For approximately the past 4 weeks I have been dabbling with Major 3rd Tuning on my steel string guitar. Here, I will share my insight as a player who knows the fretboard well (for standard tuning), who is just now learning about Major 3rd Tuning. I will explain what it is, some of the experiments I have done on it, and how I think it could best be used for performance and composition. I hope this insight helps readers who may be interested in trying something new on the guitar.

What is Major 3rd Tuning?

Major 3rd Tuning is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You tune the guitar in major 3rds instead of the usual perfect 4th x 3, major 3rd x 1, perfect 4th combination. The latter, which is called “standard tuning” results in the pitches E, A, D, G, B, and E. The former, if I start from the same Low E pitch as the latter, results in E, G#, C, E, G#, C.

Theory Background: One way to think of a major 3rd is this: It is equal to four semitones. Since each fret on a guitar is equal to one semitone, a major 3rd is equal to four frets. Therefore, you can tune your guitar to major 3rds by finding the fourth fret of the Low E string, and tuning the next adjacent string (A string) to the 4th fret (instead of the 5th fret, which is a perfect 4th). The result will be a major 3rd, and the precise pitch would be G#.

Semitones (Half Steps)IntervalQualityComplete Name
01PerfectPerfect Unison
12MinorMinor 2nd
22MajorMajor 2nd
33MinorMinor 3rd
43MajorMajor 3rd
54PerfectPerfect 4th
What is a Major 3rd? What is a Perfect 4th? A Major 3rd is one semitone lower than a Perfect 4th.

What is the History of Major 3rd Tuning?

Ralph Patt is known to have come up with Major 3rd Tuning. He documented it on his website at http://www.ralphpatt.com/Tune.html. Others have used Major 3rds Tuning as well, such as Tony Corman (see https://www.tonycorman.com/m3-guitar). Notably, Tony also references Ralph Patt as the originator of the tuning.

In 1964 I began developing and using a major third tuning for the guitar. The original pupose was to find a method for atonal improvisation for jazz. I was influenced by the music of Ornette Coleman, George Russell, John Coltrane and others who were breaking new ground in jazz in the 1960s. I was searching for a better way to facilitate improvisation using the atonal composition systems of Arnold Schoenberg. The major third tuning provides a way to do this.

Ralph Patt | http://www.ralphpatt.com/Tune.html

Why Major 3rd Tuning?

I have been playing the guitar for 20 years now, so one of the first questions I had was “Why Major 3rd Tuning?” Basically, “What is the benefit of Major 3rd Tuning over standard tuning?”

Reason 1: Major 3rds Tuning “Makes the Hard Stuff Easy”

The way Ralph Patt describes it sums up my own experience pretty well. Ralph Patt says, “It makes the easy stuff hard and the hard stuff easy.” After experimenting with the tuning for a few weeks, I can confidently conclude that I agree with him.

Something that is typically difficult on the guitar that is made easy with the Major 3rds tuning is Jazz. I played Jazz a bit in high school and early in college, and I continue to study and listen to Jazz in my free time, and this experience helps me appreciate the role Major 3rds tuning can play in simplifying both solo playing as well as rhythm playing in the Jazz idiom.

Reason 2: Alternate Tunings Helps You Understand the Fretboard Better

I must admit, having played the guitar for 20 years, I welcomed the challenge of this novel tuning. Doing things like this help me keep my brain active while doing something that has become somewhat routine.

The fact of the matter is standard guitar tuning has a Major 3rd from the G to the B string. If you tune all your strings to Major 3rds, you get a great sandbox to master this important concept, both for alternate tunings as well as standard tuning.

Reason 3: Isomorphic

Since all the strings are tuned to the same interval (unlike standard notation), all the chord and scale shapes can be easily transposed to any other position on the guitar.

Reason 4: Prepare for other Tunings Based on 3rds

If you want to, for example, prepare to play a guitar like the Kite Guitar, which is tuned in 3rds, then this is one way to prepare. More information to come regarding the Kite Guitar in future articles.

Reason 5: Discovery

We all get into habits on our instrument, and sometimes those habits prevent us from thinking of new ideas. By changing some parameters (such as tuning) we force ourselves to get back into a mindset of discovery.

Implications of Major 3rd Tuning for Jazz

Jazz uses a lot of chords that result in stacked 3rds. For example, a C Major 9 can be described as Major 3rd ( C –> E), Minor 3rd (E –> G), Major 3rd (G –> B), and Minor 3rd (B –> D). Usually, a guitarist (or pianist) does not play all of the pitches in a given chord at the same time, however, Major 3rd Tuning does put all of these intervals better in reach than standard tuning. This means that the pitches are there when you need them.

On the flip side, the 5th of a chord, unless it is a flat 5 or sharp 5, plays a much more secondary role in Jazz than it does in classical, rock, or folk music. Because Jazz chord progressions usually have successions of 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, the 5th of the chord is usually a given. In other words, it is more often too obvious to play, unless there is some particular voice leading reason.

Standard tuning puts the 4th’s and 5th’s (which are inverses of each other) under your finger tips, which is good for (most) classical, rock, and folk music, whereas Major 3rds Tuning puts the 3rds, augmented 5ths, and other “spicy” pitches under your finger tips.

Where are the Notes in Major 3rd Tuning?

Below are some charts to help you get started on the fretboard for Major 3rd tuning.

The charts have the lowest pitched strings at the bottom and the highest pitched strings at the top. -2 means back two frets (to the left, toward the nut), -1 means back a single fret, 0 means same fret, 1 means up one fret, and 2 means up two frets.

