Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Special Guitar Tuning: Five Strings Tuned In Fourths

One great thing about a tenor banjo tuned in fifths is that you have the same interval between each string:  G-D-A-E from low to high (or C-G-D-A).  It’s a very logical tuning.  Contrast that to a guitar where you have the interval of a 4th between each string except for the open G to open B.  (the B string would need to be a C to maintain intervalic symmetry).  Although, if you want to play in closed positions on tenor banjo (no open strings) there is one issue or limitation to the 5ths tuning – the  s  t  r  e  t  c  h!

It’s very difficult to reach from frets 1 or 2 to frets 7 or 8.  You can manage it on the mandolin because the mandolin’s 13-inch scale means that you can place the index finger on the 2nd fret and the pinky finger on the 7th fret without too much trouble.  But even on a 21” scale tenor banjo that just isn’t doable.  So what if you added a 5th string and tuned in 4ths?  That might be a good compromise. 

A 5-string instrument tuned in straight 4ths A-D-G-C-F would have a similar pitch range, but everywhere requiring stretch from frets 2 to 7 on tenor banjo would only be from frets 2 to 5 in 4ths tuning.  The next fretted note in the scale would always be on the 2nd fret of the next higher string and not the 7th fret of the current string.

I haven’t given too much thought yet to the chord shapes, but from a melodic standpoint single-note melodies should fall under the fingers pretty well in 4ths tuning.  Since you would not have to use any open strings, transposing a melody to another key would be as simple as taking that same pattern and moving it up or down the neck.  This might allow you to perceive melodies like a horn player. 

I am going to try this out with an inexpensive short-scale Luna guitar.  A local luthier is going to set it up as a 5-string left-handed instrument tuned in 4ths – A-D-G-C-F – using a mandolin tailpiece to keep the strings low to the body behind the bridge saddle.  We’ll see how it goes!  I'll report back once I've tried it out.

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