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Tuning a guitar is a serious task

May 27, 2015

THE YEAR IS 2000 AD. My friend and I are staying in a place near Barcelona’s Plaza de Universitat. Even the buzz of the bustling city can’t get to me now, because we’re conducting an important experiment. I’m trying to tune an acoustic guitar strictly by ear, and then we’re going to check with a tuner how close I’ve got.

I try to zone in on each note, while turning the tuning machines of the well-used Spanish classical guitar. At last I feel I’ve achieved my goal. My friend is just as excited to find out the results. He turns the digital tuner on. I pluck the A-string with trepidation. The tuner is impartial – I’ve hit it right on the spot! It’s a perfect A, calibrated to 440 Hz. Strange this. As far as I know I haven’t been blessed with perfect pitch.

A FEW WEEKS LATER my music theory teacher at Helsinki’s Pop & Jazz Conservatory told me what it was I had experienced. The phenomenon is called pitch memory. Pitch memory is achieved by knowing one’s own instrument – and the way it behaves – inside out, and it enables you to tune the instrument without any outside reference pitch. An acoustic guitar is built to support a certain, standardized tuning. It will only vibrate correctly, and let its full set of harmonic overtones bloom, if the guitar is tuned to the exactly correct pitch.

My seemingly remarkable feat in Barcelona had been made possible only because I had been living and breathing all things guitar for the last years. When my teacher hit notes on the piano I wasn’t able to name the notes correctly. I could only perceive the different notes’ intervals in relation to each other.

The thought of having perfect pitch – also called absolute pitch – seemed very intriguing. I already had a history of trying, and succeeding in naming pitches. Some intervals also always seemed more friendly to my ear than others. The most annoying interval of them all, which had bugged me for quite some time, was the major third.

IN THE EARLY NINETIES I was playing in a band called Kyyria. Our keyboard player, Santeri Kallio, had a synth that sported a factory patch with two oscillators that were a major third apart. The third was mixed in relatively quietly, but the sound still made me want to climb up the walls. I almost started a quarrel because of this synth patch. The others said they couldn’t hear a thing, but to me it was almost like torture. (listen for the sound at 0:43)

It seemed I possessed some sort of aural sensitivity, even though I din’t have absolute pitch. Some claim you can learn to have perfect pitch, others say you have to be born with it. The people with absolute pitch call it both a blessing and a curse. I think I have an idea what they’re getting at: life must be hard if nothing is ever perfectly in tune.

A LITTLE LATER I found myself in the concert hall of the Sibelius Academy, On stage was Jukka Savijoki, who was the dean of the conservatory’s department for guitar pedagogy. Apart from his refined playing style, my attention was drawn to the way he tuned his guitar between the recital’s pieces. He struck strange chords, he chose harmonics in uncommon positions, and he seemed to take ages, before starting the next piece of music. This approach seemed very pedantic, but I had to admit his guitar sounded perfectly in tune.

I took this up with my guitar teacher Mika Kirsi. Mika told me that it was common practice to optimise the guitar’s tuning to each specific musical key. If the piece was in A minor you would tune the guitar, so that every chord in that key would sound in tune. We went on to explore different tuning techniques, which led me to learn the tuning method that is called tempered tuning.

Tempering a tuning means making incremental changes to the standard pitches in favour of certain intervals, and to the detriment of others. A guitar simply can’t be tuned to play perfectly in pitch in all musical keys. As the old saying goes, “a guitar is an evenly out-of-tune instrument”. The sense of being in pitch is also a subjective thing. Some people manage to use slight tuning imperfections as a source of inspiration, while others suffer.

A guitar’s fret layout has been conceived to play “well enough” in all keys, which means the tuning of intervals is always somewhat of a compromise. You can check this very easily by tuning your guitar, and then playing the open versions of A, E and D major. You will hear that the thirds on the treble strings will be noticeably “off”.

The problems of our western equal temperament have their roots in music history. During the renaissance and baroque periods fixed tuned instruments, like church organs and harpsichords, were tuned using meantone temperament. In meantone temperament the natural fifth is tuned slightly flat, which in turn sweetens the sound of the thirds. Problem was that meantone is always key dependent, meaning that some musical keys benefitted from the tuning, while other keys actually sounded quite off. The composers of that period were aware of the limitations, which made them avoid large key jumps in their works.

