Extended cut of my Ultimate Tuning Guide for Guitar World (Jan 2020). This is the ‘why’ behind the ‘how’ – building on the imperfections of existing methods, and unpicking the fundamentals of sound and string vibration along the way. Everything you didn’t realise you wanted to know about guitar tuning! firstname.lastname@example.org
Part of RJ’s ‘World of Tuning‘
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What’s so special about tuning? Why all the fuss?
Tuning lies at the heart of broader guitaristic mastery. But how many of us really feel we do it as well as we should? We all fall into lazy habits, allowing the compulsion to jam right now to override our better judgement. This results in much undesired dissonance, both literal and cognitive – the imperfections nag away at us, interrupting our flow, sapping our focus, and disbalancing the music.
Yes, electronic tuners are great, but we shouldn’t have to rely on gadgets to save us when it comes to something so basic. In any case, tuning is a fascinating area of enquiry, connecting together many aspects of musical perception and providing consistent spark to the creative imagination. Gaining ear confidence will filter through to our whole sound while deepening our appreciation for music in general.
We can utilise tuning time to foster broader musical improvement too – since the process will always be part of our playing routines, I figured we may as well also use it to enhance areas such as ear strength, cognitive focus, fretboard awareness, and manual dexterity.
The ‘impatient meditation’ is named for its attempt to minimise lost jamming time and maximise tonal accuracy through some efficient, calming focus. Tuning can serve as a ritualistic act of mental, musical, and manual preparation – or maybe just a quick space to chill out a bit and make sure you don’t sound wrong (I’m kind of in both camps here). Either way, it’s a lot more than just winding some pegs….
What is the ‘impatient meditation’?
This isn’t an exact tuning method – it’s a way of approaching tuning. We run through a few concise ideas, tabbed below, which, when understood together, should allow us to find an optimal balance between the quirks of any guitar and the demands of the music at hand. It is suitable for players of all levels – even Hendrix struggled with his tuning sometimes.
We’re probably…impatient, so here’s the tl:dr version (tabs below):
- Get an overview: Slowly strum through the open strings and 12fr natural harmonics, taking a deep breath and focusing in on the sound to get a rough idea of where things are at.
- 5str fret-matching: Get your A as ‘in’ as is required, and tune the open strings to notes along it (2fr/5fr/7fr/10fr). Then, tune a selection of fretted As on the other strings back to the open A.
- Quick checks: Sample from three other methods to shore things up – melodic fret-matches, natural harmonics, and chordal checks. Try out key passages from your own music too.
- Musical focus: Strum the 12fr harmonics, and take another deep breath. Relax your mind, acknowledging any nerves, and then calmly orient your full attention towards the music at hand.
All I’ve really done here is sample the best of a few existing methods, combining their strongest elements with some minor additions and adaptations. So it isn’t really my creation; at least no more than I could say invented my own style of cuisine yesterday by throwing together the tastiest things I found in the fridge with a dash of seasoning. I’ve also incorporated a fair bit of feedback from students, friends, and the wider musical world (thanks Reddit).
If you familiarise yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of each individual step, you will quickly build an intuition for when and how to deploy them. The idea is to get to know them a bit, then ‘narrow down’, honing in on the most concisely useful phrase combinations for your guitar and incorporating them into your playing routines.
Or, for that matter, for any other guitar. A pristine, top-end Strat will be a different beast to the rickety nylon-string you found behind your friend’s couch – using a tuner won’t help you compensate for the latter’s intonation issues, and besides, some songs on the former would sound better if left a little deliberately messy. We should know how to bring the best out of any axe we come across.
We can orient our tuning routines towards broader self-preparation too, calming our minds, stretching our hands, and focusing our energies towards the music that lies ahead. The whole process is also a fantastic way to build up some core conceptual knowledge around the physics of string vibration and the nature of aural perception.
It can be hard to avoid the plethora of tuning-based nonsense found on the internet. Sitting down to learn things properly will permanently give us both a broader and finer control over our music, while also making everyone around us sound better.
Ingredients of the ‘impatient meditation’
This is more about the ‘how’ than the ‘why’. We’ll go into the musical and technical detail later, unpicking what is really going on. And I can’t stress enough – this is an approach to tuning rather than an exact method. Learn from it, pick out what you like, and stay flexible.
Four steps may seem like overkill (let’s be honest, you’re probably wondering if you can be bothered to internalise them all). But the combination is designed to foster efficient, intuitive understanding, which will always save you time in the long run. And using all four in full isn’t the best eventual approach anyway – once you’ve tried everything on the menu, you’ll know how to narrow your choices down next time.
I think you’ll be surprised at how fast you can speed things up without sacrificing on accuracy. Selecting and running through the right checks can become second-nature, and, unless things are a complete mess, tuning may only require a few seconds. It just tends to be taught badly (or barely taught at all).
—Get an overview: First, play the open strings and the 12fr harmonics in slow sequence, getting a rough feel for where things are at. Consider the music at hand, and also what imperfections the guitar itself may have. Take a deep breath, and really zoom in on the texture of the sound. (Unless it really sounds awful…in which case just get on with the next steps).
—Concert or relative? Decide whether you want to tune to exact concert pitch or not. If you do, match your A string to an external reference tone (right-click here to download the mp3 below). If you don’t, just make sure the A sounds and feels about right, and fits with any other instruments in the room.
—Fret-matching: As a first run, we roughly ‘fret-match’ the other five open strings to notes on the A, and then flip things round, matching the open A to fretted tones across the other strings. Pick evenly, and if you’re going through an amp, use a clean, mid-boosted tone. While you can of course just check all the As against the reference tone, we should seek to develop the ear too.
Always use the ‘under-tug-up’ method – i.e. go lower than the target, tug the string around to remove slack, then raise the pitch. Pull it in all directions, first near the bridge, then the nut, and finally over the 12fr. Be firm, but avoid sudden movements – for stability try ‘anchoring’ your index finger to the fretboard and pulling the string around with the flesh of the middle finger.
If you have a whammy bar, be sure to shake out any string-stick (if it’s a persistent issue then see Jonathan Kemp’s video on tremolo resetting). Ensure the A and D strings sound particularly happy with each other, and, as with the other exercises, try things ‘muted’ as well, silencing the strings between each pair. Ideally, mute all strings you aren’t tuning at that moment.
(n.b. if you’re matching to music that’s already playing, then try to locate a resonant root note on a middle string, tune it extra-carefully, and then match roots on the other strings to it as best you can – not easy, but getting better at this will doubtless ease many jams to come):
+ Minimises error compounding (they don’t carry over between strings)
+ Quick to run through, and gives strong, clear volumes
+ Gives you an concise overview of the guitar’s intonation quirks
– Misleading if reference string is corroded, damaged, set too high, etc
Quick checks: Now, we use a mix of different ‘quick checks’ to shore everything up. We can sample from several methods, including melodic fret-matching, natural harmonics, and octave-heavy chord shapes, some of which also work as hand stretches. Find which combinations suit your guitar best.
