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Quit the herd and unleash your guitar!

In italianoEn français

Updated August 08, 2016

Click on the buttons to tune the six strings of your guitar in major thirds (M3)

E low Ab low C low E high Ab high C high

(standard tuning at bottom of page)


All diatonic chords at a glance!

Major scale (here D major)

D major
Just shift up or down the neck for ALL other major scales!


Minor scale (here B minor)

B minor
Just shift up or down the neck for ALL other minor scales!


Contents

The guitar is more flexible than the keyboard

Uniformity at your fingertips

Summary of the benefits of a regular and periodic tuning

Bar chords in standard tuning: firing on all cylinders...

...and the straitjacket is tight

Bye bye bar chords: your forefinger says thank you

Using TuxGuitar, recycle your tablatures

Chord tables

References, comments



Major thirds: a new tuning that changes everything

The guitar is more flexible than the keyboard

Though not really a fixed noted instrument, the guitar is just as well an equal temperament instrument: the distances between frets of practically all contemporary guitars enforce the frequency ratios characteristic of the equal temperament. Nonetheless, traditional guitar tuning presents us with a major irregularity : the second string is 2 tones above the third string (major third interval), though all other strings are tuned 2½ tones above the next lower string (fourth interval). The guitarist however has a decisive advantage over the keyboard or electronic keyboard player: of course he can tune his guitar as desired at any moment, but above all he is not blocked by material layout which cannot be worked around, since the guitar's fretboard is basically uniform.

Uniformity at your fingertips

More than once had I wondered if it would be practicable to avoid this discontinuity between the 3rd and 2nd strings. The first reaction is an attempt to tune all strings in fourths. So the interval between the 3rd and 2nd strings is increased by a semi-tone, in order to make it equal to the others, namely a fourth. Big fingering issues then appear for simple chords already. That is indeed the way bass guitars are commonly tuned, but this instrument is not usually used to play chords. So I adopted the other solution, namely applying to all strings the interval between the 2nd and the 3rd. In other words, I tuned my guitar in major thirds (M3 for short).

Since that day, my relation with the guitar has changed completely. Before, I did my best to reproduce and memorize compositions, with no hope to get close in any fashion to the great interprets. Today, I am most often improvising, and when I am inspired by an existing piece, I do not have to work hard to acquire automatisms, because, thanks to the instrument's uniformity, it does not take long until you can play naturally (not unlike singing). Actually we could repeat the words of our friend Johann Sebastian « So spielt das Instrument von selber » ! [3]

Summary of the benefits of a regular and periodic tuning

Beyond easiness of triads, enriched chords and transposing, by tuning your guitar in major thirds you come to master the chord inversions in a breeze. This is undoubtedly an essential aspect of music. However, it is completelely neglected by the usual practice of accompaniment guitar, where it is commonly accepted to repeat as many chord notes as possible, trying to keep the specified bass note, but with minimal attention to the relative strength and octaves of the fundamental, third, fifth, etc. This is particularly blatant with bar chords in standard tuning.

Bar chords in standard tuning: firing on all cylinders...

Let's see this last aspect in more details:

Analysis of bar chord comosition in standard E/A/D/G/B/E tuning
F major I Bb major III Db II
F major Bb major Db major


So it seems that upper or lower octaves are added in a complete anarchy. Of course a louder, maybe apparently richer sound can be interesting for accompaniment, but we lose control over what is played. In particular, this practice seems to deny any significance to inversions. However, if we play the perfect triad (fundamental state) in arpeggio, followed by the sixth chord (first inversion) and then the fourth and sixth triad (second inversion), it is not at all the same thing! (see [7])

...and the straitjacket is tight

With the traditional tuning, we have:

In all three cases, the clean triad lays on strings 2, 3 and 4. By playing those strings only, we are then able to transpose a clean chord along the fretboard, but not across the fretboard, which strongly limits the possibilities. The position of the added notes (minor or major 7th, 6th, etc.) changes depending of the type (I, II or III) of the bar chord and is at least problematic, for there is no more free finger to play them and enrich the triad. The same remark holds for augmented chords. Diminished chords can be forgotten altogether since they are practically unplayable in this way.

Bye bye bar chords: your forefinger says thank you

With major thirds tuning, bar chords are easily playable only for augmented and minor chords, with all inversions in the later case, allowing interesting effects. The bar chords technique however is not attractive any more when you tune your guitar in major thirds and are able to transpose transversally. Your guitar will give a cleaner and more precise sound overall. For simple song accompaniment, the sound — if unamplified — may well be less powerful.

Using TuxGuitar, recycle your tablatures

If you get caught with this new tuning but just can’t do without tablatures, rejoice: adapting tablatures to a new guitar tuning can be done easily. Just install the great free software called TuxGuitar, written in java and then running on any platform (Windows, Linux and Mac). You’ll be able to adapt your tablatures even with a 7 strings guitar!

Chord tables

Here are the main fingering examples in major thirds tuning. Except at the nut where some strings will be played open, the fingerings remain exactly the same when transposing along the fretboard. The same is true when transposing accross the fretboard, with the obvious exception of the fretboard’s sides. Consequently, for enriched chords in particular, you will have to find alternatives positions for additional notes (sixth, seventh, ninth, etc.) when the normal position would be out of the fretboard.

The diagrams were composed using TuxGuitar.


Fundamental chords in C major for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
C major F major G 7
C major F major G 7


Secondary chords in C major for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
D minor E minor A minor
D minor E minor A minor
B diminished
B diminished


Enriched C major chords for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
C major 6 C major 9 C major M7
C major 6 C major 9 C major M7


Suspended chords for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
C sus2 C sus4
C sus2 C sus4


Inversions of C major chord for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
C major C major 1st inv. or C maj/E C major 2nd inv. or C maj/G
C major C major 1st inv. C major 2nd inv.


Fundamental chords in C minor for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
C minor F minor G 7
C minor F minor G 7


Inversions of C minor chord for E/Ab/C/E/Ab/C tuning
C minor C minor 1st inv. or C min/E C minor 2nd inv. or C min/G
C minor C minor 1st inv. C minor 2nd inv.


And so on... Thanks to the major thirds tuning, the chord structures given above remain valid in all the keys, by translating along or accross the fretboard. If you want to have more strings sounding, remember that you can always add the same fret position 3 strings higher or lower. For major thirds as well as for any other tuning, TuxGuitar can also offer you a plethora of alternative positions and fingerings, though this is generally superfluous when you are tuned in M3.


References, comments

Add your comment.

An article dedicated to this regular and periodical way of tuning the guitar was recently published on Wikipedia [2] . Since an extensive list of references is provided there, I will just point to the most comprehensive website I know about major thirds guitar, including tips and tricks as well as significant theoretical and musical material [5].

  1. [2]     Major thirds tuning - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  2. [3]     “ So the instrument plays by itself. ”
  3. [5]     M3 Guitar -- Play any style of music on an electric or acoustic guitar tuned in major thirds
  4. [7]     MAX D'OLLONE, Le langage musical, Éditions La Palatine. tome 2, p.70 (in French)

Click on the buttons to go back to standard tuning

E low A D G B E high

(major thirds tuning at top of page)

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