Sunday, December 12, 2010

cigar box guitar tuning - a little theory

Probably the most popular string/tuning configuration for cbgs is three strings open tuned to a chord. Why and how can you get a chord with just three strings when 'proper' guitars have six? My musical theory knowledge is pretty limited but I think I can make some sense of this for you. If you hold down an E major chord on a six-string guitar and work out the notes played on each string, starting at the lowest string (the sixth) and working to the highest (first) strings we get these notes E B E G# B E

You'll spot the obvious here, three E notes two Bs and a G# - just three notes, not six. OK so the three Es do sound diferent to each other but it's just a question of them being in different octaves or pitches but nevertheless they are the same musically. Same applies to the two Bs. So in theory we only need three notes to make a major chord (in fact it's the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes from the scale of E Major - E G# B). The extra notes on a six string are simply adding more harmonics to the same notes giving a richer and fuller sounding chord than if we only used three.

So back to our three stringed cbg. You'll find one of the most popular tunings actually only use two of these notes. If we wanted the guitar tuned to open E we can use E B E (forget the G#) The Es are one octave apart. On a six stringer they could be found on the 6th string open (E), 5th string 2nd fret (B) and 4th string 2nd fret (E). It's basically a power chord. It makes a nice bluesy chord when played with a slide.

If you want the guitar tuned to a different key instead of E, just transpose the 1st and 5th notes from the major scale of the key you want. So for open G you could use G D G for open A use A E A and so on. Has that fried your brain now or made a little more sense of tunings ? There are others of course but this one will get you started on some nice bluesy, folky sounding stuff.