—Melodic check phrases – like an enhanced ‘5th fret matching’
+ More interlinked than the ‘classic’ fret-matching approach
+ Avoids the familiar ‘tuning cliche’ with quasi-melodic movements
+ Opens up your general awareness of when open strings can be used
– Somewhat harder to play than the classic fretmatch method
– Phrases may never settle with each other on badly-intoned guitars
—Natural harmonics checks – avoiding the deviant 7th fret
+ Even, N.H. resonances bring out overtone detail clearly
+ We avoid the 7fr harmonic, which is actually slightly sharp
+ ‘Sweeps’ at the end are great when you know the right sound
– Quieter, more complex: takes your ear a while to ‘zoom in’
– Can fail to highlight nuanced intonation issues
—Octave-heavy check chords – beyond just open Emaj
+ Places the frequencies in a more musical context
+ Can add in key chords from your upcoming pieces
+ Usual major shapes aren’t ideal due to temperament issues
+ Increases your familiarity with high neck positions
+ Some of the shapes function as hand stretches too (e.g. 07×950)
– Complex for the ears, which can mislead us in many ways
– Can get chaotic on guitars with shaky intonation
Other immediate considerations
—Necessary imperfection: Notice how each check method produces subtly different results? e.g. high-fretted notes may sound sharp, or the G and B strings might never quite seem to settle with each other across different chords. This is to be expected – no instrument can ever be tuned perfectly. As we will see, factors like inharmonicity, build flaw, and temperament deviancy mean that there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ tuning.
And in any case, lots of guitar music can sound better with a little mess and crunch, ranging from Delta blues and 12-string folk to free improv and plenty of classic Hendrix. Lap slide players use all variety of microtonal tweaks, and Tommy Emmanuel sometimes likes to lower his G string very slightly – a trick also used by his blues forebears. Above all it’s about finding a sound that works for you (…and the audience).
—Adding emotive context: Take another deep breath, and briefly call to mind the sentiments you want to get across with the music. Think about the most important passages in your first piece. Strum through each chord or phrase slowly and evenly, considering their immediate effects on you. Are undesired frequencies dampening the emotional power? If so, try to isolate and correct them.
The best way to ‘balance the imperfections’ is to focus on the physical locations of the music. e.g. If you’re mainly playing low down the neck, make sure tuning here takes precedence over hyper-accuracy in higher positions. You may have to find compromises, especially on stiff-action guitars. Keep adjusting until you’re happy – the audience will ultimately be grateful for it.
—Gathering yourself: Once you’re satisfied with your sound, take a third and final deep breath, and rake firmly upwards through the 12fr natural harmonics. Take both your hands away from the strings, and empty your mind for a few seconds as you exhale. Make sure your posture is relaxing you.
Again, try out different meditative methods to see what works – you can hum a chord tone, silently count to eight, or ‘pulse’ your whole body in time to the rhythm of your first piece. (Never forget one of the key lessons from guitar history: people don’t care how weird you look as long as you sound good.)
What else should be on our minds?
The uniqueness of each individual situation means there are always countless interlocking considerations. Each guitar is different, with varying imperfections to be investigated, taxonomised, and balanced, and each performance brings disparate musical, physical, and social demands. In the end, all aspects of musical perception are interconnected.
There are less immediate factors too, ranging from healthy guitar setup and effective restringing to building skill at retuning ‘on the fly’. I’ll leave it up to you to adapt all this to non-standard tunings – it’s an ideal opportunity for some intuitive conceptual exploration, pushing your mind ‘up a level’ as you get into the processes of modification and recombination.
And it’s vitally important that we place all this in the context of wider musical learning. For one thing, we must strengthen our ears over time, as this will drastically speed things up (this applies to pretty much everything else in music too). We should also learn some of the science, visualising how strings vibrate and seeing the fractional distribution of natural harmonics along them.
‘Duude, the harmonic series is like, so psychedelic…’
As mentioned, the ‘impatient meditation’ was (hastily) named for its attempt to focus your musical mind while ensuring efficient, optimal tonal accuracy. Tuning up really can become a reliable way of bringing harmony to your mind as well as to your guitar, but let’s be honest: it would be kind of strange to feel no impatience at all while preparing to jam (apologies to any enlightened Buddhist monks reading this).
I hope some fresh approaches will intensify your sound and broaden your expressive power, while familiarising your mind with a few new concepts as well. I want all guitarists to sound as good as they can, and tuning is central to this – many thanks to Guitar World for such an open-minded commission. Try it on for size, and let me know what you think, how it can be improved, etc.
‘Is it my ears? Is my hair blocking the sound?’ – ‘No Jimi it’s obviously your whammy-bar aggression…’
Tuning fundamentals: musical and conceptual detail
Now, we will go much deeper, unpicking the foundations of tuning. The rest of this article examines the strengths, weaknesses, and incongruities of established methods, while also discussing psychological self-preparation, the science of string vibration, and some broader considerations including instrument care and ‘tuning on the fly’.
In other words, this is the ‘why’ as well as lots more detail on the ‘how’. We analyse James Taylor’s microtonal ‘stretched tuning’ and trace the design of the guitar’s fretboard to the epic mathematical treatises of the Ming Dynasty, also seeing what ancient Vedic musicology shares with the cosmology espoused by 21st-century string theorists.
All the while, we will broaden our understanding of what tuning is – or should be – all about. Above all, its fascinations are to be found in its interconnectedness.
Method 1 – Electronic tuners
Why not just use an electronic tuner all the time? Surely the machines are more perceptive than us mortal humans? Well in some ways, they are – but we should be wary of relying on fallible technology rather than training our own intuitions.
Pros: Good electronic tuners can quantify pitch with a very high level of accuracy. Their quartz-crystal detection method can be cheaply mass-produced, meaning that even quite basic ones claim accuracy to the cent level – just 1/100th of a semitone.
Plug-in tuners can be very handy in noisy rooms, isolated from sonic distraction (top tip: set your guitar to a loud, mid-boosted tone). And recent ‘polytuners‘, though expensive, overcome the stop-start slowness of most gadget-based methods by displaying all string pitches at once.
Cons: To be a tuning master you need to be able to do it anytime, anyplace. You will gain great confidence from knowing you can rely on your own ears. An electronic tuner should be part of your setup, but what happens when there isn’t one around? Or when you need to match with non-concert pitch instruments or recordings (i.e. most of the world’s music)?
Technological solutions always tend to be more fallible than we think too – tuners get lost, dropped, or soaked with beer, and can jump around when the battery runs low. Some clip-on models struggle with interference. And smartphone apps vary in their utility (BitTune, VitalTuner, and GuitarTuna are well-regarded, with the latter seeming like the best free option).
Besides, the machines don’t know anything about the music you’re playing, or the imperfections of your guitar. Developing your ear is the only way to properly account for these variables. It’s definitely worth having a decent tuner in your gig bag or on your pedalboard – the Snark ST-2 is popular – but we need more fluency ourselves too. Nowadays you could probably navigate Paris well enough with just a translation app on your phone, but if you’ll be going there a lot then why not improve your French too?
