Harp Guitar Tunings
by Gregg Miner

Updated 5/28/2009

Skip to: Harp Guitar Tuning Reference Chart

Probably the first official stab at a Tuning Chart for harp guitars was John Doan's contribution in his 1988 Frets article.

Other than that, most players simply come up with their own best guesses or inventions.
For example, John created his own now-standard "20-string" tuning, while Stephen Bennett's ingenious variation of tuning the first sub-bass to the neck's third fret G has caught on with a number of players.

This page will present both modern and historical tunings - though it will not (for now) go into super-trebles, nor the endless open and altered tunings of contemporary players.

So our focus is: How do we tune those sub-bass strings?

In general, sub-basses descend in pitch away from the low E string on the neck.  
Occasionally,  the first 1-4 basses are tuned higher than the low E (Stephen Bennett, Gibson).  
In general, sub-basses from 1 to 6 in number are tuned diatonically, while 7 to 12 sub-basses are tuned chromatically.
Within the typical 5 to 7 sub-bass bank that modern players prefer, an endless variety of altered tunings are possible, just as on the neck.  

Historical tunings are not consistent either, and manufacturers will even change their own suggested tunings (see Gibson: Appendix).  Even the "traditional" tuning of the Viennese bass-guitars or contra-guitars experienced many local variants.  As an example, in 2006, an 1899 German Zimmermann catalog provided new, very unique "historical" tunings that none of us would have ever suspected, as shown in the following table:


(image courtesy of Christian Steinbrecher)

These are all "re-entrant" tunings, in that the sub-bass strings start significantly higher than the lowest string on the neck.  At first I thought these were impossibly low bass tunings, as indicated by the erroneous transcription - Zimmermann is clearly stating that notes marked with an "x" sound TWO octaves lower, while the fretted strings without the "x" sound only one octave lower (please note that "h" = the pitch B).  However, John Schneiderman, who plays the Russian instruments and the music written for them, pointed out the error.  Instead, ignore the "x" and take the notation as it stands (all sounding an octave lower than written, as standard for guitar).  The intent is to provide the missing tonic notes, excluding those on the lowest two fretted strings.

By comparison, other catalogs include more "traditional" diatonic and chromatic tunings:

 GEWA catalog: 4-bass diatonic and 9-bass chromatic tunings:
Johannes Adler, 1933, uses the same chromatic 9-bass tuning (descending from the neck: Eb D C# C B Bb A G# G. Note that in German notation, "h" = B pitch and "b" = Bb pitch).
However, Meinel & Herold's 1940 catalog seems tp offer overspun kontrabass strings tuned diatonically all the way down to C!
Schuster Brothers show the typical diatonic 4-bass tuning for both "bass guitars" and "bass lutes"...
...with the 6-bass "Nordic lute" descending diatonically further.
I am missing catalog provenance for the more common 7-bass Viennese harp guitars.  Dr. Stefan Hackl, an expert on Viennese guitars, states that the tuning was "definitely chromatically to A.  There are some players that use individual tunings to get a low G, some tune the 1st bass to F (to avoid barré) and then chromatically down from Eb, sometimes leaving out some semitones.  By Reisinger's time the evolution to 13 strings seems already finished. All the important Viennese guitarmakers around 1900 (Angerer, Güttler, Lux...) usually made this type (7 basses).  Guitars with 9 basses were made to get a range to G, but they are more difficult to handle and not so highly estimated in Vienna, but more in Bavaria and Alpine Folk Music."

I ask that anyone with documentation of historical tunings, or specific builder's tunings (especially if unique) to please send them in.

 

Harp Guitar Tuning Chart

Note: I have not put in the actual pitches (as John did in his Frets chart below) as I assume this should be obvious for the most part.
Other than the Bennett and Gibson examples, the basses always descend from the low E on the neck, and continue descending, regardless of the interval.

PLEASE NOTE THAT MANY OF THESE WOULD BE CONSIDERED "NOMINAL" TUNINGS - INDIVIDUAL STRINGS WERE OFTEN TUNED UP OR DOWN A HALF STEP TO ACCOMMODATE DIFFERENT KEYS.

 

Sub-bass Strings

  Standard Neck Strings
Maker / Player

18th course 17th course 16th course 15th course 14th course 13th course 12th course 11th course 10th course 9th course 8th course 7th course   6th course 5th course 4th course 3rd course 2nd course 1st course
12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1   6 5 4 3 2 1

Dyer style, 6 bass

Neither the 5-bass nor 6-bass Dyer original recommended tunings are known .  They may have originally continued with Knutsen's 5-bass tuning (below), but ads soon declared that they were "easy to play in any flat key."  This may indicate that they used a different chromatic tuning, or simply that with the standard diatonic tuning, select bass strings (from 1 to all 5) were to be de-tuned a half step to achieve the different keys.