Our modern equal temperament has been developed based on the meantone tuning, using fixed sweetening offsets to come up with a compromise that allows the musician to play in all available musical keys. The result is a very workable compromise, but not really perfect either. Still, Johan Sebastian Bach was inspired by the, then new, invention to compose his two volumes of “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, making full use of all major and minor keys.

On the guitar the octave is the only perfect interval. The octave – the 12th fret – is set to exactly half the length of a guitar’s scale, with the other semitones placed according to the temperament’s mathematical offsets. All manufacturers tend to use the same formula, which has been the basis of fretted instrument making for centuries. While the fret positions might be correct from a theoretical standpoint, different string gauges and each individual player’s touch put the actual tuning of each played note in the guitarist’s fretting hand.

I told my teacher that I had been working as a guitar tech in the 1990s. I used to tune each band’s guitars using only a digital tuner, without giving any special thought to keys or string gauges. My teacher thought it was a strange idea to let anybody else tune your own guitar. Even though guitar technicians aren’t uncommon anymore in classical circles either, he wanted to tune his own instrument.

I remember hearing a story that Andrés Segovia had relied on a Japanese specialist to keep his guitar in perfect tune, as he was recording Segovia’s famous concert at the Alhambra. This meant that it was possible and doable.

The new knowledge regarding guitar temperings and sweetenings made me listen much more critically to my own tuning. My most-favourite classical piece of all, Francisco Tarrega’s “Tango (Maria)”, seemed especially difficult to get right.This piece transitions from G minor to G major, and then back again. I noticed I had to put tuning offsets on the treble strings to make the piece work, even if it meant that the open strings were now, technically, out of tune. The bars around the transposition spots were especially challenging for my ears. (Video is only in Finnish, apologies for all our foreign readers.)

I found other problematic pieces of music, too. The intro to Tarrega’s “Gran Jota” starts in A minor with widely voiced chord inversions high up the neck. Nevertheless, the work’s key and musical base is an open A major chord. After some experimentation I decide to drop the intro altogether, as it’s too theatrical and meandering, and sweeten my guitar to the open A major chord.

Trouble is, tuning to an open chord seems to affect many intervals in the middle region of the neck, especially on the D- and g-strings. My guitar had been transported from the warm and damp Andalusian climate to the colder and drier North, which in turn had put a little bow in the neck. It seemed that the resulting hike in action was enough to put out the intonation slightly. As classical guitars don’t come with truss rods, you have to find other ways to adapt to things like this.

I continued to suffer from tuning gremlins, though, and tried to perfect the sound of the all-important major third. Over and over again, and to the detriment of any other chord that isn’t featured in the piece. All I wanted was for the important chords to sound in tune. I tuned and sweetened the instrument to sound perfect in A major, but something always left me dissatisfied. (Video is only in Finnish, apologies for all our foreign readers.)

A FEW YEARS LATER I found myself working as a professional guitar tech on a real concert tour with Finnish band The Rasmus. Tuning guitars in the heat of a show is an art, and there are many obstacles you will face. Different instruments, different climates, and the different preferences of each individual guitarist need to be taken into account.

There was lots of stuff I had to learn in my new job and guitar tuning sweetening really wasn’t on top of my agenda. But, at last, the tour was almost over, and we found ourselves in Mumbai, India, with a few days off after the final show. This gave me time to take a guitar to my hotel room.

The D major chord in the song “Sail Away” (from the Hide From The Sun-album) had been seriously bugging me for quite a while. I wanted to find out, whether there was anything wrong with this specific guitar, or if there was another reason for me not getting the tuning quite right. In the following clip the song is played on acoustic guitars, and the chord in question appears at 35 seconds in.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get the chord to sound pleasing to my ears. Again, the main culprit was a major third – my nemesis. I could get the third to play “in tune”, but that would have meant throwing most other keys out of the window, which is not acceptable. I simply couldn’t think of a way to sweeten the guitar’s tuning to make it work for the whole set-list.

