Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tuning the Guitar

Just so we don't get too abstract for too long here at the Music Salon, I like to mix in some practical stuff. One of the things that used to give beginning guitarists a headache was tuning. How the heck do you get the guitar in tune? Technology has leaped to the rescue with electronic guitar tuners that do everything except turn the pegs for you. Speaking of pegs, let's have a look at the parts of the guitar:

Yes, I know I called the "tuning machine" a "peg", but I just don't know anyone who actually calls them "tuning machines". I think we call them "tuning pegs" from the history. That's what they are on the violin and cello and what they were on the lute and older guitars: just simple ebony pegs that held the tension by friction alone.

Back to those electronic tuners, here is what one looks like:

And you can pick one up here. Funny thing, though. I notice that every student I have had who uses one of these is tuned just a bit sharp. The only thing I can figure is that there is a little bit of lag in the response. By the time the indicator says you are at the pitch, you are actually just a bit above. Anyway, I still use one of the old-fashioned tuning forks:

No batteries! There are a few odd things about guitar tuning that plague beginners, which is the main reason for this post. Have you ever watched a guitarist spend minute after minute trying to get the guitar in tune? Going back again and again to the same strings, but never quite getting it right? This is very probably because he doesn't realize the difference between Equal Temperament and Pythagorean tuning. Here is a pretty good article that explains this in considerable detail. I think I can demonstrate it in fewer words. The problem is that equal temperament, which has been used in Western music since the 18th century, is different from Pythagorean tuning. Pythagorean tuning is based on the overtones and gives you nice pure intervals in some keys, but makes other keys hopelessly out of tune. Equal temperament solves this problem making all keys equally useful at the cost of making all intervals slightly out of tune.

Our hapless guitarist is caught in this contradiction because he is using harmonics (probably) to tune and then cannot reconcile the results with chords he plays to test. If he gets his E major chord perfectly in tune, the C major chord will be badly out of tune. I recommend something very close to the method used in the article on Equal Temperament tuning. That is, use your tuning fork to get one string exactly in tune. Paraglider suggests the fifth string, but I use the fourth string instead. Tune every string to the fourth (or fifth) string and you will not go far wrong. You may have to make some tiny adjustments, splitting the difference with a couple of strings. One big suggestion: never check your tuning with an E major chord! The third string is always going to sound a bit sharp. But if you fix it, then other chords will be out of tune. The reason is this: the sixth string has a very audible overtone that is the harmonic on the fourth fret. This is a Pythagorean G#, which is flat from an equal-tempered G#. If you tune the third string down to fix it, then it will be flat. The solution is to always check your tuning with an E minor chord!

I was going to be very clever and end this with a duet by Manuel Barrueco and David Russell introduced by saying "here are two guitarists who managed to get both guitars in tune!" But, alas, they did not quite manage it! So here are two other guitarists who are pretty much in tune. Julian Bream and John Williams with a transcription of "Clair de Lune" by Debussy:


EADGBE tuning said...

your quote "The solution is to always check your tuning with an E minor chord!" is what inspires. nice post. thanks

Marc Puckett said...

This will be a big help over the next few days as I try to understand the tuning business. Am using a tuner that clips on to the headstock, and will be content with the almost-in-tune, split-the-difference method. Buying a tuning fork to experiment with, though, sounds like a good idea.

First lesson earlier!

This guitar business is just upsetting my routines-- hadn't really thought about it from this perspective, about quite how I would find the necessary time to practice etc, until last night or the night before. The waking day doesn't get an hour longer just because I've decided I need to practice at this and that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Since I wrote that post I have converted to using an electronic tuner myself. But I don't use the little red and green lights, just my ear. If you run into tuning problems, get your teacher to help. How did your first lesson go?

The problem of finding practice time is one I struggle with as well. I find that I don't like practicing at the end of the day as my brain is tired. I can play in the evening, but to get productive work done, I need to practice in the morning. That might mean getting up pretty early!

Marc Puckett said...

I don't understand-- if you don't pay attention to the lights, what is the point of using the electronic tuner? you can just rely on your ear. I'm missing something of your meaning, obviously. Not for the first time.... The one I have has a green 'this is the spot!' area and then a too flat red area and a too sharp yellow area. Yes, Jacob seems to have a great deal of tolerance of questions-- I guess a teacher has to have.

Yes, the early day is better for me, too. Unfortunately, because of the landlady's sleep schedule and the lamentably inferior sort of construction that built this house all I've got available on three days of the week is the evening hours, after I've been at work all day. Have had to accept the likelihood that those three days will be less productive than the others. But as this imperfect world goes, it's not the worst of possible imperfections, I reckon. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

The electronic tuner is convenient because it gives you a nice, sustained tone. You don't have to keep whacking it like a tuning fork. And I don't need the lights because I can tell when two notes are the same.