Why is guitar standard tuning kind of at odds with most horns / woodwinds?

derekd

Gold Supporting Member
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Fellas, I appreciate all the responses, but just to clarify:

I’m not looking for advice on *how* to play in flat keys, or *whether* to play in flat keys — I can and do in fact play in whatever key the context requires

I’m interested in historical or technical reasons for the difference in standard horn/woodwind vs string tunings. (And much thanks to those who’ve provided elucidating info thus far!)
You've been here long enough to realize it doesn't matter what you're looking for from your fellow TGPers.

What matters is how we want to interpret your post and title and respond accordingly.
 
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3,889
Most instruments are made to be played/tuned in 5ths whereas guitars use a modified version of 4th tuning. Tuning in 5ths, which is what instruments like lutes, mandolins, cellos and etc. are tuned in that do play nice with horns and such, requires larger intervals that simply don't work well beyond 4 strings due to physical limitations of string gauges and tensions.

As we all know, a guitar tuned to E standard pitch (primarily in 4ths) plays well over the 6 strings without any issues with string breakage due to over-stretching strings. There is a 2-semi-tone difference between tuning 2 strings a 4th apart and tuning them a 5th apart; 5th tuning requires strings to get progressively higher, causing string tension problems.

It is physically impossible (as far as I know) to tune a standard scale 6-string guitar in 5ths without using re-entrants. The closest I have been able to get is a 19" scale, 6-string (Les Paul PeeWee) tuned Eb Bb F C G D. The string gauges are such that the Eb is a 64 and the high D is an 8, 2 gauges not available until relatively recently and long after E standard took effect. If I try tuning the 8 up 2 semi-tones to E the string breaks no matter what I do. Going to a 7 didn't work any better.

Mixing 4ths and 5ths is a bit like mixing apples and oranges. They work together, but it takes work because they are coming at things from polar opposites that require some compromise.
Also, consider the finger stretches that would be necessary if the guitar was tuned in 5ths, due to the scale length. Yes, I know that cellos get away with tuning in 5ths, but cellists make limited use of chords.

I do notice that playing in flat keys with standard tuning is MUCH easier on the violin (or other 5th tuned instruments). Tuning in 5ths is one of the things I love about the violin or the mandolin. Everything seems so much more logical.
 
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Locatelli

Member
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361
I understood the headline of the thread differently, because it said "tuning", and I interpreted it as "pitch".
Standard tuning in guitars and band keyboards is 440hz, and in the big band I always have to tune to f...ing 443Hz. The grand piano is also 443.
I hate it.
From my many years in chamber music (playing violin) I've gotten used to 442Hz and since I always tune guitars by ear to 442Hz if I don't use a tuner.
I would love a musical world with a common tuning pitch.
 
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Verne Andru

Member
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1,114
Also, consider the finger stretches that would be necessary if the guitar was tuned in 5ths, due to the scale length. Yes, I know that cellos get away with tuning in 5ths, but cellists make limited use of chords.

I do notice that playing in flat keys with standard tuning is MUCH easier on the violin (or other 5th tuned instruments). Tuning in 5ths is one o0f the things I love about the violin or the mandolin. Everything seems so much more logical.
I've found 5ths tuning tends to favor major while 4ths tends towards minor in how the notes fall under the fingers, play-wise. Might be part of the reason so much orchestral music is in major keys - which tend to be upbeat and bright - whereas guitar music, including jazz, blues and rock, tends to minor key progressions that have a melancholy lilt.

Yes, major finger stretches playing in 5ths. Playing in those tunings on mandolin, mandola and tenor has taught me the value of diads and triads, which is really all you need anyway. There is very little playing open chords because the fingers just don't work that way LOL. A lot of mandolin is in the chop and the picking - not so much in chordal washes.

A curious aside - mandolin orchestras were hot at the turn of the 20th century and Gibson was big on supplying the market with a full range of instruments including their new mando-bass. The bass is huge relative to the mandolins but is tuned in 4ths, like normal basses we use currently, not 5ths like the mandos they were designed to accompany. This was 50 years before Leo introduced the P-bass that has been the standard-bearer since.
 

Voggchamp

Member
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379
Guitar wasn’t always the primary instrument for strings. They had other guitar-like instruments before and after the advent of guitar. Tuning wouldn’t be the same all said instruments either.

A lot of the responses here are kind of oblivious there are other instruments outside of guitar that served a similar purpose

You can also play in different keys, just because you’re tuned to e doesn’t mean you have to play in that key.
 
