We mostly sell our gutars, amps and other items at music festivals in NC. We get a lot of quizzical looks at first, and end up having a lot of fun discussions with new customers. But, by far the most common question we get is "how do you tune it".
Well, of course the answer is... complicated. Are they asking how I personally tune it, or how they should tune it? The question seems to suggest there is a hard and fast rule on tuning - there isn't! You see, one of the wonderful things about three and four strng gutars is the wide variety of possible tunings. There is no one right way. Here we'll explore some of the tuning possibilities and link to other sites wth more info.
Three strings are fun and easy to play. Virtually all of our three strng guitars are initially strung wth three bronze wound strings from the upper strings of a six string set. We typicaly use:
#1 - .044" Bronze Wound
#2 - .034" Bronze Wound
#3 - .026" Bronze Wound
This makes the three string almost play like a bass, with a deep rich bluesy sound. Our initial tuning of these three strings is a low open G (GDG) or open D (DF#A). Although, the open D sounds better and creates less pressure on the neck with a steel string on the bottom and slightly smaller gauges in the 1 and 2 positions (just move the string sizes listed above up one notch, dropping the .044 and addng a steel .017 in the #3 position).
You can play around with a variety of different string sizes to achieve higher or lower tuings, but the basic relationship between the strings can remain the same. One of the CBG masters teaches this three string tuning as "Oh-Say-See" where you tune the strings to the "Oh", "Say" and "See" of the opening to the Star Spangled Banner. You can choose any key you want, just keep the relationship between the strings the same. The benefit of this is you really don't need a tuner, just a decent ear.
OK, here is where the real fun starts. We set up most of our four string guitars with the four bottom sttrings of a six string set (we typically use Martin SP). This is then tuned to open G (DGBD). Notice that is the same as the standard tuning of the bottom four string on a six string guitar, except the "E" string is loosened a bit to tune to D. This makes the string easer to bend for blues playng, and makes for a variety of easy power chords up and down the neck.
Banjo players will also recognize this tuning as the standard tuning for the 4 standard strings of a banjo, making it easy for banjo players to transiton to four string gutar.
One potential problem with the bottom four strings of a six string set is three of your strings are steel and only one is bronze wound. That can limit the amount of tone and bass you can get out of your four string guitar. To remedy this sometems we use the four middle strings of a six string set, giving us two wound and two steel strings. We tune these to either open G (GDGB) or as the standard 6 string tuning for for these strings (ADGB). Both of these tunings provide an excellent blues-rock sound that is an easy transition for most 6-string guitar players.
But wait, there's more!
Four string guitars were the de-facto guitar in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. Lots of old time music was initially written for four string guitar. Those guitars are what we call today a Tenor Guitar. Tuning for a tenor guitar is a different beast entirely. Strings are tuned in fifths - like a viola. That is, the relationship between each string is five notes - e.g; CGDA or any similar relationship. This makes the musical distance between the strings a bit further than any adjacent strings on a six string gutar (for strings we use the middle four strings of a six string set, but we're still experimenting). Chord structures are a bit different on tenor guitars, but not difficult to learn. The tenor guitar has a unique sound due to the tuning and is fun to play. We highly encourage you to explore tenor gutar tuning and we'll be offering many of our four strings pre-strung and tuned as tenor guitars in teh near future. For more info see:
And there is more!
Other common and fun tuning for four sting guitars (you'll need to pay around with string gauges to get the right set up, but that will take vry little trial and error):
As you can see, there are a wide variety of possible four string guitar stringings and tunigs. All of these can be achieved with a single six string set of strings. So, don't be afraid to experiment - the only rule is there are no rules!