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Standards and Conventions

Page history last edited by Andrew Alder 2 years, 3 months ago

This page deals with formatting and the like. For content guidelines, see the Content FAQ. For more general issues, see what TOEOT is not.


See also detailed conventions, tips for contributors and site structure.


The conventions in a nutshell:


  • We list tunings starting from the string nearest to you as you play, so a normal guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E.
  • We number the strings from the string furthest from you, so the second string of a guitar is the B string. No, it's not terribly consistent, is it?
  • We list string gauges according to the string numbers, first string first. EEEK... that's even worse, but it's what every string manufacturer does. Strings (whether steel or nylon) are measured in inches or thou (it's always obvious which it is) so a typical light set of electric guitar strings is .009 - .011 - .016 - .024w - .032w - .042w. The w means wound, and if there's no w it should mean it's a plain string (but may not always, particularly if it's a bass instrument and all the strings are wound).
  • Wherever possible, we use modified Helmholtz notation to specify the exact pitch, so the preferred way of describing a normal guitar is E-A-d-g-b-e'.
  • We use small-case b for the flat symbol, so Bb means B-flat, and the hash symbol for sharp, so F# means F-sharp. This leads to a few places where we need to put in a blank for clarity, and a few places where it's best to break the rule and spell out flat, notably b-flat rather than bb. See detailed conventions.
  • Equal temperament, twelve semitones to the octave, and a' = 440 Hz are assumed unless otherwise stated.
  • Instrument and other names are romanised in whatever way seems most logical at the time, and accents are  most often simply omitted.



While the conventions we use work well most of the time, there are one or two annoying traps we haven't solved yet.


When you see Bb, it means B flat. The octave may be implied or may not, depending on context. It does NOT mean two notes. And similarly Ab etc..


When you see B b it means two notes, the B two octaves below middle C followed by the B above that. And similarly A b etc..


It doesn't happen often, but it's a trap.


The other trap is whether the octave is implied or not when you see a capital letter on its own. If we say c' that always means middle C, but if we say (as we just did) C on its own that might mean the C two octaves below c', or it might just mean C and we haven't said at which octave.


The context should make it plain which we mean, and we hope it always does. That's up to the writer. We hope you'll soon get the hang of it!


(Or if you like, C could mean a note or a pitch class - no let's not go there....)


Actually, one of the main motivations for this site was the problem that so many sites do simply give pitch classes - including and notably most Wikipedia articles. Such a tuning is better than nothing, and also better than a wild and possibly inaccurate guess as to the correct octaves, so you'll find them here too. But ultimately, we want to give all of them in full string-by-string modified Helmholtz notation, to remove any ambiguity.



Fingerboard extensions and other string length weirdies


If a guitar or bass has a fingerboard that extends one or more strings (most commonly the bottom one(s)) past the normal head nut where most of the strings stop, it gives us a problem. Should we quote the tuning of the extended open string, which is what you get if you just pluck it, or of the string as if it ended at the normal head nut, which is a better indication of what you get if you fret it? No, we don't know either! So the standard is:


  • Within any one page, choose which way to do it and be consistent.
  • Make it clear which it is!


And the same for sitars and banjos which have some shorter (frettable) strings. Resonant strings which are never fretted we just quote the open tuning regardless of length. See fingerboard extensions for more details.



Why don't we just use scientific pitch notation instead of Helmholtz?


Basically, 'cause we're guitarists at heart, many of us anyway. So A7 means A - C# - E - G to us. More serious for this site, C6 means a whole family of popular tunings. But we've been tempted sometimes. We just had to flip a coin, and Helmie got up.


Also I guess D10 could mean the Scientific Pitch Notation for a note that a bat might like, but here it means a pedal steel guitar, or maybe a chord... anyway, as we said, Helmie got up as the standard pitch notation here. The purist might also note that, strictly, the digits in Scientific Pitch Notation should be subscripts... but few people use those.


Helmholtz was designed for musicians, while Scientfic Pitch Notation was designed for acoustics and audiology Either works well for both purposes and both are used for both. Neither of them is wrong, but both have their fans and some of these wrongly think that the other is quite useless. It takes all types. See modified Helmholtz notation for a conversion table from one to the other.



Why don't we just list the strings as numbered?

Good, good, good question!


See how should we number the strings.


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