The Bauer option for 6-bass and a very late Dyer catalog suggest other options.

F1 G1 A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 Original tuning, extrapolated by Miner from original 5-bass Knutsen tuning (provenance not yet found)
A1 A#1 B1 C C# D   E A d g b e1 Chromatic variation from Crescendo editor Walter Kaye Bauer, c.1920.  Bauer allows for several other combinations
G1 A1 Bb1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 Dyer Catalog, 1939
G1 A1 B1 C D G   E A d g b e1 Stephen Bennett
(modern)
G1 A1 B1 C E G   D A d g a d 1 Frank Doucette
(modern DADGAD)

Knutsen /  Dyer style, 5 bass

G1 A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e 1 Knutsen label
G1 Bb1 C A D   E A d e a d 1 Michael Hedges
re-entrant
(Because It's There)

Sullivan-Elliott-style "20-string Harp Guitar,"
6 bass
(trebles diatonic e2 through e3)

E/F1 G1 A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 John Doan

Sullivan-Elliott-style "21-string,"
7 bass

E1 F1 G1 A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 Others
Gibson, 1903 6 bass F1 G1 A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 Gibson 1903 catalog
Gibson, 6 bass "Popular tunings best adapted for playing in all keys" Bb1 C Db D Eb Ab   E A d g b e1 Gibson c.1906 harp guitar brochure
Gibson, 7 bass "Popular tunings best adapted for playing in all keys" Bb1 C Db D Eb F Ab   E A d g b e1 Gibson c.1906 harp guitar brochure
Gibson, 1903 12 bass (next two rows) The first chromatic tuning (E to D#) is typical for any makers' 12-bass instruments                
E1 F1 F#1 G1 G#1 A1 A#1 B1 C C# D D#   E A d g b e1 Gibson 1903 catalog
G#1 A1 A#1 B1 C C# D D# F F# G G#   E A d g b e1 later Gibson catalogs
Gibson, 1907 9 bass transitional G1 G#1 A1 A#1 B1 C C# D D#   E A d g b e1 (suspected tuning)
Gibson 11 bass option A1 A#1 B1 C C# D D# F F# G G#   E A d g Bb e1 Gibson c.1906 harp guitar brochure
Gibson, 1908-1920s 10 bass

A#1

B1 C C# D D# F F# G G#   E A d g b e1 Gibson catalogs
European "bass guitar" and "bass lute," 4 bass A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 GEWA catalog
European "bass guitar" and "Nordic lute," 4 bass C D G B   E A d g b e1 Zimmermann catalog
European "bass guitar" and "bass lute,"
6 bass
F1 G1 A1 B1 C D   E A d g b e1 Schuster Brothers
European "bass guitar" and "Nordic lute,"
6 bass
C1 D1 F1 G1 A1 B1   E A d g b e1 Zimmermann catalog
European "bass guitar,"
7 bass (chromatic)
A1 A#1 B1 C C# D D#   E A d g b e1 Viennese traditional (Hackl)
European "bass guitar,"
7 bass (diatonic)
E1 F1 G1 A1 B1   C D   E A d g b e1 Modern alternate (Meulle-Stef)
European "bass guitar," 9 bass  (chromatic) G1 G#1 A1 A#1 B1 C C# D D#   E A d g b e1 GEWA, Adler catalogs
European "bass guitar," 9 bass (diatonic) C1 D1 E1 F1 G1 A1 B1   C D   E A d g b e1 Meinel & Herold catalog
European "bass guitar" and "Nordic lute":
Russian tuning, 4 bass (7 on neck)
C E F A 7th course (fretted) > D G B d g b d1 Zimmermann catalog
European "bass guitar" and "Nordic lute": Russian tuning, 6 bass (7 neck) A1 B1   C E F A D G B d g b d1 Zimmermann catalog
Viennese, 2 bass C D   E A d g b e1 Staufer
Viennese, Italian, etc: 3 bass B1 C D   E A d g b e1 Staufer, Guadagnini, Mozzani, Maccaferri
Quint bass (German 7-course baritone, tuned a fifth lower) ?   A1   D G c e a Hauser
Heptacorde (French, 7-string) D   E A d g b e1 Lacote
Decacorde (French, 10-string: original 5 + 5 configuration)
Note this intriguing tuning!
C D E F G < 6th course 
(floating
A d g b e1 Lacote
Italian: Gazzo, 8 bass G1 G#1 A1 A#1 B1 C C# D   E A d g b e1 Taraffo
Spanish 11-string (8 fretted, 3 floating)       C F D   G B1 E A d g b e1 Supplied by Brigitte Zaczek

From 1988 Frets article

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