Fire And Tuning

August 2, 2012 5:06 PM

Why not tune your guitar the James Taylor way - all strings a bit flat?

I've been playing guitar for longer than I care to think about, including (unbelievably to me, and occasionally others) professionally, and I still can't really tune the bloody things to save my life.

The video linked above is great and makes perfect sense if you use capos all the time - in it Taylor explains that he detunes everything slightly flat in order to compensate for the slight sharpening effect of the capo. I've been left wondering what other special tricks there are for achieving a reasonable compromise tuning that will Just Work, preferably in gig situations when you need to get it sounding good in a hurry.

Taylor's video is based on a tuner that measures cents - I used this converter to get from his -3,-6,-4,-8,-10,-12 formula (working from high to low E) to corresponding Hertz adjustments of -0.6, -0.9, -0.5, -0.7, -0.6, -0.6 respectively. I tried it and it sounded pants to me, but a) the strings are old, and b) I don't use a capo that much.

Searching in vain for the article I read ages ago (posted here maybe?) explaining why tuning a G string correctly on a guitar would actually break the laws of physics, I found some interesting articles on the subject - there's this excellent essay by Paul Guy, this equally excellent essay by Terry Relph-Knight (good luck getting past the bit about the Novax fanned-fret guitar), and a fine set of essays on intonation here by Mike Doolin (who also builds things like these).

Interesting though much of that is, especially the Doolin guitar porn pages, none of that is why I am posting this. I am posting this because you are probably aware of a much better and more practical essay on the subject of A Practical System For Cloth Eared Guitarists Wanting A Reasonable Tuning Compromise They Can Use On Gigs With Cheap Tuners which really ought to have been linked here and isn't.

Please to have at it.
posted by motty (10 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Forgot to add this article on tuning and intonation (via this comment on the recent Fret Buzz post.)
posted by motty at 8:15 PM on August 2, 2012

I don't have any links to essays, but...

If you can get away with a guitar totally in tune with itself (like in an all-guitar band), then high gain is your best friend. Select the bridge pickup, max out the tone and volume on the guitar and on a stomp box, and crank the gain to maximum. This pulls out the beats as the strings get closer in tune. Also, the 12th fret harmonics sometimes can get you closer than those from the 5th fret.
posted by Ardiril at 10:31 PM on August 2, 2012

Always tune by ear.

I like what Taylor says about acoustic guitars not being precise instruments (which is a feature not a bug IMHO). I completely agree, and in fact have abandoned the use of all digital tuners in my life*. I have an acoustic violin, guitar, and piano: I tune the guitar's low E with an E 3296 tuning fork and then tune the rest of the strings relative to that, I tune the violin against the A on my piano (unless I'm playing with another instrument then I tune to the instrument's 'A' instead), and I purposely hire a Piano Tuner who does not use any digital tuners when he works on my piano (which I get tuned twice a year).

Even if I'm gigging with other musicians I find the best way to tune is to pick one master tuner and then everyone tunes (by ear!) for maximum gelling. Pro-tip: most pro-level keybaords/synths have a tuning knob for this purpose.

*I do have an electric guitar which I'll tune to the digital meter in Logic Pro if I'm recording direct and using software-based instruments.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:45 PM on August 3, 2012

Great question and thoughts, motty! In all my years of hanging out with and learning from some pretty great musicians, this is the first time I've heard this brought up.

My take on it is that JT is half-way right in his reasoning and justification for detuning or down tuning by slight increments to compensate for the capo. I love how he's broken it down by measure for each string. That totally rings true for me. It's a given that each string behaves a bit differently because of its gauge and some strings will always need a little more tuning attention than the rest of them.

Now while I totally agree with JT, the fact is that every time a note is actuated on a fretted instrument, the string is bending and we're, ever so slightly, throwing it right out of tune. If guitars were played like stand-up harps, we'd be fine and our instruments would and could be perfectly tuned. The fact is that whether we're playing jazz, flamenco, classical or punk, we're taxing the hell out of our strings and that needs to be compensated for. Some compensation is in order with or without a capo.

This is how I do it...One: Tune harmonically to a piano or other instrument and mentally note the true and natural middle C or whatever one is starting with (That's a "natural tuning".). Two: tune again by actuating notes with my fingers (That's an "actuated" tuning). Three: detune or down tune each string to find a nice happy middle-ground between the two styles of tuning.

I'm pretty confident that the results will be very close to what JT does with his digital tuner. Before I figured out that little bit, I had already used a couple of $50 pawn shop guitars to learn how to adjust nuts, necks and bridges...good stuff to know and takes care of at least half of the problem...usually.
posted by snsranch at 7:05 PM on August 5, 2012

Playing live, in Spanish tuning (EADGBE) I do the initial tuning with the Cleartone app on my iPhone, then I use a standard headstock tuner. That's on the acoustic. The electric goes through a TU-3. The only other tuning I really use is Open G (DGDGBD) and for that I do it by ear and get the third and fifths sounding sweet.