The Rasmus’ track “No Fear” mostly reminds me of the difficulties of our tuning system and different temperaments. The group’s guitarists, Pauli Rantasalmi, doubled the song’s keyboard melody, played in the key of G# minor. The concoction, brewed from a modelled amp sound and the sequencer backing’s synth sound, playing directly inside my in-ear monitors is merciless torture for my super-sensitive guitar tech ears. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could never get that damn line to play perfectly in tune.

My frustration almost took on a physical shape. I had been hired to get this man’s guitars in tune, but I got constantly thrown by the same intervals. I couldn’t get the thirds to play as well as on my classical guitar, back when I had tuned it perfectly by ear.

I even started getting nightmares of me trying to endlessly tune the same instrument. I was close to giving up my fight. I tried comforting my hurt soul with this evergreen, featuring my tuning nemesis, the dreaded D major chord.

AS PART OF A TOUR of South America the Rasmus played to an enthusiastic crowd of fans at the studios of MTV Latin America. My focus of attention is Lauri Ylönen’s – the band’s singer – acoustic guitar. Thanks to the newest record’s material the importance of Lauri’s guitar parts had increased. Lauri is an accomplished classical guitarist, who is well-versed in the classical guitar’s repertoire. His background forms a certain bond between us, which in turn made me want to study his playing more thoroughly during the band’s set.

The acoustic guitar had sounded a little bit out of tune during former TV-shows, so I needed to do something about it. By that time I was on top of my basic job as a guitar tech, which allowed me more time to concentrate on getting the various tuning issues under control. I told the front of house engineer, Jouni Paju, about my tuning woes. He tried to console me by telling me, that the main role of the acoustic guitar in the band’s live mix was to add top-end sparkle and a rhythmic component to the picture. Being perfectly in-tune wasn’t as vital for him as it was for me. The set included several spots where Lauri was playing acoustic on his own, which is why I had to zone in on the tempering for those songs. (Photo: Harri Huhtanen)

Lauri’s acoustic guitar featured in the tracks "Sail Away" (A minor), "Immortal" (G minor) and "Liquid", which includes B minor and C major chords played in sequence. I made a mental note of all the required chords and used my tuner to try and find the best ways to make the songs work.

I had recently acquired a Peterson strobe tuner, whose high accuracy made it possible to find tailored tuning temperaments. I started by tuning the guitar by ear. Then I checked the offsets for the different chords using the Peterson and noted down the values. My main idea was to come up with a list of reference offsets, which I could then use to get the instrument in tune, even in situations where I couldn’t check the tuning by ear.

I went even deeper and searched the Net for information on tuning. Finally, I struck gold. A man named Paul Guy had written a series of articles that went in-depth into the complicated history of our western tuning methods.

Through his work I also first heard about the Turbo Tuner, which is even faster and more accurate than a Peterson. In 2006 this device was not on the market, yet. It would take another ten years before I was able to lay my hands on this Rolls-Royce of tuners.

Learn more about Turbo Tuner

My Peterson also came with a large, and very important chart. It shows – to the tenth of a cent – how much each interval is out of tune in the most common temperaments. Now that I had an accurate tuner that allowed for minute tuning offsets, adjusted by an alpha wheel, I was able to go really hard core.

These two charts show you the offsets used for major and minor scales; meaning: how much you have sharpen or flatten each “mathematically correct” note to make major or minor scales sound in tune in relation to each key’s root.

You can see clearly that the intervals in our tuning system are full of built-in compromises. Clearly, a guitar was never meant to always play fully in tune. Looking at the thirds you get a clear idea of the complex workings of temperaments – my nemesis, the major third is 13.6 cents flat, while a minor third is 15.7 cents sharp, compared to its theoretically correct value. Strangely, a fourth is 1.9 cents flat, while fifths are tuned 2 cents sharp. This means that if I try to get certain intervals to play perfectly in tune, other intervals would be even further “off”.

I decided to start my experiments with the open D major chord. This chord is the cornerstone of “Sail Away”. It’s the track’s dominant, played just before the chorus. Because, in my view, the culprit was the F# – the major third – I started by flattening the treble e-string by two cents. All other strings were left untouched. The result sounded great, with the major third now only 11.6 cents flat. This may seem like a minute change, but to my ears it made a world of difference in the way the chord’s intervals vibrated against each other. Piano tuners call these resonances “beats”. (Video is only in Finnish, apologies for all our foreign readers.)

