Western music is made up of different note spaces and intervals, these differences determine the quality and sound of the note. Most instruments are tuned to have matching intervals, but not the guitar, it uses standard tuning to make it useful with popular music.
However we can change the guitar tuning to make the intervals even, and one method is known as all fourths tuning.
Intervals and Instruments
Intervals can be perfect, major, minor, augmented, and diminished. The perfect and major intervals have more consonance while the others are dissonant, which means one will sound better than the other.
We use a mix of these intervals in songs to give the music tension and release. Often we start on a consonant interval and then add in dissonance for tension and then end on another consonant interval.
Most instruments are tuned to follow specific intervals, to make them easier to play. The piano is the most obvious with its repeated octave patterns, while fretted instruments are a little different.
The mandolin, violin, and many folk instruments are tuned with fifths, while the bass guitar is tuned in fourths.
This makes it easier to navigate the fretboards of those instruments.
Remember our Circle of Fifths moves a fifth interval with each note when we move clockwise and if we go counterclockwise the interval movement is a fourth.
These are very easy intervals to remember and to check on the circle even quickly if need be. Moving by fifths and fourths is just an easier way to move around when playing music!
Standard Guitar Tuning Vs All Fourths Tuning
Now the guitar wasn't a very popular instrument over a century ago, it had a hard time competing with other big band instruments, pianos, and banjos.
Until amplification came along the guitar had limited use, afterwards it became an integral part of popular music with rhythm and blues and Rock'n'Roll.
The standard tuning happened to fit best with these blues and country music genres.
All fourths guitar tuning
Standard guitar tuning is E A D G B E. Now if you count each interval you will see most are in fourths. E-A, A-D, D-G, and B-E are all perfect fourths or P4.
The G-B is not a P4; it happens to be a major third!
Which messes all the patterns up on the guitar! However there is a good reason for this major third interval.
By adding that interval into the mix it makes it easier to form open chords, barre chords, and do treble bends on the high strings.
Standard tuning is called that because in that tuning you will have access to most music genres and styles, but you also have the problem of a fretboard that doesn't have easy patterns.
We can solve that by tuning a guitar in all fourths.
Normal all fourths tuning is E A D G C F; now check the intervals and see how they are each a P4 apart.
If you are worried about raising your treble strings up a step you can also do all fourths tuning as Eb Ab Db Gb B E.
In this case you aren't putting too much tension on the strings, but now you have more mental math to do if you are playing with other band members.
Either way you choose will now give you a fretboard that is very simple and intuitive.
Any scale pattern you play will now be movable across the guitar as the intervals are the same. Some musicians like Stanley Jordan, Allan Holdsworth, Ant Law, Tom Quayle, and more fusion artists find this tuning makes more sense.
Pros and Cons of All Fourths Tuning
One immediate benefit of this tuning is now you will be able to play solos and melodies in an easier fashion.
However that is one of the few pros, in all honesty there are a lot of problems with this tuning. You can also immediately tell that all the chords you knew are basically thrown out the window!
The chord shapes will still work on the E A D G strings, but the bottom treble now changes everything up.
You will mostly have to relearn all your chords in new positions for all fourths tuning. However the good news is once you have the shapes down, it is the same across the fretboard.
In standard tuning a chord has different finger positions, but in all fourths the positions will be the same because all the interval patterns are in P4.
If you want to play standard pop, blues, and rock, then this tuning will likely cause you problems. But if you want to play improvisational jazz, fusion, and even heavier styles of guitar, all fourths can be a great new way to get better use of the fretboard.
Everything is now more logical and set up for easy patterns. If you want a new sound and different approach to guitar, all fourths tuning is worth looking into.
Movable Chord Shapes and Scales in All Fourths Tuning
There are only a few open chords in all fourths tuning, the rest are partial chord shapes as you often cannot use all 6 strings.
But again, the good news is that while these shapes may be new and sometimes hard, they repeat across the fretboard so finding new chords with these basic shapes will be easy.
The same goes with scales, when you find a melodic pattern that you like playing, it's easy to play it in different keys and octaves as it is laid out better.
Here below you find some patterns for major, minor and dominant chords for the all fourths tuning, as well as major and pentatonic scales.
Notice how the patterns can be shifted horizontally and vertically without the need to change them, even when crossing the G and B string.
C major scale pattern for all fourths guitar tuning
A minor pentatonic pattern for all fourths guitar tuning
C major chord for all fourths guitar tuning
C minor chord for all fourths guitar tuning
C dominant chord for all fourths guitar tuning
Is All Fourths Worth It?
Honestly for some guitarists this tuning is incredibly helpful in playing new material, but it can also be a hassle for others.
Even if you don't wish to permanently use all fourths tuning, it is good to practice with as it can challenge your guitar understanding and give you a better grasp on intervals.
If you have multiple guitars it can be nice to keep one tuned to all fourths for comparison and to trick your brain and muscles into new chord and scale shapes.
Otherwise unless you are a fusion guitarist looking for maximum fretboard simplicity, all fourths tuning may not be appropriate.
That standard tuning with its G-B makes it possible to play most genres, there is a reason it is called standard! It works the best!
For many guitarists all fourths are fun to learn, but for practical purposes with other bandmates it can be difficult, unless they are well trained in music theory!
All fourths tuning is an interesting and logical way to look at the guitar with the same intervals.
If you find it helpful you may want to try all fifths like the mandolin or violin, and there are also major and minor third tunings if you want to try those!
If you are careful with string tension they are all worth it for a challenge and a fresh way to play the guitar! Sometimes a new method doesn't have to be permanent, it just helps to switch things up a bit!
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