Mosquitos can precisely harmonise their wing beating rates during courtship rituals (“neither took the lead…the male’s second harmonic and the female’s third had a mutual frequency of about 1,200 Hz [roundabout a Strat’s highest possible bend]. They synchronised in this way for about 10 seconds”) – so us humans should be able to manage a guitar just fine with a bit of practice (much easier when you’re not flying too).
● Exercise: Tuning-focused ear training
We can train ourselves to have a strong ‘aural imprint’ of the desired tuning frequencies, lessening our reliance on tuners. Melodic context helps here – the aural memory of songs you already know well can give very accurate guesstimates, even if, like me, you don’t have perfect pitch.
For example, calling to mind the first note of Charlie Parker’s Ornithology will reliably approximate a G if I need it. So once you’re in tune, shuffle up your 5-star playlist and learn which notes your favourite songs start on. And if you note down your vocal range then you can use its physical feel as a rough match too.
It’s also important to get a clear imprint of the right tones in isolation. The best habit here to keep your guitar in good tune, but you can turn directly to audio samples as well. Perhaps try building the EADGBE clip below into your everyday listening routines (see my Altered Tunings Database for sound samples of 60+ others).
Try singing or humming along to add another level of physical, vibratory familiarity. If this stretches your vocal range too much then you can switch up the octaves so the same notes ‘loop’ around a more comfortable area.
We can also learn to aurally ‘zoom in’ through improving our pitch differentiation skills. After all, hearing the difference between two tones in greater detail is perhaps the essential skill of tuning. Try things out ‘vertically/harmonically’, listening to two tones together and picking out the higher one, and ‘horizontally/melodically’, listening to one after the other. Jake Mandell’s Adaptive Pitch Test is a fun place to start.
● Exercise: Getting an overview of where things are at
Before we resort to anything too intricate, we should work out what is basically going on. Briefly strum the open strings, around an inch away from the bridge, aiming for clean strokes and even volumes.
Then, rake through the 12th fret natural harmonics, perhaps even closer to the bridge, this time going from low to high (n.b. natural harmonics are produced by gently placing your finger exactly over the fretwire in question, touching the string but not pressing it down):
Pause, take a slow breath, and focus on the sound texture. Are things roughly near standard tuning? Strum the open strings and the harmonics a few times, listening carefully to the effect of each new note.
What sounds off-colour? Where is the dissonance? This is probably the most difficult step of the whole process to truly master. Try to move your ear ‘through the spectrum’, consciously sweeping focus from the lowest bass frequencies right through to the highest overtones.
Also, think about what you actually need to tune to. If you’ll be playing alone, or in a setup with no other fixed-pitch sounds, then you can get away with just tuning the guitar ‘in with itself’ as long as it’s roughly OK.
But if you’re working with recordings or other melodic instruments then you have to make sure you’re ‘in with the room’, which will most likely entail being ‘in with concert pitch’ as well (i.e. the notes on a properly-tuned piano).
Method 2 – Fret-matching (variants on the ‘classic’ tuning technique)
Chances are, you first learned to tune by matching 5th fret low E string to the open A, then 5th fret A to the open D…and so on. Though far from ideal, I’m not going to be some overcritical hipster about it just because it’s popular – yes, it’s prone to inaccuracy, but should remain an essential part of our toolkit. It, of course, goes like this:
Pros: Matching open strings with adjacent fretted tones is quick and straightforward, and tends to produce a strong sound, suitable for noisier settings. And many of the other methods are challenging for beginners – why learn to handle things like natural harmonic pairs before you can get your basic chords in tune? Ultimately, the strength of your ear determines how well you can use this approach.
Cons: When used in isolation, this method can end up like a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ (‘telephone’ in the U.S.), where the original message gets more and more distorted each time it is passed on. If we’re just a little out at each step, the high E can be a long way from the low one.
And if the guitar’s intonation is off, our own inaccuracies will be further exacerbated, likely drifting sharper and sharper with each step. Also, to make adjustments while hearing note pairs simultaneously you have to awkwardly reach over and turn the pegs with your non-fretting hand (admittedly, this is true for most of the other methods as well – do your best to practice things both ways round).
● Exercise: Enhanced fret-matching phrases
Here, I’ve taken the best elements of the ‘classic’ fret-matching method, and reworked them to form one of the impatient meditation’s ‘quick checks’. This version is far more comprehensive, featuring several matches per string and counteracting the ‘Chinese whispers’ effect with wide interval jumps.
I’ve grouped the pattern into small, almost-melodic cells. Apart from sounding a bit fresher than tuning’s usual ‘cliché phrase’, this arrangement improves our general fretboard awareness, showing us which fretted positions can be switched for open strings in the rest of our playing (see my full Open String Awareness lesson for GW). Shuffle the whole thing up and find what works well for you:
Method 3: Tuning to a reference string
For me, the ‘reference string’ approach works best as a broad, first run of adjustments. Favoured by many elite classical guitarists, it is ideal for tuning well-intoned guitars, and can also be adapted to non-concert pitch easily. I usually base everything off the A string, although D works well too (apart from being among the most common notes in the repertoire, they allow for straightforward fret-matching).
● Exercise: ‘5th string reference’ tuning
First, tune your A to the audio clip below (right-click here to download it for your phone/laptop/etc). To get rid of any unevenness or tension, use the ‘under-tug-up’ method, going lower than the target tone, gently tugging the string around to remove slack, and finally raising the pitch.
Once the A is in, go through the following note pairs to sync up the other strings. First, we map the open string tones on the A, and then we do the inverse, going through a selection of As located elsewhere (you can also use the D string for this – sample here).
Pros: Having a central reference point minimises error-compounding – i.e. each string is matched back to a single main one, meaning that tuning mistakes will not ‘carry over’ to the next. Besides, the method is quick, easy to remember, and brings enough volume to cut through background noise.
Additionally, A is the dominant calibration pitch across Western music, so if there’s a tuning fork lying around then it’s probably in A440 (1str 5fr). There’s even a button on my amp that emits an A440, which I can compare directly with the natural harmonic on 5fr A string (another reason not to pay too much attention to the A432 fad).
Cons: On badly-intoned guitars, the fretted notes often come out sharper than their open string counterparts – effectively, the strings are ‘bending’ down to the fretboard (you may want to swap the 10fr A string to 5fr D string, or use more 2fr matches).
And the method is near-useless if the reference string itself is corroded or damaged. You can try using the D as well as the A, but (due to various factors we will cover later) these two are really the only effective choices.
You might ask why we don’t just use an EADGBE audio sample to tune all six strings. Well, we can – I do this at home plenty. But I find it only brings high accuracy when the sample is coming through decent speakers. Laptops and phones are too tinny, with weak bass and poor treble clarity, and some portable devices are near-useless amidst the noise of a venue.
Besides, many of the EADGBE samples found online are shockingly inaccurate (you can download 60+ volume-boosted, frequency-checked one on my Altered Tunings Database). We should keep our phones and tuners handy, but I feel we should be able to do things ourselves whatever the situation.
