrical in general), and I decided to put everything on hold for a few months, relearn my scales & voicings and try it out. Turned out to be a one-way ticket.

    2. Hey Vinny…I studied with Bob for a couple of months in ’73.; he took everything I learned in Queens college in TWO YEARS – in music, math and philosophy – and brushed it right under the rug!

  1. Hello, I’ve been playing all-fourths since the mid-1970s, when I worked for Guitar magazine in London. The idea was suggested to me by guitar-designer Dan Armstrong, with whom I used to jam. He reckoned it was a better tuning than the usual one but in his own case he had played standard for 21 years (I think he said) and couldn’t make the jump. I tried all-fourths and as I always wrap my thumb around the neck, found it very natural, better than the usual tuning. It’s great for jazz, for octaves and scales and there’s no problem with chords. It’s a little easier to tune the guitar accurately, in my view. Incidentally, all-fourths is the standard tuning for the arab lute, and I now have a Spanish Laud – a special 12-metal-strung lute derivation – which is tuned as standard in fourths.

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