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

natmiss

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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.
That has not been my experience. With exceptions of course.
 

dconeill

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... The keys that are most natural to play in for common horns and woodwinds are not the same as those most convenient for standard-tuned guitar / bass ...
Guitars are tuned to concert pitch, meaning that when a guitar plays a C note from a written score the pitch that comes out is a C. (For the completists among us, the guitar actually produces a pitch that is an octave lower than what's written.)

Certain other instruments are tuned differently. For example, trumpets are built so that, if they play a written C, the pitch that is sounded is Bb. There are many transposing instruments.

The genesis of transposing instruments is at least partly from the physics of woodwind and brass instruments. In part, some instruments sound better in some keys than others. The advent of the tempered scale has a hand in this, too.

Here are a few links that can take you a little farther.

See Transposing Instruments

See Why are there transposing instruments

See Tempered Scale
 

Sweetfinger

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When I first started playing, I thought F, Bb, and C were "stupid" keys for someone to write songs in. Now, those are my favorite keys.
 

Adagietto

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Guitars are tuned to concert pitch, meaning that when a guitar plays a C note from a written score the pitch that comes out is a C. (For the completists among us, the guitar actually produces a pitch that is an octave lower than what's written.)

Certain other instruments are tuned differently. For example, trumpets are built so that, if they play a written C, the pitch that is sounded is Bb. There are many transposing instruments.

The genesis of transposing instruments is at least partly from the physics of woodwind and brass instruments. In part, some instruments sound better in some keys than others. The advent of the tempered scale has a hand in this, too.

Here are a few links that can take you a little farther.

See Transposing Instruments

See Why are there transposing instruments

See Tempered Scale
Guitar also is a transposing instrument. ;)
 
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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.

Fripp's NST, new standard tuning: C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4
He couldn't get in that last string either.
 
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Adagietto

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Because of the octave thingy? Is that still the same thing as a transposing instrument like, say, the French Horn, or is there a sprecial name for it?
It's due to the octave. Guitar is pitched differently than it is notated, so it meets the definition. It's a special case, but not the only one.
 

Rick51

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Anyone who’s played in a band with horns and / or woodwinds knows what I’m talking about —

The keys that are most natural to play in for common horns and woodwinds are not the same as those most convenient for standard-tuned guitar / bass

Obviously, highly skilled players of either instrument can play in whatever keys, but for beginner-to-mediocre players, it can be a hassle, and charts are a hassle “irregardless”

Considering that the electric guitar was developed during a time when horns / woodwinds were very often present in pop bands, I find this kind of weird


Does anyone have solid historical information/ context on why guitar standard tuning was not developed to be more horn-and-woodwind-friendly?

The problem is the player’s beginner- to-mediocre chops. End your reliance on open strings, and the problem goes away.
 

Verne Andru

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1,119
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
Fripp's "new standard tuning" is a variation on 5ths, similar to guitar E standard being a variation on 4ths. Google says it's (from low to high): C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4. The five lowest open strings are each tuned to an interval of a perfect fifth; the two highest strings are a minor third apart.

There is a ton of untapped arrangements in 5ths, which is why I like it. I've seen Fripp live with Krimson but he played the whole show in E-standard, unfortunately.
 

David M.

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1,286
Anyone who’s played in a band with horns and / or woodwinds knows what I’m talking about —

The keys that are most natural to play in for common horns and woodwinds are not the same as those most convenient for standard-tuned guitar / bass

Obviously, highly skilled players of either instrument can play in whatever keys, but for beginner-to-mediocre players, it can be a hassle, and charts are a hassle “irregardless”

Considering that the electric guitar was developed during a time when horns / woodwinds were very often present in pop bands, I find this kind of weird


Does anyone have solid historical information/ context on why guitar standard tuning was not developed to be more horn-and-woodwind-friendly?

My suggestion is to focus on learning chord inversions all over the neck so you can play in any key, anywhere on the neck.

Having the freedom to ascend or descend at will gives you the ability to express yourself in a way that relates to what is happening climatically with the band, audience and song.
 

Toffo

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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.

It’s definitely possible.

Something like G D A E B F# would be a decent compromise for a 25.5” scale, with the low G being something around a .80 and the high F# being an 8.

This isn’t far off the standard tuning for an 8-string, if you drop the above tuning down a semitone. There are 25.5” 8-strings out there (e.g. https://www.pitbullaudio.com/esp-ltd-h-338-8-string-electric-guitar-black-satin-finish.html).

As for the strings, there are 9-80s available (https://www.daddario.com/products/g...ng-electric-guitar-strings-super-light-09-80/). You could probably get a 9 to F# at a pinch or use a single 8.
 

360MG

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857
Not *all* orchestral woodwinds were geared toward flat keys. My "number one" is a simple-system wooden flute with metal keys. This was the standard instrument for classical music for much of the 19th century. It plays natively (no keys required) in D major, very easily in G major. From there, it gets progressively harder to play in different keys.

Boehm invented the metal flute with a completely different and more-easily-chromatic system in order to allow flautists to get a bit more volume.
 

TobyB

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187
Traditional flutes (and whistles) are made in various keys - they tend to play easily in an adjacent couple - additional metal keys extend the octave range or add accidentals. Sk players might have a few ... Mike McGoldrick often has a sports-bag full of choices at his feet.
 

MikeMcK

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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.
Here's a great example of that: I rarely land a gig that requires horns and pays enough for the right people (there are some great horn players here in the land of the Asbury Jukes, but they're not cheap).

A friend hooked me up with a guy named John Martin. I looked him up, the first gig on his resume was Aretha Franklin, so I immediately called and asked him to bring anyone else he was comfortable with. The next day he told me he was bringing a guy named Evan Barker, and the charts should be for alto and trumpet.

The day of, John walked in with a sax instead of a trumpet. Turns out he was retired and sax was his "retirement hobby". Then Evan walked in and they met each other... for the first time. They'd heard each other play, had corresponded, and had said that they'd love to gig with each other but had never met until the day of the gig.

They then cold-read 15-20 charts, some transposed, perfectly, on the spot. And both of them killed me on their solos.

At the other end of the scale is me. I have a wedding Saturday where the mother/son dance song (Mother by Sugarland) has been transposed from Db to C. Not because of the bassist or the instruments, but because I have to read the harmony vox.

I'll admit it, I'm a wimp when it some to reading more than 2 flats or sharps. And I now feel really wimpy remembering all the songs John played in E (6 sharps for alto). And oh yeah, there were a couple of songs where he grabbed the tenor he'd brought. When I pointed out that his charts were for alto, he just laughed and said, "no problem. I can transpose."
 
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