• OVERVIEW •
A ‘regular’ stack of perfect 4ths (also forming a zigzagging Dmin11 inversion). Essentialy like EADGBE‘s more ‘logical’ cousin – the 3>2str ‘odd one out’ gap is eliminated (5>5>5>5>5), simplifying the fretboard’s geometry, and thus opening up a near-optimal facility for string-shifting mobility. Great for quartal voicings, and the C & F open tones are integral to many popular keys.
Bill Sethares notes that while the layout has “a distinct lack of full 6-string major and minor chords…there are, however, numerous easy-to-finger 4- and 5-string chords which can be moved readily around the fretboard. All [6-5-4-3str vocab] from Standard tuning can be used verbatim, [and] transposed directly onto the upper two strings”. Highly recommended!
Harmony: (Dm11) | 1-4-b7-b3-b6-b2
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Guitarists arrive here from many different directions. Most famously, Stanley Jordan – who, when first tuning his guitar as an 11-year-old, jumped ahead while reading the ‘5-5-5-4-5’ sequence from a book (“I saw the pattern, and said, ‘OK’, and tuned the whole guitar up that way”). Today, he uses ‘5-5-5-5-5’ as the canvas for his incredible ‘touch tapping’ style – inspired in part by his initial training on piano.
- Tale of discovering 4ths tuning – Stanley Jordan (2013):
“As a young teenager I immersed myself in the Bay Area avant-garde jazz scene. I saw McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Prince Lasha, the Charles Moffett family, all these people who were really pushing the boundaries of music. In this phase I was doing much more jazz…but still inspired by Jimi. For example, my touch technique [was] influenced by Jimi Hendrix. He showed that the instrument is something personal, that you can play it your own way…” (Stanley Jordan)
Across the Atlantic, ‘all fourths’ layouts have also been adopted by a scattering of British guitarists – notably including London jazz explorer Ant Law (sometimes lowered a semitone to Eb to suit common jazz keys), Bristol-based Alex Hutchings (who baritone-drops it to BEADGC, sometimes adding extra strings too), and Leeds fusioneer Tom Quayle (“essentially, I’m cheating at the guitar”). Also legendary educator Deirdre Cartwright (lead guitar teacher on the 1983 BBC/PBS series Rockschool) – who devised it independently from Jordan, and has used it near-exclusively since 1986.
In Cartwright’s words, “I was…trying to move away from my more blues-based playing…I began to think a lot in terms of intervals, so I tried [All Fourths]. I had already been playing for many years, and had to relearn all my chords and scale positions. I found myself playing excruciating notes in solos, a semitone away from where I had intended…and when I taught, I often had to play back in Standard tuning to illustrate points. However, I have persevered because it is just so…interesting…it suits my love of patterns, order, and distance on the fingerboard correlating to what you hear as an interval.”
- All Fourths Demo – Tom Quayle (2019):
“The guitar is not a symmetrical instrument…In my tuning, you can play an Emaj, move it down a string, and it’s still a major chord. It’s still symmetrical, and I can do this for every chord shape…I’ve made it much easier to visualise when you’re improvising, playing crazy chord changes, or even coming up with simple stuff. There’s not an extra step that you have to take in order to see things on the instrument.” (Tom Quayle)
Back in America, fourths-based concepts also turned up before Jordan’s time – for example in the work of ‘free-hand‘ pioneer Emett Chapman, famous for inventing the ‘Chapman Stick‘ in the early 1970s: a cute, tapping-friendly mini-guitar which typically combines runs of perfect 4ths and 5ths (n.b. a 4th is an ‘inverted’ 5th: i.e. ‘5 frets up = 7 frets down’).
n.b. All Fourths is probably the best instant-freedom arrangement for bassists switching to the guitar – and also ideal for players of the Mexican bajo quinto, a resonant bass-like design that sets runs of fourths across booming, heavy-set double courses (5 for the quinto, 6 for the sexto, etc…).
- Bajo Quinto Pasatono Orquesta (2012):
“A bajo quinto made from fir-tree and walnut wood…made by Rubén Luengas in his ‘La Chicharra’ [‘Little Cicada’] workshop in Oaxaca [Southern Mexico]. Sample the sounds of the instrument with a performance of Chilean swing music, and songs from Maroma [tip of the Yucatan]” (Pasatono Orquesta)
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- All Fifths: essentially just a ‘cycle of 4ths in reverse’
- All Tritones: a semitone’s difference goes a long way
- Oud (Turkish): also ends with a ‘regular line of 4*4ths’
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- Fourths layouts: aside from the links above, learn more from tuning guru Bill Sethares, and also see Tom Quayle’s interview with Guitar (“Essentially, I’m cheating…I’ve made it much easier to visualise when you’re improvising, playing crazy chord changes, or even coming up with simple stuff”) – plus, check out the fourths-derived systema teleion of Ancient Greek music (“Greek theorists conceived of scales as descending from higher pitch to lower: the opposite of modern practice. The earliest Greek scales were ‘tetrachords‘: series of four descending tones, with the top and bottom tones being a fourth apart in modern terms…The ‘Greater Perfect System’ (systema teleion meizon) was composed of four stacked tetrachords called…the Hypaton, Meson, Diezeugmenon, and Hyperbolaion…”)
- Stanley Jordan: see him discuss & demo his ambidextrous style in interviews with Isaac Stevenson Jr. (1985) and Dave Lawrence (2016), watch some of his famous covers including Impressions, Eleanor Rigby, & The Sound of Silence – and also check out his film cameo in Blind Date (1987), serenading Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger’s restaurant rendez-vous (and doing an effective enough job that they’re kissing by the end of the tune…)
Header image: Stanley Jordan live in 2006
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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
“An intrepid guitar researcher…”
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