Is it you? Or might it be the guitar’s fault?
We’ve mentioned the word intonation a few times now. Consider the quirks and physical imperfections of whatever guitar you have in your hands. What condition is it in? Is it refusing to settle with itself across different checks? Unfamiliar guitars can be a particular test of tuning mettle, often left lying lonely and unloved for long periods, warping next to radiators or in damp cupboards.
Do there seem to be significant intonation issues? You can diagnose this by comparing 12fr to its overlying natural harmonic – if the fretted note is distractingly sharper, ask yourself whether you can avoid that part of the fretboard. In the longer term, the guitar (or string gauge) will need to be adjusted.
Issues may also arise from excess fretting finger pressure, particulary in awkward high-neck positions (effectively, they’re being slightly bent whenever they’re fretted at all). This is something to watch out for when checking tuning, and can also provide a small amount of conscious ‘on the fly’ control – you can bend slightly downwards on some guitars by pushing along the string in question while remaining behind the same fret (a bit like a ‘frozen’ vibrato motion).
The strings themselves may be old, corroded, or badly-fitted too. You can wipe them down with a cloth, and if you want to be super-prepared then keep a small pot of talcum powder in your bag, which minimises unwanted finger noise and allows you to slide and glide your way around pretty much any guitar at will (a fantastic trick I picked up from my sitar guru).
And even if you own a pristine, top-level axe you still need to ‘get to know it’ – every guitar has its idiosyncrasies (e.g. how much the whammy bar catches the strings, how the neck responds to different tunings and tensions).
Some Les Paul models are notorious for tuning problems (not the only thing Gibson has faced criticism for recently), mainly related to extra tension from the exaggerated ‘slant angle’ of the headstock (17° vs. 10° on some other electrics). Learn how to quickly ‘ask the right questions’ of any instrument you come across.
Method 4 – Tuning with natural harmonics
Natural harmonics are pure, bell-like tones produced by lightly touching particular points along each string rather than fretting them. They offer many potential tuning advantages, but are rarely used correctly. The version you’ve seen probably goes something like this – while far from useless, there are better ways to do it:
Pros: The characteristically ‘pure’ resonance of natural harmonics allows us to hear frequency interactions in captivatingly fine detail (change the angle of your head to uncover some subtle architecture). For one thing, our ears are better at identifying pitch at higher registers, and 12fr harmonics are an octave up from their open strings.
When certain harmonics are combined, we can perceive a ‘beating’ effect – the subtle pulsing created by vibrations that are nearly in tune with each other. Known scientifically as a form of ‘heterodyning’, the phenomenon results from differing pressure gradients in the ears, created by the two waves arriving slightly out of sync with each other.
This leads to ‘phase cancellation‘, i.e. they each block out some of each other’s oscillation patterns, forming audible quasi-rhythmic sequences. As we tune the strings closer together, the beating slows down, until eventually we can’t pick it out at all. This process allows for superb levels of technology-free precision – hear it in action below as I slowly tune a mid-range harmonic pair in with each other:
Cons: Critically, not all natural harmonic positions actually produce the exact notes we want. You may have noticed in the full example above that the 9th-5th fret pair is a long way out – in fact, it’s one of the few ideas in this article I’d recommend never using.
And strictly speaking, each step in the first bar is inaccurate too. The second harmonic in each pair is actually sharp by around 0.02 cents (1/50th of a semitone) due to the discrepancy between the ‘pure’ intervals produced by the natural harmonics and the ‘tempered’ ones on the fretboard.
Almost all natural harmonics produce different notes to the ones found on the guitar. To observe this in action, play 4fr 6th string, and then try and sound the harmonic above it – you should notice that it’s actually located at around fret 3.8. Correspondingly, it is lower in pitch – the ‘pure major third’ is flatter than the fretted one by about 0.14 cents (1/7th of a semitone).
Equal temperament vs. just intonation
To understand what is going on underneath all this, we will delve into the concept of ‘temperament systems’ – the overall frameworks from which we derive our musical intervals. There are several of them, with the guitar’s ‘12 semitones to an octave’ system being known as ’12-tone equal temperament’ (sometimes shortened to 12tet). Though dominant in modern Western music, equal temperament it is just one of many possible approaches.
Put simply, 12tet is a kind of ‘average’, approximating the ‘purer’ intervals associated with the key centre. The equal spacing of intervals allows us to switch between different keys, but markedly changes their overall resonances.
‘Pure’, natural harmonics-based systems are used to build another approach, known as ‘just intonation’. Have you ever noticed how natural harmonics are played by dividing the string into basic fractions? At 12fr we chop it in half, at 7fr into three parts, at 5fr into quarters, at ~3.8fr into fifths, at ~3.2fr into sixths, at ~2.6fr into sevenths, at ~2.4fr into eighths, and so on. You can see this clearly with loose strings.
If we carry on like this, we get a set of frequencies known as the ‘harmonic series’ – in essence, an ‘unpacked’ version of the open string note we started with. You may have stumbled across these curious sounds by running your finger down the 6th string while picking near the bridge:
Just intonation, of which there are many sub-variants, involves something very similar. In all justly-intoned approaches, simple whole-number ratios are used to derive the intervals, with the process typically entailing various sequences and combinations of the most important natural harmonics for the key centre.
Different temperament systems through time and space
Many tuning systems are in use around the world. Persian, Arabic, and Turkish traditional music all use different varieties of quarter-tone, and India’s classical artists find melodic inspiration in the fiendishly detailed śrūti system of scalar microtones.
Different ragas call for all manner of alterations – for example Raag Darbari calls for ‘ati komal ga‘, the ‘extra flat minor 3rd’ (although debate has raged for generations about just how flat it should be). Many musicians tune to ensure justly-intoned relationships between the raga’s vadi and samvadi (‘king’ and ‘queen’ notes), which may even end up clashing with the scale’s root, as in the oddly-shaped Raag Marwa.
The modern dominance of equal temperament is largely a product of Western hegemony over global popular entertainment forms. For most of a century now, piano-tuned American pop and the sounds of European orchestras have variously filtered through into the world’s charts, commercials, and concert halls, embedding 12tet in our minds. But it appears unlikely that the system was even a Western invention.
The origins of 12tet seem to lie in ancient China, although just how far back it can be traced is a matter of debate. Chinese classical folklore venerates Ling Lun, a mythical hero said to have invented music itself. Legends tell of how he could charm the birds with bamboo flutes and slay mighty demons with the power of his earthenware drum.
Some claim that he wrote about equally-divided scales in the 27th century BCE. Historians dismiss this entirely, on the basis that there is no evidence of any written culture having existed in his supposed historical period other than “rudimentary inscriptions on oracle bones and pottery”. It seems that 12tet was instead developed over many centuries, forming in steps and jumps.
It’s hard to say when exactly it was ‘created’ – in fact, it wasn’t until 1917 (with the advent of machine calculation) that 12tet’s note frequencies were precisely worked out for our now-standard A440 system. He Chengtian, a Chinese state mathematician, seems to have impressively approximated them in the 4th century AD, but most scholars credit Zhu Zaiyu with properly formalising the system in the late 16th century.