For recording the acoustic in spanish tuning, I tune the A to 440 and then tune everything to that in unison, or to the harmonic at the 12th fret.

I totally agree that the guitar can never be completely in tune. But it can be out of tune in different ways. If you're playing lots of power chords, or an open tuning with lots of fifths and no third, then you're probably going to want to tune it differently than if you're playing jazz chords which are full of thirds and sevenths.

It also makes a lot of difference whether you're playing single lines or chords, since most of the time the sustained notes on single lines are getting bent or shaken in some way.

The capo is a constant headache for me as I use them so much.

It's worth bearing in mind though, that it's the imperfections that give music its character.
posted by unSane at 8:51 PM on August 5, 2012

(on capos, although the Keysers are convenient, and I have one, they never sound right to me. The only ones that are worth a damn really are the Shubbs, which I lose constantly, but love).
posted by unSane at 8:53 PM on August 5, 2012

Thanks much for a great collection of links, motty. They're particularly relevant to me as I recently got one of my guitars re-fretted and I'm mucking about with hardware and setup and intonation, so lots of good food for thought and experimentation.

But I have to say that I'm not really clear on what kind of other article or essay you're looking for.

I mean, my take-away from all of the links you posted is that they're all addressing or discussing - what's the word I'm looking for? structural? foundational? - issues with guitars and tuning and intonation, and thinking about ways to compensate. And it turns out that in the the real world, that compensation requires some consideration of a wide variety of factors - how the guitarist actually plays, string gauge, how the guitar is set up with action & neck relief, make & model of the guitar, scale length of the guitar, the style of music, so on and so forth.

So the JT tuning offset works because he's playing fingerstyle acoustic with a capo on a (I believe Taylor) with "x" gauge strings, while someone going "boom chicka boom" on a Martin dreadnought with heavy strings, or someone playing barre-chord blues-rock on a Les Paul strung with 9's would need to figure out a slightly different list of tuning offsets. And I think that's pretty much what the previous posters are describing - Doleful Creature & snsranch talk about tuning to the other instruments they're playing with, Ardiril talks about using gain to emphasize certain harmonics while reducing others, unSane talks about considering whether the music you're playing has a lot of thirds & sevenths, or more octaves & fifths. All in all, they're talking about, erm, "fine-tuning" your tuning for the given situation you're in, if you see what I mean.

In other words, given that Equal Temperament & straight-fret guitars are themselves compromises that let you play more-or-less in tune in any key, I'd say that tuning the standard way with the cheap digital tuner sort of is the Reasonable Tuning Compromise, y'know? At least in the heat of a gig.

Otherwise, I think you're talking about doing some analysis of your guitar, your playing, and your music in order to come up with some tuning tweaks that work for you in your situation, and then, I guess, remembering them. I know some more expensive tuners let you store custom tunings, but I dunno if they're actually advanced enough to store "x cents offset per string" settings.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:11 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I probably should have added that once you are in tune, you can remove the high gain from the signal path.
posted by Ardiril at 12:39 PM on August 7, 2012

After some experimentation with a variety of electronic tuners I've acquired, Jack Endino's idea about using the neck pickup, rolling off the highs (using the tone knob), and picking at the twelfth fret (or even just nearer to the neck than the bridge) so the tuner "hears" more fundamental and fewer harmonics seems to work pretty well.

So maybe that's a "tuning on the gig" practical tip.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:42 AM on August 9, 2012

Cheers for the comments folks.

Ardiril - I'm fascinated by your comment about tuning electrics from the bridge pickup as it's saying the exact opposite of what Endino does - he says to use the neck pickup to get more of the fundamental when tuning, which would seem to make sense. Like soundguy99 I've found that the neck pickup approach seems to work, though it doesn't seem to work so hugely and significantly better that I'm doing it all the time. Agreed about 12th fret harmonics being better than 5th fret - this is because 12th fret harmonics, being octaves, are what you want, while 5th fret harmonics, being just temperament rather than equal temperatment, will only work in specific keys and will sound horrible in others. I'm really curious about the high gain thing - what I'm wondering is is what the theoretical basis is behind why that would help.

Doleful Creature - the tuning by ear thing is great if you can actually do it, but I honestly can't, not on the hop anyway, even after playing for 28 years. Also I do a lot of gigs where tuning by ear would not be appropriate, just in terms of wanting to avoid making unprofessional seeming 'pling' noises at people in the middle of their wedding or whatever.

Snsranch - you make a very good point about the importance of messing about with nuts, bridges and necks on a cheap instrument that doesn't matter in order to really get to the bottom of this. I should get on that.

And unSane and The World Famous are quite right that the imperfection is what it's all about. (Another vote here for Shubbs.)

Apropos nothing in particular, I (finally) just got one of these. Great bit of kit and cheaper than the TU-3.
posted by motty at 5:46 PM on August 16, 2012

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