Fretboard Map for Major 3rd Tuning

Relative Fretboard-2-1012
+ Minor 13thA11/d12P12A12/m13M13(m7 + 8ve)
+ Major 10thM9m10M10P11A11/d12
+ Perfect 8vem7M7P8m9M9
+ Minor 6thA4/d5P5A5/m6M6m7
+ Major 3rdM2m3M3P4A4/d5
LowestP1
Map of relative interval relationships in Major 3rds Tuning.

How to Make a Major Chord in Major 3rd Tuning

The following diagram shows a simple major chord. Remember that, because this tuning is isomorphic, this shape can be transposed anywhere (any string and fret) on the fretboard.

Relative Fretboard-2-1012
F(P12)
A(M10)
C#/DbP8
FP5
AM3
C#/DbP1
Major Chord in Major 3rds Tuning. Notes in parenthesis are other options.

Below are some inversions of a major chord you can do.

Chord Inversions in Major 3rd Tuning
Different Inversions of a Major Chord in Major 3rd Tuning. By Kiefer.Wolfowitz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20913107

How to Make a Major 7th Chord or Major 13th Chord in Major 3rd Tuning

The following is what a Major 7th Chord would look like. This can be played with 4 fingers in the left hand. This same voicing would not be feasible in standard tuning.

Relative Fretboard-2-1012
FM13
AM10
C#/DbM7
FP5
A(M3)
C#/DbP1
Major Chord in Major 3rds Tuning

Why not Minor 3rds?

It is logical to ask “Why not Minor 3rds?” Minor 3rds may be a good idea, or it may not (I have yet to try), but it does drastically reduce your range on the guitar. For example, if you start from Low E, you get E, G, Bb, Db, E, and G, which is a major 6th (9 semitones) lower in range as compared to standard tuning (G –> E). Compare this to Major 3rds Tuning, which is a major 3rd (4 semitones) lower in range as compared to standard tuning (C –> E).

String NumberStandard TuningMajor 3rd Tuning (from E)Minor 3rd Tuning (from E)
0** (for seven string)E
(equal to high e for standard tuning)
Bb/A#
(would need 2 more strings to equal high e for standard tuning)
1E (high)B#/CG
2BG#E
(equal to 3rd string for Major 3rds tuning)
3GEDb/C#
4DB#/CBb/A#
5AG#G
6E (low)E (low)E (low)
Comparison of Standard Guitar Tuning, Major 3rds Tuning, and Minor 3rds Tuning.

My Experiments in Major 3rd Tuning

To wrap my ahead around Major 3rd Tuning, I tried a few things, which I will share in this section.

Starting from a Low F, instead of Low E

First, I decided to tune the guitar starting from F (see chart below). The reason is because, with the reduced range, the high string, which is normally tuned as “high e” for standard tuning, is tuned significantly lower. This results in a loose feeling string, unless you want to replace the strings with strings of appropriate gauges. Some music in the classical guitar repertoire has the player tune Low E to F anyway, so I thought “Why not start from F?” I felt that this was a good compromise. It results in F, A, and C# (or Db — however you want to think about it) x 2.

String NumberStandard TuningMajor 3rd Tuning (from E)Major 3rd Tuning (from F)
0** (for seven string)E (high)F (high)
1E (high)B#/CC#/Db
2BG#A
3GEF
4DB#/CC#/Db
5AG#A
6E (low)E (low)F (low)
Comparison of Standard Guitar Tuning and Major 3rd Tuning from E and F. **Traditionally, the “6” string is Low E. If you have seven strings, I suppose that makes the highest string “0”.

This means that the highest pitched string is tuned to C#, which is a minor third (3 semitones) lower than standard tuning. The string is loose, but not “too loose” in feel.

The other reason I liked the idea of starting from F is the association with Jazz. Jazz music, because of the frequent inclusion of brass and woodwind instruments, tends to use the flat keys more. F Major, having one flat (Bb), is a flat key. For this reason, tuning to F, A, and Db (C#) seemed natural.

Playing the Blues (I – IV – V)

One of the first things I did was try and find the root pitches for chords I, IV, and V on the fretboard. Despite knowing that IV would be in a different position than on standard guitar, my muscle memory kicked in and put my finger at the “would-be” position and I was a little bit bewildered by the unexpected pitch. However, I was able to adjust within a moments and find my bearings.

Below is a chart that shows the position of I, IV, and V on the fretboard when in Major 3rds Tuning. You can use this chart to orient yourself to play the blues in this tuning.

Relative Fretboard-2-1012
+ Minor 13thA11/d12P12A12/m13M13(m7 + 8ve)
+ Major 10thM9m10M10P11A11/d12
+ Perfect 8vem7M7P8m9M9
+ Minor 6thA4/d5P5 (V)A5/m6M6m7
+ Major 3rdM2m3M3P4 (IV)A4/d5
LowestP1 (I)
Map of relative interval relationships in Major 3rd Tuning with I, IV, and V highlighted.

Challenge!

If you want a good challenge, you can try playing the blues in Major 3rd Tuning. Use the charts and information in this article if you get stuck. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments or by sending a message.

Major 3rd Tuning: Initial Conclusions

As you can see from this article there is certainly a lot to unpack with Major 3rd Tuning. I plan to publish more articles as well as a few videos to help anyone who may be interested to explore more (one way to stay informed is by subscribing to my newsletter). However, my initial impression is “This is fascinating and highly stimulating” and I hope that this information helps you to discover even more on the guitar!

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