A musician, physicist, and choreographer as well as a prominent Ming Dynasty prince, Zhu Zaiyu expounded his discoveries in a sequence of pioneering musicological treatises presented to the royal court. His Fusion of Music and Calendar laid the groundwork in 1580, and his Complete Compendium of Music and Pitch, coming in 1584, gave the first detailed account of how to derive 12tet’s intervals. (The latter runs to 5,000 pages, i.e. one for every single word of this article so far – and he had time to choreograph flag dances too).
By this point, Western thinkers had been experimenting with similar ideas for centuries. Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a pupil of Aristotle, discussed the idea of equally-divided scales in the 4th century BCE, and Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo) composed short pieces in a somewhat equally-tempered system. Stevinus, a Flemish mathematician and military engineer, came very close in his On the Theory of Music (c.1605), but got a few of his sums wrong, leading to some intervals being a little too far off.
None in the West reached Zhu Zaiyu’s level of concise mathematical codification – he was the first to record that the ratio between the frequencies of two adjacent 12tet notes must be equal to the 12th root of two (each of our frets is around 6% longer than the last, as 12√2 equals ~1.06).
He fashioned a set of 36 large bamboo pipes to demonstrated his concept, the ingenuity of which led Belgian musicologist Victor-Charles Mahillon to conclude that Europe of the 1890s (home to Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg) had not yet reached the same level of tonal sophistication.
Western composers have turned to a countless array of non-equal temperament systems throughout history too – in fact, 12tet didn’t come to the fore in Europe until around the late 18th century (it’s an oft-repeated falsehood that J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was written to celebrate the advent of equal temperament – in fact, his coverage of all 24 keys was in part an attempt to bring out the differences between them).
The Ancient Greeks were tuning instruments to harmonic ratios over 2,500 years ago (something even referenced by Spinal Tap), with ‘Pythagorean tuning’ being based on a stack of perfect 5ths (3:2 ratios). ‘Meantone‘, in use since the 16th century, prioritises consonant major 3rds, and ‘Werckmeister III‘, devised by a 17th-century German organist, aims to balance consonance with greater flexibility between keys (it even lent its name to a Hungarian dramatic film, described by the BBC as one of the finest foreign language works of the 21st century).
Variants of equal temperament also abound in today’s world. You don’t just have to divide the octave into 12 – for example ‘19tet‘ (19-tone equal temperament) splits it into 19 equal ‘fret divisions’ (listen to how gently eerie it makes Giant Steps sound), and Dolores Catherino composes warmly emotive synth pieces in 106tet, including the aptly-named Towards the Continuum.
And let’s not get started on George Secor’s ‘miracle temperament‘, Harry Partch’s theory of ‘otonality/utonality‘, or the ‘Blackjack scale‘, named for its 21 equidistant steps (mainly because I don’t understand them very well yet). You can read more about curious temperament systems on microtonal composer Kyle Gann’s website.
Anyway, the best route into microtonality is to listen to it with an open mind, without worrying about theory. See what you find in Michael Harrison’s Tone Cloud II, which uses justly-intoned intervals to create shimmering, pulsating effects, almost as if the notes are bending through each other. In his words, “the tuning has so many beautiful and exotic sounds…every time I played it, I discovered new harmonic regions and felt like an explorer in unknown and distant realms”:
Many believe that justly-intoned systems give a clearer, more natural sound, with intervals generally resonating in a more settled, mathematically tidy manner. But they have their own angularities as well. According to minimalist icon Terry Riley, “just intonation has real dissonance…you have some ‘howling’ intervals that sound atrocious” (he’s not joking – listen to the ‘wolf fifth’, named for this reason).
It also limits flexibility in other ways, making it near-impossible to change between keys – as the ‘pure’ tones are only pure when considered in relation to their own ‘fundamental’ frequency (i.e. their open string note). In other words, once you have picked your root note, equal temperament gives you 12 possible ‘centres’ to switch to within the same basic interrelative framework, while just intonation keeps you tethered to your starting point in some inescapable way.
None of these systems are inherently better. The purer resonances of just intonation may have a certain settled simplicity, but if we were just after settled simplicity then we would avoid all sources of dissonance in our music. And while their mathematical neatness has a conceptual as well as a sonic appeal, it does not ultimately mean we have to prefer them overall.
A superb Wire profile of the late avant-garde pioneer Tony Conrad explains how he spent much of his life railing against “the tyranny of the Pythagorean worldview, whereby the proportions found in the intervals were elevated to a cosmic hierarchy, a divinely endowed ‘harmony of the spheres’, fixed for all time”. To him, this type of thinking “reeked of aristocratic oppression, and entrenchment in such an elitist system left no role for the agency of the individual”.
However philosophical you want to get about it, we’re pretty much stuck with equal temperament on the guitar anyway (despite curious custom builds with winding frets, and even some amazing DIY lego-quarter-tone inlays). But it is vital to understand why our music sounds the way it does for ourselves – this should be a matter of principle, and I guarantee it will come in handy sometime (…try making your own scales out of just the natural harmonics).
Temperament issues are widely misunderstood, and many skilled musicians often make basic conceptual errors. Even Fender’s website gets it very wrong (“
sounding the 9th-fret harmonic of the G string and tuning the 5th-fret harmonic of the B string to it…is as absolutely reliable as harmonic tuning for all the other string pairs”).
What implications does all this have for guitar tuning?
The ‘standard’ natural harmonic tuning method we looked at above uses harmonic positions that subtly differ from the ones we actually want on the frets. While the octave harmonics on the 12fr and 5fr are in perfect correspondence with their equally-tempered equivalents, those found on 7fr are sharp by just under 1/50th of a semitone (around 0.02 cents).
This may not sound like a lot, but tuning all the strings this way can lead to noticeable dissonance through the same ‘Chinese whispers’ effect as before (somewhat ironic given China’s history of 12tet innovation). So while tuning with natural harmonics is very precise, it is not completely accurate – that is, unless you stick to the octave harmonic positions at 12fr and 5fr.
(That being said, those with very finely-honed ears can instead learn to recognise the ‘desired beating rate’ of the deviant harmonic pairs, an exacting technique used mainly by professional piano tuners that can arguably bring unparallelled accuracy to the tuning of almost any instrument. Read more about this method in my bonus ‘tuning puzzle‘.)
The further into the ratios you go, the more the deviant intervals end up scattering in strange ways (we end up having to rename them, leading to such abstruse specimens as the ‘Ptolemaic hard half-step’, ‘Pythagorean schismatic sixth’, and ‘lesser undecimal neutral second’ – see Kyle Gann’s amazin list of over 700 here).
● Exercise: ‘Beatless’ natural harmonic tunings
A few harmonic tuning techniques have been devised which sidestep these just intonation vs. equal temperament issues – notably, guitarist-luthier Kevin Ryan’s ‘tempered tuning’, and a (very similar) method found on an anonymous American Guild of Luthiers Info Sheet first circulated sometime in the pre-internet era.