Another result of this offset was that the fourth of the b- and e-strings now were in perfect tune. This was a good thing, because it made the G major chord, also played in the song, sound much better on the treble strings. Playing a fifth on the two top strings, though, is four cents off, making it sound virtually unusable.

With this top string offset the minor third is nearly 12 cents out of tune, but for some strange reason I don’t find this sound unpleasant. It seems I’m sensitive to tuning imperfections in major chords only. This is due to the way the harmonics clash in major chords, leading to noticeable beating in the upper mids, the most sensitive band of our hearing.

These harmonics are excited and amplified by the contact of different materials. Different picks make the strings sound differently. While, at the other end of the scale, playing with the soft, fleshy part of your fingertips, will result in a much duller sound with much less harmonic content.

This means that using a plectrum is a very good idea, if you want your guitar to cut through a band mix. During the Rasmus’ set Lauri played the guitar strumming with his fingers. His fingernails added some treble content, which meant that, in terms of upper harmonics, this was a case of medium difficulty.

I was really satisfied by my self-developed “sweetening”. From then on I always tuned Lauri’s guitar using my little treble-e offset. I had made doubly sure that he wasn’t using any fifth on the top two strings. He wasn’t, which meant I had found an easy way of making sure his guitar parts sounded much more in tune.

If you plan to tune your guitar to any certain key, this is an easy way to do it:

  • Tune your instrument to standard equal temperament using a tuner.
  • Play the chords you will use in your chosen key, and tune the strings by ear until you like what you hear.
  • Play each open string into the tuner, and change the tuner’s cent settings until the tuner shows the string as “in tune”. This means you’re adjusting the tuner to your ear.
  • Make a note of the cent offsets for each string. This will give you a list of offsets for your chosen key. Now you can use these offsets to tune your guitar at a gig. You will have an instrument sweetened to reflect the key and your playing style.

If you want you can use this method to find your own offsets for each major and minor key. You can grab a pen and come up with offsets for the most important chords for each song on your set-list. These offsets will be small enough to remind you of the sensitive nature of guitar tunings.


  1. When tuning open strings, keep your hand softly against the back of the neck. Imagine you’re playing an open E major chord, without actually touching the strings. This way you prevent yourself from “hanging on” to the machine heads, or putting pressure on the headstock otherwise, which always changes the pitch of the open string. Unless, of course, you plan on playing your guitar by grabbing the headstock…
  2. Don’t bend the neck while tuning your instrument. If you’re in charge of tuning somebody else’s guitar, take a close look at his/her posture. Some people inadvertently pull their guitar sharp by pulling on the neck.
  3. Keep the nails on your fretting hand as short as possible. Especially in chords that need you to reach across the fretboard – like an open G major – long fingernails can add additional pressure on the strings, causing the notes to pitch sharp.
  4. Make sure each wound string is coiled up nicely and neatly on your machine head’s tuning post. So called scattered winding makes accurate tuning almost impossible. You cannot achieve even windings without a string winder. Every guitarist should own one, not only guitar techs.
  5. If a string is clearly sharp, tune it by going clearly flat at first. Stretch the string a little and then tune it up to pitch. If the string is only marginally sharp, you can try to stretch it into tune.
  6. Once a capo is on the guitar, don’t touch the tuning machines! Do it like flamenco guitarists – pull on a sharp string to put it in tune, by releasing any pinched bit of string from underneath the capo.
  7. Use your neck pickup for tuning. It is the closet pickup to the strings mid-point, making it pick up less upper harmonics that could mix up your tuner. This is the same reason why many user’s manuals for digital tuners advise you to pluck the strings with the soft tip of your finger.
  8. Keep all contact points of the strings well lubricated. This includes the top nut and bridge saddles. Lubrication will prevent the strings from sticking, which is even more important, when you’re using non-locking vibrato systems, like on a Stratocaster. You want to be sure that every moving part involving metal-to-metal contact is slippery, so that the vibrato will return back to its original position after use.
  9. Even with an under-saddle transducer, tuning an acoustic guitar while the band is playing another song can be very challenging, due to all the noise. Often using an EQ-pedal between the guitar and the tuner can make all the difference. You can either use it to filter out most of the annoying vibrations caused by the noise, or boost each string’s main frequency in turn.

