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 is direct, logical and easily understood. After learning the F bar chord guitarists soon understand that:
- placing the "F bar" chord two frets higher transposes it to a G chord
- it's possible to transpose and "reuse" the "F bar chord" by placing it on any fret; the root of the "new" chord (i.e. its letter name ) is the name of the note depressed on the lowest pitched string, the sixth string
- this fret-to-fret portability applies to any chord or scale, as long as the fingering does not include any open strings.
- To see this is action press the play button located next to the fingerboard to the right.
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.
Here are a few essential points that we'll examine in more depth:
- Standard guitar tuning (EADGBE) is nearly symmetrical.
- A single break in guitar's symmetry exists; this prevents most guitarists from perceiving or utilizing string-to-string transposition.
- Compensating for the guitar's lack of pure symmetry requires only a couple of specks of understanding ... just a couple of rules to remember. This understanding is quite valuable, because the compensations (as we'll see) allow you to transpose and "recycle" knowledge about chord and scale fingerings.
- You can compensate by"physical relationship" alone: by visualizing shapes, by knowing precisely where shape altering is necessary. You won't need think about intervals, scale degrees, or the letter names of scale degrees, nor will you need to do any root-third-fifth calculations.
- If guitar's standard tuning was perfectly symmetrical—in other words, if the interval between each pair of strings was the same—transposing chords string-to-string would be simple and obvious, nearly as straight forward as moving an "F bar" to various frets.
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:
- you can recycle one small idea into many ideas
- guitar chord and scale fingerings no longer seem complex or random; you'll see how they are all related.
- chords are transposable string-to-string
- scale fingerings are transposable string-to-string
- a single-octave scale finger becomes applicable across the entire expanse of the fingerboard
- eventually you may have a significantly clarified and illuminated vision of the guitar, and comprehend a "unified theory" of the entire fingerboard.
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":
- notes that move from the G to B string must be raised one fret, to become a 4th.
- notes that move from the B to the G string must be lowered one fret to become a major 3rd.
When transposing higher horizontally "add one" to the higher string of the G/B pair
When transposing downward horizontally "subtract one" from the lower string of the G/B pair
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:
- apply the "plus one fret" adjustment when crossing from the G to the B string.
- apply the "minus one fret" adjustment when crossing from the B to the G string.
More tools to help you transpose chords