They both aim for a ‘beatless’ correspondence between each note pair, which (on a flawless guitar) would result in flawless equal temperament across all the open strings. Always retune the accented note of each pair (>), which in some cases is played first:
But as we know, no guitar is flawless, and we often have to prioritise to the positional demands of the music when faced with their imperfections. So I’ve come up with a more balanced approach to natural harmonic tuning, featured as a ‘quick check’ in the impatient meditation.
● Exercise: ‘Balanced’ natural harmonic sequence
It’s not ‘better’ than the ones above, but should act as a stronger bridge between the purity of the harmonics and the necessary inaccuracies of the fretted world, covering you a little more. Aim by default for ‘beatless’ correspondences, but adapt things to fit to your intonation quirks and the physical positions of the music:
Method 5 – Chordal checks and deviant thirds
Running through some carefully-chosen chord shapes is one of my (and Tommy Emmanuel’s) favourite tuning methods. Highly flexible, it’s an excellent way to ‘get to know’ your guitar, but challenges the ear, and always needs to be tailored to the specifics of the situation.
● Exercise: Octave-heavy ‘reference chords’
Here are a few check shapes I like to draw from. Listen to the Guitar Pro export below for a tidier version than my well-worn Strat, truss-adjusted for lower tunings, can manage right now. Although in the end this method is more about getting a guitar optimally ‘in with itself’, imperfections and all.
You can also use the most important passages in your setlist, considering their immediate effects on you as you go through. Test out each chord slowly, plucking with the same force you would do in performance, especially on the looser strings, to account for the possible effects of ‘inharmonicity’ (explained below – essentially, the fact that a string has to bend to vibrate at all, which can noticeably sharpen the lower strings particularly when playing hard).
Pros: Placing the frequencies in a practical, musical context allows us to work out if our songs will actually sound good. Without this method, you might only properly notice intonation issues when you start playing.
Additionally, you can use it to stretch your hands (e.g. 07×950), internalise new harmonic vocab (by paying close attention to which notes are in play), and increase your familiarity with high neck positions (which will open up your improv and composition). Try combining your favourite shapes, using their harmonic vacancy as a blank canvas for your own creativity (send me what you come up with!).
Cons: Chords are only interesting to us because they feature complex, cascading layers of harmonic tension. It takes a while for your ears to learn exactly what full shapes should sound like, so this method isn’t ideal for beginners. You also have to ‘know your guitar’ a bit.
I’ve generally stuck to chords made of octaves, fifths, and other simple intervals here, but have thrown in a few others too. And of course it’s best to use chords from your own piece as well. Don’t overstretch either – tendon problems are no fun (trust me…).
Even trained, perceptive musical ears can lead us astray, with the equal temperament vs. just intonation issue above being one manifestation of this. We in the West are more accustomed to hearing equally tempered intervals, but part of our mind still yearns for their ‘pure’ equivalents. After all, the overtone series is literally everywhere around us – every note and sound we hear is made up of fundamental frequencies and their respective overtone series.
Our ears can particularly mislead when it comes to major thirds (e.g. the 4fr vs 3.8fr example above). By ear, we may end up tuning a fretted third too low, moving it closer towards its justly-intoned alter ego…before switching to a shape with its third on a different string and finding that things sound awful.
We could tune the latter chord in a similar manner, before switching back and finding ourselves in an even worse place than where we started – as now one (or more) of the other chord tones will be out. This can be clear when comparing E and C major shapes, and in a certain sense can affect those with developed ears more (e.g. studies suggest that choral singers, when untethered to the piano keys, end up choosing more justly-intoned intervals).
On some perceptual level, these thirds-based issues are unavoidable. Because the fretted 12tet major third is about 1/7th of a semitone higher than its justly-intoned counterpart, the G# in a standard Emaj shape (on 1fr 3str) can seem sharp, as can the E in a Cmaj (2fr 4str), the C# of an Amaj (2str 2fr), the B on 5str of a Gmaj (2fr 5str), and so on.
Some other intervals, including the tritone, minor third, and major sixth, have even larger deviances. This table lists the standard 12tet to JI differences (i.e. ‘how much is just intonation different to the fretboard?’).
Admire the symmetries in the final column. The numbers are mirrored around the most deviant note (the tritone) on two axes: both ‘vertically’ (+ and – get reversed), and ‘horizontally’ (the sequence of their ‘signless’ absolute values is reversed too). Perhaps unsurprisingly, plotting out this sequence forms an undulating wave, much like that of a vibrating string. There are some deep interconnections here.
‘Inharmonicity’ – why perfect tuning doesn’t exist
If you think about it, whenever a guitar string vibrates, it is, in a way, ‘bending’ as well. On looser strings you can see this with your own eyes – as they move back-and-forth to produce the sound, they must stretch themselves a little to fill out each oscillation (basically, a wavy line between two points must by definition be longer than a straight one).
See it in motion with an ultra-slow-motion camera filming at 10,000fps – over 400 times faster than standard (n.b. most ‘slow motion guitar string’ videos on YouTube aren’t quite what they purport to be, instead showing either ‘row-by-row’ pixel rendering, or coincident effects from the interaction of the string movement path and the frame rate of the camera…kind of like how a helicopter seems to hang in the air if its rotor speed matches the shutter speed of the camera. You need a really slow camera!)
And as all guitarists know, bending will raise the pitch. In effect, this means that the frequencies emitted by any vibrating string are always a little unstable. They ring sharper overall, constantly varying throughout their oscillation in complex, finely-detailed ways.
In technical terms, the string is producing overtones which are not whole-number multiples of the fundamental, caused in part by its ends being less elastic than the middle, which leads to unequally-distributed tensions. This phenomenon, a form of ‘inharmonicity’, is apparent if you pick the low string firmly – it starts out noticeably sharp, and can never settle fully. Here it is in a superlow tuning to accentuate the effect:
Why is this an issue for guitar tuning?
If inharmonicity caused all the strings to sharpen by the same amount, then it wouldn’t really affect our tuning in any meaningful way. But this is not the case – shorter, thicker, and looser strings are affected far more, especially when plucked forcefully.
And while all of a guitar’s strings are the same length, they vary greatly in their thickness and tension (on a standard electric, some strings can be five times thicker than others, or twice as tense). The upshot is that our lowest-pitched strings will experience more inharmonicity, coming out sharper and less stable.
This is more pronounced on steel-strings compared to nylon, and will of course vary by fret position (there are even ingenious scientific projects that use this quirk for ‘auto-tabbing‘ – each position brings different inharmonicities, so you can to some extent reconstruct where something was played from analysing mp3 files, rather than just identidying the note).
Inharmonicity is an in-built feature of vibrating strings – there’s no way to fully avoid it. So does it matter? In a sense, not very much, because both tuners and our ears pick up the actual note emitted by the string, which must by definition include its inharmonicity.
But this isn’t everything – for example, we must consider our picking dynamics, which can greatly increase the effects of the phenomenon. And some ears are more sensitive than others. So what can be done about it?
