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  • Writer's pictureBryan

Guitar and Bass Pitch vs. Concert Pitch & the DAW

Guitar’s place in the context of the Orchestra or DAW:

A conversation with one of my students this week is good material for a blog post. We were discussing the different octaves of the different notes on the fretboard of the guitar. He asked how to differentiate (by name) a given note from the same note an octave higher — for example, the open low E string on a guitar vs. the E found at the 12th fret.

For the record, Most guitar music is written in treble clef while most bass music is written in bass clef.

In Standard Tuning, the open low E string of a guitar is written in standard musical notation as E2. Thus the 12th fret of the low E string is written as E3, the open high E string is E4, the 12th fret of the high E is E5, etc. This makes sense to my rock and roll brain because then the low E of a four-string bass guitar (one octave lower than a standard guitar) is E1.

However if you pick up a guitar or bass next to a piano (the notes on the piano are considered “concert pitch”) and test all this out, you’ll find that everything seems off by 1 octave. The open low E string on a 4-string bass guitar sounds like E0 on a piano (instead of like E1, as it’s written). The open low E string on a guitar sounds like E1 on a piano (instead of E2, as it’s written).

This is because like many instruments, guitar and bass music is transposed and sounds 1 octave lower than it is written (this is done for ease of notation and to avoid excessive ledger lines).

So what should you call a given note? It ultimately depends on who you’re talking to. In most cases you should refer to the note as it is written in musical notation, so the open low E string on a six-string guitar is E2, the open low E of a four-string bass guitar is E1, and so on.

However, if you were transcribing music to a piano roll in a DAW such as Pro Tools, Ableton, Logic, etc., you will want to remember that guitar and bass music sounds an octave lower than written in standard notation and that that low E on a guitar will sound like E1 on a piano and your low E on a 4-string bass will sound like E0.

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