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Interesting point re: tuned in 4th intervals (mostly) versus tuned in 5ths (as on a fiddle etc)

If I recall correctly, Fripp’s “Guitar Craft” tuning that he encourages his students to adopt, is in 5ths
 
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I've found 5ths tuning tends to favor major while 4ths tends towards minor in how the notes fall under the fingers, play-wise. Might be part of the reason so much orchestral music is in major keys - which tend to be upbeat and bright - whereas guitar music, including jazz, blues and rock, tends to minor key progressions that have a melancholy lilt.
It's funny that I've never noticed either tuning favoring either major or minor modes. I've played plenty of major key pieces on guitar and lots of minor key pieces on fiddle.

Both are equally hard to me.;)
 

TJontheRoad

Just Wanna Be Misunderstood
Gold Supporting Member
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Fellas, I appreciate all the responses, but just to clarify:

I’m not looking for advice on *how* to play in flat keys, or *whether* to play in flat keys — I can and do in fact play in whatever key the context requires

I’m interested in historical or technical reasons for the difference in standard horn/woodwind vs string tunings. (And much thanks to those who’ve provided elucidating info thus far!)

Long story short...

Eb and Bb tunings were developed in 19th century for woodwinds and horns in order to allow for full band score sheets to stay more closely to center staff. It made it easier for the conductor to read the entire arrangement.
 

hanknc

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
713
Fellas, I appreciate all the responses, but just to clarify:

I’m not looking for advice on *how* to play in flat keys, or *whether* to play in flat keys — I can and do in fact play in whatever key the context requires

I’m interested in historical or technical reasons for the difference in standard horn/woodwind vs string tunings. (And much thanks to those who’ve provided elucidating info thus far!)
My response was a disagreement with your premise that guitar tuning is at odds with horns.
 

Tone_Terrific

Silver Supporting Member
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36,775
My response was a disagreement with your premise that guitar tuning is at odds with horns.
Considering that the 2 players will read the same written music and play different tones, and the horn favoured fingerings occur in pieces that are a compromise to guitar preferences, I'm going with the 'at odds' approach.
 

rumbletone

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
8,138
Fretted instruments, orchestral instruments all favor sharp keys. Doesn't matter with keys. Why do wind players try to dictate flat keys? You're in the minority!
As a horn player, I can confidently say that horn players don’t give a **** and can play in any key, and don’t try to dictate anything. I played on reggae/ska/dub bands for years and everything was in ‘guitar keys’ and no horn players cared. They aren’t scared by flats or sharps.
 

rumbletone

Silver Supporting Member
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8,138
The various tunings exist so that the range of a specific instrument fits in a normal treble or bass clef, that’s why it’s fragmented.

Most winds are transposing instruments so that they have the same (approximately) fingering. For example, ‘3 fingers down on left hand’ is a ‘G’, but the resultant concert pitch varies between Bb, Eb, and C instruments.
 

rumbletone

Silver Supporting Member
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8,138
In my experience the only genre that is predominantly ‘in horn keys’ is mid-20th century jazz, and my experience is that the few concert pitch instruments common in those ensembles - piano, bass, and sometimes guitar - had no issue playing in those keys.
 

sergiodeblanc

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4,649
As a horn player, I can confidently say that horn players don’t give a **** and can play in any key, and don’t try to dictate anything. I played on reggae/ska/dub bands for years and everything was in ‘guitar keys’ and no horn players cared. They aren’t scared by flats or sharps.
Unless you’re playing with a hack horn player.

In the 90’s I played bass in an acid jazz band, and we’d routinely jam and try to pad our set lists with stuff in Bb to make it easier for our slide whoopi-cushionist.

It was a great lesson for me, since until then my knowledge of music theory consisted of “dot or no dot” on bass.
 
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Unless you’re playing with a hack horn player.

In the 90’s I played bass in an acid jazz band, and we’d routinely jam and try to pad our set lists with stuff in Bb to make it easier for our slide whoopi-cushionist.

It was a great lesson for me, since until then my knowledge of music theory consisted of “dot or no dot” on bass.
“Slide whoopie-cushionist” zomg truth hurts

Awesome about the 90s: ska and swing revival made it “cool” to play horns, so plenty of horn players available

Not so awesome: -Good- horn players were not any more plentiful then, than they were before or after

The worst was having one horn player who was good, and one that was a beginner—
 




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