James Taylor’s ‘stretched tuning’
Fingerpicking legend James Taylor is known for his intense precision. He cares enough about inharmonicity-related issues to have derived his own, impressively precise tuning setup to counteract it, lowering the strings of his acoustic guitar slightly to ensure their overall resonances are more evenly pitched. Similar methods are also used by piano tuners to overcome the vast differences in string construction across the range.
He flattens each string by a specific amount, allowing him to pick at strong volumes and accommodate for the similarly sharpening effects of the capo (perhaps an even greater factor overall). In his ‘stretched tuning’, EADGBE are lowered by 12, 10, 8, 4, 6, and 3 cents respectively – watch him explain it below, and hear Paul Davids comparing the tunings here.
Every guitar would require subtly different adjustments, so there isn’t so much point matching Taylor’s to the final cent. It’s the principle that counts here – essentially, to ‘lead with the ear’ and use technology to help us understand what we’ve discovered, and how to recreate it. So it out and see what sounds best – a classical guitarist recently told me that they raise the thinnest two strings up a little in solo performance for a similar effect.
‘Sweetened’ tunings: Taylor uses Peterson-brand tuners, who boast (seemingly with justification) that their ‘Strobe tuning’ technology is 30-40 times more accurate than most other high-end models on the market.
Some of their designs even have in-built ‘sweetened tuning’ presets (now including Taylor’s), designed to guide you towards optimal resonances for the guitar and key. According to the company, “we can purposely shift certain scale notes…if we choose wisely, we can make the most important chords in a given key the perfect ones”.
I don’t think the £50+ price tag will be worth my money for a while – ear training is free and fun, and I don’t want to rely on technology unless I have to. But James Taylor is undoubtedly a musician worth listening to, and many other guitarists report impressive results with the equipment. I hope they continue to explore these avenues.
- For the hyper-curious – see my bonus ‘tuning puzzle’ around whether it’s possible get a guitar to Taylor’s precise tuning without the aid of any electronic technology (tl;dr: yeah, I think so, by using harmonic ‘beat rates’, but the method is almost hilariously impractical).
The guitar itself: other physical considerations
Guitars are comparatively sturdy instruments, designed to survive the chaos that comes along with navigating crowded, dimly-lit gig venues. They may seem to absorb a dizzying array of knocks just fine – but, like a heavyweight boxer, the true damage is often hidden from view, affecting their connective and structural architecture rather than the visible outer layers.
So we should look after them. For tuning, three areas are particularly relevant: restringing, action setting, and where they ‘live’. I’ll leave the detailed guidance to my fine co-teachers at Guitar World – have a read of Kathy Dickson’s Restringing Guide and Alex Bruce’s Guitar Care articles. Some key points:
—Choose strings of the right tension and character, experimenting with different gauges and materials if needed (remember how much tension and thickness affect inharmonicity levels). Tommy Emmanuel places places great importance on this.
—Think about whether you want a tenser, thicker wound 3str or not, and how a capo will affect things. And if intonation issues aren’t being caused by the strings, the truss rod may need adjusting.
—When restringing, wind neatly and tightly, and lock your tuners. If you switch between different tunings a lot, pull each string off the nut and crumble a little of the graphite from an HB pencil into its groove (a trick I picked up from my teacher Guy Harrup).
—Make sure your guitar has a healthy place to rest. Protect it from knocks, and avoid parts of the house which are damp or where temperature and humidity vary a lot, e.g. next to windows or radiators. A cheap wall hanger is a great way to do this (you can hide the screw holes with filler so the landlord won’t notice when you move out).
—Get a hard case too, and learn how to periodically clean your fretboard, strings, and pickups. You don’t need expensive cables, but do look after them. And be aware of how fluctuations in power supply and battery level can cause your pedals to pitch-warp slightly – something I’ve occasionally found with my looper.
—Soundcheck as well as you can, aiming to tune up before you go onstage. And if you can’t, make sure you do it at non-performance volume. Stay focused, and always be prepared to grab any quiet moments before the drummer sits down, or to demand some silence when they do.
Don’t panic: ‘on-the-fly’ adjustments
Even if we walk onstage with an ideally-tuned guitar, it can drift out as we play. The heat from stage lights may cause issues, and absent-minded bass players can wander too close, clashing headstocks and pushing our pegs out. And if you break a string on a floating-bridge guitar (e.g. a Strat or anything else with a whammy bar), the overall tension drop will sharpen all the others.
We learn to expect the unexpected, but scenarios like are still a nightmare, often leading to confusion and suppressed panic. But there are ways to adapt. Most obviously, we can improve our ability to tune ‘on-the-fly’, for example by slightly detuning a string or two, starting to jam, and trying to correct them without losing the underlying flow too much.
To see how smoothly this can be done, watch how Tommy Emmanuel squeezes a G string adjustment into the tiniest of gaps in his energetic Beatles Medley, at around the 1:50 mark. (This is basically the legit version of Nigel Tufnel’s infamous violin retune in Spinal Tap). In fact, ‘retuning as you play’ is a virtuosic performance technique in its own right – check out Jon Gomm’s astonishing Passionflower:
You can learn other ‘escape methods’ too, such as bending one note of a chord slightly to counteract a flat string. Sometimes this isn’t so hard, and sometimes it’s physically impossible. Also, learning to play solos up and down one string (another sitaristic trick) will ease the risks of a floating-bridge – after a breakage, you may be able to get by for a bit without retuning all the others too.
Psychological, ritualistic elements
Audiences love a skilful mid-song adjustment, that audibly achieves its purpose without disrupting the music’s flow. Apart from showing the crowd that we care about what they are hearing, it reminds them that the music is being created here and now – and can go wrong at any moment.
But the unpredictability of musical performance is of course a double-edged sword, heightening its emotional possibilities while also causing an incalculable weight of cumulative anxiety (‘…what if it does go wrong?’). We’ve all felt pre-stage nerves, just like our forebears did – no flamboyant, confident guitar icon really started out that way.
In Hendrix’s words, “It was so hard for me at first…when it was time for us to play onstage I was all shaky, so I had to play behind the curtains. I just couldn’t get up in front. And then you get so very discouraged. You hear different bands playing around you, and the guitar player always seems like he’s so much better than you are…Sometimes you are going to be so frustrated you’ll hate the guitar, but all of this is just a part of learning. If you stick with it you’re going to be rewarded.”
Backstage jumpiness will carry over into our music, causing us to overplay or freeze up. We can use the tuning process to alleviate some of these anxieties – in fact, it’s hard to think of a better time for a little calming, ritualistic focus. We play best when we’ve got ourselves in the zone beforehand, with fully-attentive minds and a relaxed central nervous system.
● Exercise: Calming rituals – three breaths
The impatient meditation recommends taking three slow, deep breaths as you tune – once at the very start, once as you test your tuning against the key chords of your piece, and once again at the end, as you rake the 12fr natural harmonics. Doing this will heighten our perception of sonic texture, connect us to the sentiments of the music, and help convert our frantic nervousness into creative energy.
