• OVERVIEW •
No tuning is the ‘best’ – but the popularity of our modern ‘standard’ makes sense, balancing geometric clarity, harmonic versatility, and physical convenience. The fourths-based layout gives a curiously vacant-sounding ‘open chord’ of Em7(11), ripe for multidirectional expansions.
It has roots in Renaissance Europe, where various proto-guitars of the 15th-century – including the English lute, Iberian vihuela, and Italian chitarra battente (‘thumping guitar’) – took tunings of A-D-G-B-E. Spanish luthiers appear to have added the low E string a few generations later.
Harmony: Em7(11) | 1-4-b7-b3-5-1
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Since you hardly need standard-tuned suggestions, we may as well stick historical and take the chance to check out some of the earliest known guitar recordings. Some are in standard, and some not (…and sometimes it’s hard to know for sure). A brief sampling of cuts dated to pre-1910:
- ~1900: Luis y Simón Ramirez (Estudio Turca, Caridad, Córdoba) – guitar duet on a brown wax Edison cylinder recorded in Madrid, provisionally dated to 1900 by respected archivist John Levin
- 1904-5: unknown accompanist (Macario Romero, La Paloma) – impressively funky but sadly uncredited guitarist backing Mexican folk singers Herrera Robinson and Leopoldo Picazo
- 1904: ‘Señor Rincon’ (El Palomo Errante, La Carcajada de Cupido) – accompanied Mexican soprano Modesta Zamudio
- 1905: Sebastien Hidaglo (Selva Negra, Miserere) – Cuban star who recorded polkas and Verdi arias in Havana…but his cylinders are thought to have been been lost
- 1905: M. Lloyd Wolfe (Autumn Evening Serenade) – cut several cylinders with Samuel Siegel, the ‘American Mandolin King’ (according to the 1900 edition of Banjo World)
- 1906: George N. Dudley (St. Louis Tickle, Dixie Girl – vid below) – recorded in Jan that year with the banjo-mandolin Ossman-Dudley Trio…on his custom-designed harp guitar!
- 1907: unknown accompanist (Malagueña) – plays guitar on an Edison gold-mould with Cuban singer Telesforo del Campo
- 1907: Alberto Villalon (Murmullo Suave, Bendito Mar) – another Cuban gold-disk accompanist, backing vocalists Adolfo Colombo and Pilar Jimenez
- 1907-8: Octaviano Yañez (Anita, La Perjura, Habaneras) – the “acknowledged champion guitarist of Mexico” recorded several instrumentals on a 7-string (tuned to ~BEADGBE…about 80 years before Scandinavian death metallers did similarly)
- 1908: William Smith (Castilian Echoes) – recorded some excellent duets with Samuel Siegel’s mandolin the year after Wolfe
- 1908-9: Roy H. Butin (Estelita Waltz, Carnival of Venice, Gavotte) – recorded with Siegel, and also with violinist Michael Banner as virtuoso classical-vaudeville duet The Olivotti Troubadours
- 1909: Joseph Kekuku (Ninipo, One-Two-Three-Four) – cut a lap-slide album with Toots Pala’s Hawaiians, a popular variety act
- 1909: John K. Paaluhi (Kawaihan Waltz) – recorded a couple of fantastic steel-string slide duets with Kekuku in Hawaii
- Dixie Girl – George N. Dudley (1906):
There may yet be much more to uncover. Guitar historian Tom Ball discusses “rumors of cylinders made by [Spanish composer] Tarrega himself, from about 1903”, and archivist Jack Silver describes “a friend/dealer in Spain [who recalls] having sold several solo guitar cylinders, by both Luis and Simon Ramirez…recorded [in] 1895”.
The existence of such artefacts is certainly plausible – Handel choral recordings exist on Edison wax from 1888 (Israel in Egypt), and Johannes Brahms recorded his own piano pieces the following year (Hungarian Dance #1) – while Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph was patented in the pre-Civil War era of 1857 (…although it took until 2008 to re-code its squiggles back into playable sound). And there are guitaristic sounding folk-song cylinders of uncertain provenance that may date all the way back to the 1890s (Dixie).
(n.b. Even the harp guitar has a remarkably long recorded history: aside from George N. Dudley’s 1906 cuts, Baptist minister Alfred Karnes used one to preach around Tennessee in the 1920s (Promised Land), and the great Italian virtuoso Pasquale Taraffo toured the globe with his in 1928-9 (Stefania). In fact, Michael Hedges’ iconic harp guitar work of the 1980s was recorded on a model built way back in the ’20s. More here)
- Guitars through history – Brandon Acker & Rob Scallon (2020):
• 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…
- Lute/Vihuela (this with 3str -1): guitaristic roots
- All Fourths (this with 1/2str +1): removing the ‘kink’
- Terz (this +3): a tiny lute from 19th-century Europe
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- EADGBE history: An illustrated Early Romantic Guitar overview, Fender’s take, a music professor on Reddit, and Graham Wade’s book Concise History of the Classic Guitar. And more from historian Brandon Acker on ear tuning (‘…and my axe, sir’)
- Early recordings: Mac Randall’s Acoustic Guitar article, blues historian Tom Ball on the mystery of the earliest solo guitar record, a Segovia LP insert about the history of the Viuda e Aramburo label, Jas Obrecht’s Talking Guitar book (plenty of ‘guitarcheology’ from p.5 onwards), and the…supposed Tarrega cylinders. And read more about the workings of the phonautograph on Centuries of Sound.
Menu of Tunings (100+) • Altered-tuned artists • Divine Indian drones • Global instrument tunings • Joni Mitchell’s stringed canvas • Alpha-melodic word games • James Taylor’s ‘stretched’ puzzle • Double-siding: capo-harp hacks • Tales & quotes • Megatable: analytics • Glossary: tuning terms • Feedback
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