Tuning the guitar is perhaps the most
important thing you can do when you sit down to play. The greatest music played
by the greatest virtuoso is upsetting when the guitar is out of tune, yet if
the guitar is really in tune, even just playing the open strings on a guitar
has a wonderful aeolian, flirty effect on a room. Many performers, even some
very famous ones, seem to get disoriented in their tuning process. It's
maddening to be sitting in the audience waiting for a performance to start while
the player aimlessly twists tuning knobs without getting any closer. You want
to run up and grab the guitar and tune it for him.
There are three main issues:
First, you have to be able to hear
relative pitch, that is, which note is higher and which is lower. To some
people it's obvious, to some it's not. When working with beginners this can be
one of the hardest barriers to overcome, and for me it is one of the hardest
things to teach.
The second problem is strategy. You need
to establish one good pitch and tune the other strings to it in an orderly
system, without introducing errors that get carried forward.
Third is compromise. The tough thing to
accept is that the guitar will never really be in tune. The piano is an
"equal tempered" instrument. The guitar is only "sort-of equal
temperment was developed in the 18th century as a way to allow the keyboard to
play equally well in all of the twelve key signatures. This is a strategy of intonation that sacrifices
perfect "beatless" intervals by distributing slight inequities throughout
the 12 half-steps in an octave. This way the octaves are the only intervals
that are truly in tune, with all of the other being a little bit sharp or flat.
Even in equal temperment some intervals resulting are marginally more in tune
than others. To someone who has been raised on the fixed intervals of a
keyboard or fretboard these "off tune" intervals sound normal, but to
a singer or string or wind player who has complete microtonal control over
pitch, it can sound - and be - out of tune. These are cultural assumptions as
well. Listen to the music of many other parts of the world and you will hear
beautiful effects from scales and intervals that have nothing to do with our
idea of "in tune".
But with the guitar temperment issues are even more
confounding than the keyboard, because each fret must cover six notes, each
string covers many notes, and each
string has a different stretch response from fretting. Any given note can be
well off center of equal temperment in the keyboard sense.
Add to this the fact that the response
and quality of guitar strings varies widely from brand to brand, and even from
package to package, and you have a serious need for skill, strategy and compromise to
tune a guitar.
I present here a modest proposal for a
simple but effective tuning system. I must presume that the guitarist can
perceive the difference between higher and lower, between sharp and flat. The
strategy is simple- establish one correct reference note, then tune the
remaining notes to that one. This is the strategy of the orchestra, where the
oboe sounds the tuning note and everyone else tunes to that. In our case we
will tune the sixth string, and tune the remaining five strings to it.
1) Tune the 6th string.
2) Play the 6th string 5th fret harmonic.
3) Play the 5th string 7th fret harmonic,
and adjust the pitch.
4) Again play the 6th string 5th fret
5) Play the 1st string open and adjust
6) Again play the 6th string 5th fret
7) Play 3rd string 8th fret, fretted.
8) Play the 6th string 7th fret harmonic.
9) Play the 2nd string open and adjust
10) Again play the 6th string 7th fret harmonic.
11) Play 4th string 8th fret fretted.
That should be it. As you see we have
tuned all of the strings to either the E or B harmonics found on the low E
string. This is by definition a
"perfect fifth" which in this context actually introduces it's own
modifiers, but by maintaining the same -string reference point and mixing
harmonics, open strings and fretted notes, this system creates it's own guitar
temperment, adding a further layer of compromise that helps blend the guitar's
special intonation needs.
Learn this tuning sequence as a little
ten note melody that you can play easily, without thinking, and it will help
you get in tune quickly and with poise, even under difficult circumstances. In
guitar concerts I prefer quiet, discreet and mercifully short tuning breaks, so
the player and the audience can get on with the business at hand.
The dimensions of the 3rd string make it stretch differently. It is plump and rebellious, and in any
tuning issues it's the first suspect. Also it will naturally raise in pitch
dramatically with temperature, be it from stage lights, warm bodies or just your hands
on the neck. When you're playing just plan on it going sharp, and expect that string
will need to be tuned down.
There will always be exceptions and the
need for micro adjustments. Some pieces may have exposed passages in a remote
key that still show up out of tune, and may require tweeking a particular
string before you start playing. Little compromises can be made without ruining
the intonation of the rest of the piece. This is just part of the planning for
performance, and these pre-adjustments should be memorized right along with the
music. Also a dropped D or dropped F# tuning will require a little adjustment
from normal guitar tuning to take advantage of these tunings' placid harmonies.
It's helpful to be sure that all of the strings are well tuned before modifying
the tuning. And of course you have to expect a lowered string to raise in pitch over the next couple of
minutes, and plan for adjustment.
Get in tune before you start to play.
Make it easy on yourself and on your audience. This will make the world a