When my mind is tense I tend to play too many notes, aimlessly wandering around the Dorian mode as if filling up the awkward pauses in a conversation. Taking a few calming breaths helps me to phrase my lines with more intent and clarity. After all, superb phrasing is just as much about the gaps – or ‘breaths’ – as the melodies themselves.
You can also use visualisations, a common preparation tactic among elite athletes. Maybe picture yourself out on stage, flying through the performance with aplomb, or even laughing about your inevitable mistakes with bandmates afterwards. Or you can gain some psychological perspective by thinking about the long term (“in a few years will I really care that I played messily that night, so long as I did my best to relax into it all?”).
See which meditative methods work for you and for the situation at hand (I’d prepare for a bluesy pub jam very differently to a fingerstyle recording session). Try humming the chord tones, silently counting to a given number, or even tensing and relaxing your whole body in time to the rhythm of the upcoming piece.
If you’re worried about coming across as a stereotypically weird, introverted guitar nerd…well, this might happen. But as mentioned, we should call to mind one of the key lessons from our instrument’s social history – you can get away with looking as strange as you like, just as long as you sound good (just ask Parliament/Funkadelic). In the end, the important thing is that you feel ready.
The impatient meditation is designed to foster an open, flexible approach to tuning. The art can never be fully mastered, but deepening your engagement with it will reliably broaden your musical horizons, combining the mathematical and the metaphysical with the immediate fascinations of sound itself. The ‘chain of perception’ includes everything from physical vibration to auditory, psychological, and cultural association.
We should generally be sceptical of purported ‘quick fixes’ for our playing (‘five secrets to become a fretboard superninja overnight…’). Guitar is an infinitely complex endeavour, with countless interlocking variables and a vast repertoire that would take even the most talented musician many lifetimes to master.
In the end, there are few shortcuts. But effective tuning habits may just constitute a genuine guitar ‘hack’ – a little more focus on this area will actually improve your entire sound, often very quickly.
But nobody can really ‘hack’ their way to understanding things on a deeper level. As we have seen, going back to basics is not itself a basic process. For most of us, tuning will be lifelong endeavour. Pandit Rupak Kulkarni, one of North India’s leading bansuri (bamboo flute) masters, told me in an interview how he will eternally seek to “become one with Sa” (the raga’s droning, ever-present root note).
For some artists, tuning even goes beyond the limits of the individual self. Kolkatan slide guitar virtuoso Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya hopes that his own intonation dedication will lead him to be reborn as a musician of yet-greater powers, who can continue the shared quest (“this is a lifelong journey, which will eventually end with you and start with someone else…”).
This worldview draws on concepts from Vedic metaphysics that stretch back almost 3,000 years. Devout Hindu musicians find solace in nada brahma (‘universe as sound’), the belief that all creation arises from an eternal cosmic vibration. Hazrat Inayat Khan, a latter-day Sufi mystic, wrote that “all down the ages the yogis and seers of India have worshipped the word-god or sound-god…[on which] all occult science, all mystical practices are based”. His son Vilayat taught his followers that singing could connect them to “the vibratory network of the universe…the cosmic symphony”.
Remarkably similar sentiments also crop up in the musings of modern theoretical physicists. In the words of YouTube celebrity Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY, “What is physics? Physics is nothing but the laws of harmony that you can write on vibrating strings. What is chemistry? Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on interacting vibrating strings. What is the universe? The universe is a symphony of vibrating strings…We now, for the first time in history, have a candidate for the mind of God. It is cosmic music, resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”
While the parallels between jamming and mathematical string theory are to me somewhat vague, they are certainly beautiful and provocative, which is what really matters here. I think that 17th-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz does perhaps the best job of articulating why it matters so much to get our frequencies right, looking inwards rather than outwards to elaborate on how the unconscious absorbs all:
“Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul – which does not know that it is dealing with numbers, because it does many things by way of unnoticed conceptions – which with clear conception it could not do. Those who believe that nothing can happen in the soul of which the soul is not conscious are wrong. For this reason the soul, although not realizing that it is involved in mathematical computation, still senses the effect of this unnoticeable forming of numbers…”
So, despite being one of the first things we learn, tuning can provide a window into the very nature of sound, and perhaps the heart of universe itself. Or…maybe you just want to use it to chill out for a few seconds and not sound wrong afterwards (I often feel like I’m in both these camps at once).
Either way, there’s a lot to explore, with ideas that interconnect disparate areas of musical appreciation, bridging the limitless worlds of music, science, and sound. Eventually, the thought of tuning up can actually get you excited rather than feeling like a chore…
“Sorry for the tune-up…but what the hell, cowboys are the only ones who stay in tune anyway” (Jimi Hendrix, on stage at Woodstock)
Few understand the importance of tuning like Nigel Tufnel
Questions & feedback welcome!
Further watching, listening, reading:
● I’ve drawn from countless articles, tuning guides, and instructional videos in my research and wider learning here, with most hyperlinked inline. The best is probably Gerald Klickstein’s Tuning the Guitar by Ear – although many others are great, including by Martin Taylor (How to tune by ear), Simon Powis (5 methods for classical guitar), Tommy Emmanuel (String care and tuning techniques), Peter Oberg (Classical guitar harmonic tuning), and of course James Taylor (Bonus tuning lesson).
● If you wish to delve further into the sensory, scientific, and metaphysical curiosities of vibration then there are many points of departure to choose from. Hear temperamental tuning rebel Tony Conrad further discuss Pythagoras, and let Evelyn Glennie explain how she became one of the world’s best classical percussionists despite being (in the usual sense of the word) deaf. And ever noticed that the start of Beethoven’s 9th sounds like the orchestra tuning up?
● Read about how the noise of construction site machinery can be reduced by pumping out ‘inverse waves‘ of frequencies designed to cancel out those of the loud vibrations. Or how woodwind instruments get sharper by 3 cents per 1 degree Celsius rise in air temperature. And peruse the part of YouTube full of ‘frequency sweeps’, ‘subharmonic anomalous low frequency vibration‘ and other such auditory oddities.
● And hear the ‘hyperpiano’, an invention by Kevin Hobby and Bill Sethares which uses inharmonicity and asymmetric string designs to produce an array of otherworldly intervallic tensions. Apart from being captivatingly strange-sounding as a solo instrument, it also led to the creation of what must surely be the world’s first microtonal glitch-hop (hyper)piano track.
● ‘Necessary imperfection’ has been a main theme of this whole exploration. And while some imperfections are admittedly less necessary (or useful) than others, chaotic tunings can sometimes add a lot to the music. Have a listen through Guitar World’s rundown of 6 songs with out-of-tune guitar or bass parts. Much better than paying Gibson $1000+ for a self-tuning monstrosity, which doesn’t even use the ‘under-tug-up’ method.
● Tuning in the news: ‘Mosquitoes harmonise their buzzing in love duets‘ (National Geographic, Jan 2009) & ‘Woman watching man tune guitar loses libido and will to live‘ (Daily Mash, Oct 2018).
George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them. Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here! everything here will remain ad-free and open access
George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them.
Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here!
everything here will remain ad-free and open access