I HAVE ALSO MADE MISTAKES during my experimentation phase with guitar sweetening, resulting in out-of-tune performances. If the guitarist decides to use his tempered guitar to off-piste and improvise in another musical key, the results can sound very fruity.

Perhaps my biggest mistake was to stretch cheap string sets too much, which caused the strings to become impossible to intonate. Especially strings for acoustic guitars seemed to be susceptible to over-stretching. Most often this would throw up problems with the D-string, many of which seemed to be almost unusable straight out of the pack.

Problem is you can only spot a bad string after you’ve put it on a guitar and stretched it for the show. A good string will stretch evenly along its whole length. The strings we were using back then seemed to have a life of their own.

A great tool for stretching strings evenly is a special plastic handle, called the String Stretcha. This nifty piece of engineering makes it possible to stretch each string evenly along its whole length. Using the Stretcha prevents causing damage to the windings on the wound strings, while also helping with keeping the strings intonable.

If you use the same set of strings for more than one show in a row, I’d strongly advise you to recheck your guitar’s intonation before each show. Playing and transporting the guitar will cause the strings to shift slightly. The intonation will start to drift as the strings lose their “freshness”.

The better the strings you use are the less you will run into intonation problems. In the best case scenario you might even be able to play half a dozen shows without having to readjust the intonation.

Another of the things I discovered during my “apprenticeship” as a tech was, that you shouldn’t react too quickly to tuning changes caused by the instrument reacting to temperature changes. The metal used in a string does have a kind of memory. If you raise the tuning of a string that has gone flat due to a temperature change, chances are the string will self-adjust its tension afterwards, causing the string to go noticeably sharp.

Due to the ever-changing environment at a show – especially if you’re playing open-air – transferring your tuning offsets from the “lab” onto the stage will prove a bit challenging.

With a view to its tuning, temperature changes can have a drastic effect. I always carry a thermometer in my tool case, which allows me to monitor changes. The thermometer keeps me from neurotically retuning each instrument, something which you do too often as a guitar technician, anyway.

  • Some of the hardest places to keep your instruments in tune are probably outdoor festivals in Central and Southern Europe at sundown. The temperature will drop rather abruptly, which will cause the guitars to go drastically sharp. If you’re in charge of a large flock of instruments, retuning can be time-consuming and stressful.
  • Very sweaty club gigs can be demanding, too, especially if the guitars are placed close to an exit. While the support act vacates the stage and carries all their equipment out through the back door, the draft of cool outdoor air will cool down the guitars, causing the tuning to go sharp. If you retune with the door still open, your guitars are bound to go noticeably flat, once the door is closed and the guitars are warmed up again. Don’t rush and overcompensate. Let the guitars settle as long as possible.
  • A third stumbling block can be found in the heat of the summer sun or the heat of stage lighting. Both can cause the tuning to go flat. A flat pitch is easier to handle than a guitar that’s too sharp, because you only have to tune up, meaning the strings will naturally settle around the machine heads’ posts. On the other hand, if the club environment is very hot, and guitars are not standing in a draughty place, the heat can be your friend, as it will keep your guitar in tune.

An additional ingredient to stir things up – in a literal sense – are fan ventilators. If you place the tuned guitar on stage with a fan blowing straight at it, the tuning is almost guaranteed to be sharp once the show starts. On the other hand, you want the fan to keep the temperature at a bearable level. A running fan ventilator will produce its own micro-climate. The tech has played the guitar, warmed it up and tuned it. Next it is stored in a cooler backstage area, after which the instrument is given to the guitarist, who will drag play it underneath hot lights in a sweaty club. At the same time, though, the fan will blow a cool autumn breeze at the guitar.

It’s a good idea to start by playing the guitar as long as possible, before tuning it, because warm hands will make the pitch go flat. If the tech tunes the guitar with cold hands, and then the guitarist goes on to play it for a few numbers, the tuning is bound to go flat. It’s not only the strings that are affected by temperature changes, the wood and hardware will also react to cold and heat, so make sure to play the instrument for a good while. This will make any tuning changes much smaller.

