— The short animation above repeats continuously —

Fingerboard Fundamentals

Transposing guitar chords string-to-string


In this article I hope to unveil and demystify the concept of transposing guitar chords string-to-string.

To follow comfortably you'll need to know the fingerings of a few basic guitar chords: E, A, D and F. It's also helpful if you understand the concept of musical intervals like: root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. For instance, the root, 2nd, 3rd and 4th degrees of the D major scale are D, E, F# and G. (The terms "root" and "1st" are synonymous.)

Before delving into the rewarding world of string-to-string transpositions, let's look briefly at fret-to-fret transposition—a matter familiar and useful to most guitarists.

Fret-to-Fret transposing

Fret-to-fret transposing is direct, logical and easily understood. After learning the F bar chord guitarists soon understand that:

String-to-String transposing

String-to-string transposing is slightly more complex than fret-to-fret transposing, but well worth mastering because it's a tool of equal value: it provides another entire dimension for transposing chords and scales.

The remainder of this article explains string-to-string transposition. Though this article clarifies a number of points not apparent in the string-to-string animation at the top of this page, it also demonstrates that music theory can grow quite wordy where an auditory or animated example instantly conveys the bulk of the basic concepts. So here's a contribution and a vote for more animated music theory.

Article summary

Here are a few essential points that we'll examine in more depth:

Standard tuning (Practically perfect)

A guitar in standard tuning (EADGBE) is tuned primarily in 4ths: the interval between each pair of strings is a perfect 4th—a perfect 4th is the distance of 5 half-steps, in other words five frets. The exception is the major 3rd interval between the G and B strings—the major third is the distance of 4 half-steps, or four frets.

This fact is significant. The major 3rd is standard tuning's single break from "pure 4ths" symmetry. I call it the "G/B divide."

The G/B divide

The "G/B divide" effectively veils the near perfect symmetry of guitar, and few guitarists see beyond the cloud of complexity it causes. (The "G/B divide" is what Mark Simos calls the "hitch" in the tuning.)

Once you understand how to compensate for this single breach of symmetry you'll be able to see the guitar as a continuous system of small repeating patterns, that there is a perfect symmetry that must simply hurdle the G/B divide.

With an understanding of "virtual symmetry"on your side:

The "Pure 4ths" tuning (and its transposing simplicity)

Let's consider a "perfect world" scenario for transposing.

In the "pure 4ths" guitar tuning (EADGCF) all strings are tuned to an interval of a perfect 4th, so there is perfect symmetry across the guitar. Therefore, when you move a note to the next higher string it always transposes a 4th higher. The same logic applies to chords.

The symmetry of "pure 4ths" tuning makes it possible to transpose chord fingerings to the next higher string (or to the next lower string) without affecting the chord quality: major chords stay major; minor chords stay minor, etc. This is possible without any fingering adjustment. Only the root transposes. The distances between chord tones remain fixed.

For instance, since every note is raised a 4th as it moves to the next higher string, every chord tone is transposed a 4th, so the entire chord is raised a 4th.

The "Pure 5ths" tuning

The "pure 5ths" tuning is more common than "Pure 4ths", and is frequently the tuning of small scale instruments like violin, mandolin, but is seen in larger instruments like  viola, cello and tenor guitar. As with "Pure 4ths" tuning the string-to-string transposition of scales, chords and songs can be quite simple, particularly when transposing up an ascending or down a descending 5th.

Applying string-to-string transposing to standard tuning

This string-to-string chord transposing concept applies (to a large extent) even in standard tuning. Indeed it applies when moving a triad from the EAD strings to the ADG strings—or visa versa—because those groups of strings are tuned in pure 4ths. However, any other 3-string fingering will cross the G/B divide, so you'll need to compensate with a single adjustment. Here's how, in a nutshell.

Compensating for standard tuning's G/B divide

If you have any trouble understanding the verbal explanation below please remember that the concept is fully illustrated in the animation at the top of this page.

A note moved across the "G/B divide" is transposed only a major 3rd. To make it a 4th simply add one fret.

This logic applies to the each note in a chord. When any note (any chord tone) moves across the "G/B divide" you must compensate. The compensation depends on the direction of your move

When transposing notes or chords "string-to-string":

Transposing scales

The transpositional insights above are expressed primarily with respect to notes and chords, but they also pertain to scale fingerings. In other words, by applying the same rules it's possible to transpose scale fingers to the next set of strings:

More tools to help you transpose chords

Try Key Switch and Sound Thinking. These are in depth chord transposition tools, available here at TheoreticallyCorrect.com

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Key Switch — Song and chord transposer

Sound Thinking — Chord and scale encyclopedia