If you’re curious about Highway to Hell tuning and how AC/DC achieved their unique sound for this song, this is the post for you!
After playing the guitar since 2003 and having older brothers who were in generation X, I definitely had a phase of loving AC/DC.
And although they aren’t my favorite band now, I still enjoy listening to some of their stuff on occasion.
Understanding the A440 Standard
As you might have seen on your guitar tuner, the A4 note is 440 Hz. This is the foundation of the so-called A440 or A=440 standard.
The standard was officially established during the 20th century. It’s now part of the ISO and is labeled as ISO 16. But if we go further back in music history, Prussian inventor Johann Heinrich Scheibler proposed the standard back in 1834. Eventually, it caught on and was accepted worldwide in 1955.
However, this was something that classical musicians used. It was a bit hard for rock musicians to implement it fully. They simply had a hard time finding tuners.
But after technological advancements, almost all musicians adopted the A440 standard. A simple electronic tuner can now help you achieve it.
E Standard Tuning Within the A440 Context
Either way, the E standard tuning is almost exclusively within the A440 pitch standard. But what does this exactly mean? Well, the 2nd fret on the 3rd string should be the A4 note. And this one should be 440 Hz. The same goes for any other equivalent on the fretboard.
So, as you already know, the E standard tuning goes:
But if we’re within the A440, these are the frequencies that the strings should be tuned to:
- E2 – 82.41 Hz
- A2 – 110 Hz
- D3 – 146.83 Hz
- G3 – 196 Hz
- B3 – 246.94 Hz
- E4 – 329.63 Hz
And even if you detune your guitar by one or more semitones, it’s still within the A440 standard. The location of the A4 note on the fretboard will change. But it will always be 440 Hz. And all of the other notes will fall within the standard.
Understanding AC/DC’s Highway to Hell Tuning: Is Something Off?
So you might be wondering what all this geeky stuff has to do with AC/DC and one of their best songs. Well, the truth is, the original recording of Highway to Hell is not within the A440 standard. If you tried to play along to the song, it probably sounded awful.
And no, it’s not necessarily because you are not playing it properly. And it’s not because you have intonation issues. However you play the open A chord of the intro riff, and it’s just off.
Now, if we were to look into the song through the prism of the A440 standard, Highway to Hell isn’t technically in any key. It’s not in A or A-flat.
It sits right in between those two. Technically, we can refer to this as the key of A. However, it’s not within the A440 standard. The guitar is roughly tuned one-quarter of a step lower than usual.
Now, if we want to be super precise, a quarter step lower means that the A4 note is exactly 427.56 Hz. Highway to Hell is there somewhere. If you get the chance, find an online tone generator and play the song’s opening chord along to a frequency of 427 or 428 Hz. It will sound much better compared to 440 Hz.
If you want to check it out, here are two embedded videos below. The first one is the original version. The second one is tuned up to the A440 standard.
If you want to jam out to the song, I suggest that you use the second video. It’s much easier compared to detuning your guitar for a quarter of a step.
Why Did They Tune It This Way?
What’s really interesting is that AC/DC never cared to elaborate on this. There are, however, three theories on why this may be the case.
Firstly, the band may not have had a proper way to tune their instruments. I mean, they are in tune with one another. Most importantly, the open strings are in proper relation to one another. Both guitars and the bass all work well with one another.
It’s highly likely that they didn’t have a precise tuner with them in the studio. Even if they tuned it to some piano there, maybe the piano itself wasn’t in the A440 standard. And it’s hard to notice that when you have no other references.
The second theory is that something went wrong in the production, mixing, or mastering process. After all, it was all captured on tape, just like all the other music back then. Maybe the master tapes got exposed to unfavorable conditions. And then, the whole song went flat. Maybe engineers didn’t set reels or the equipment the proper way. So many things could have gone wrong.
These first two theories could make sense. After all, the band recorded the album in three different studios. When things are chaotic, something can go wrong.
The third theory is that they just wanted it this way. Maybe they just found the sound they liked the most and played it that way. Or maybe they thought slightly different tuning would make music listeners remember the song.
Bands and labels promoted their music almost exclusively on the radio back then. Radios play songs one after another. And listeners might more easily remember Highway to Hell because it sounded a bit different than all other songs in A on the radio.
Regardless, it’s a fun fact to know about this classic rock song.
I hope this article has shed some light on Highway to Hell tuning.
And if you want to read some of my other tuning articles, check out:
Also, feel free to leave a message in the comments if you have a question about this or another guitar-related topic!
I like what you said about tuning each cord to a scale. I need to get a tuner for my piano. I’ll have to order one online.
It could also be that a post-production decision to slow it down a tiny bit was intentional. Sometimes this is done to fit some arbitrary idea of song or album length. Like “40 minutes is kinda short for an album, lets stretch it out to 42”.
That’s a good point!
The second fret of the third string is A3 (220 Hz), an octave above the open A (A2) string (110 Hz). 440 Hz is at the 5th fret of the high E string (E4 – 329.63 Hz, per your chart). 329.63 is a fourth lower than 440.