If you want to play almost all of your set with just one single guitar, but plan to change to another instrument for only the last song, think again. The first guitar will have reached a level temperature, it will continue to play in tune. A “fresh” guitar always bears the risk of pitch changes due to a raise in temperature, even during only a single song. If it is just the matter of that one song requiring a Drop-D tuning, you could retune the E-string onstage, as long as you remember stretching the string a little bit after detuning, and then tuning up to pitch. The played-in, warm instrument is almost guaranteed to keep its pitch better than a fresh one.

Anyhow, I kept on learning and developing my tuning skills. Over the next few years I worked for a number of different guitarists, with different guitars and in different musical genres. And whenever I felt frustrated I put on something by Bob Dylan. Here’s a man whose guitar has never been in tune, without this fact ever hampering his career. Could it be that all my fidgeting was of no importance to anybody but myself?

HELSINKI’S LEGENDARY TAVASTIA club was at boiling point. The set had just started with a slightly out-of-tune rendition of the riff to “Tragedy”, but the audience was still going wild. Hanoi Rocks were back with Michael Monroe and Andy McCoy leading the pack. The guitars were melting faces played through Marshall stacks in the true Spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll! I tried to signal to Andy that he should change to a different guitar for the next track. To no avail – he just kept on riffing on the same out-of-tune instrument, to my great embarrassment.

Luckily, there are some styles of music that don’t suffer, even if the tuning is a bit fruity. Andy’s guitars have always been a little out of tune for parts of a show, but that’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Most of his tuning problems are down to his heavy-handed use of Bigsby vibratos. This ancient piece of engineering needs to be approached with a gentler touch, but Andy isn’t bothered by this. Hanoi Rocks’ gigs were always an explosion of energy, with such mundane matters as perfect tuning being less than secondary.

It’s important to note that, because the band featured two guitar players, retuning should always take place at the same time. If only one retunes the drift between the two guitars will grow, making the out-of-tune guitar stick out even more. Guitar changes, too, should always take place at the same time, to make sure that both guitarists had freshly-tuned guitars.

NOT ALL EMPLOYERS give you so much range to experiment with finding personal tuning sweetening. Still, I enjoyed the changing demands of the different situations and different musicians I found myself working with.

I started using a monitor amp back then to make my tempering work even better. After I’ve tuned the guitar using the tuner, I double-check the result over my headphones through the monitor amp, so I can be 100 percent sure the instrument is in tune. The heady years also made me realise the importance of good audio monitoring when it comes to tuning issues.

Monitoring is the most important factor when it comes to keeping an eye on tuning changes. In-Ear Monitoring (IEM) is brutally exact. Because you’re monitoring direct there are no room reflections or masking effects that could change your perception of the guitar’s tone and pitch. If you put a mic in front of an amp cabinet, and amplify this signal over the PA-system, the venue’s surfaces and overall shape will result in a completely different listening experience for the audience, than what the tech hears using his surgically accurate IEM-system. On acoustic guitars the result is usually even more direct, because most pickups are placed directly beneath the bridge saddle.

If the guitarist – and his tech – were relying solely on floor monitors, small tuning imperfections would probably go completely unnoticed. With Rock bands the only thing you hear at the side of the stage are cymbals, muddy bass frequencies and a very messed-up mid-band. Not the ideal environment to detect minute discrepancies in tuning.

With hindsight I also know why the Rasmus’ tuning issues bothered me so much. The band’s guitar sounds were produced digitally and fed into my In-Ears directly, without any air moving or any “contamination” by the venues own acoustics. My signal was brutally honest and in-your-face, even if the FOH-engineer loved the sound.

MY NEXT JOB was with 45 Degree Woman. The band’s guitarist, Hannu Laanterä, used heavy right-handed damping, which threw me a little curveball. Some of the band’s songs went as low as Bb-standard, making the guitar strings feel very loose and flabby. Nevertheless, I had to tune the man’s guitars, taking his right hand technique into account. For the lowest tuning I had to tune 15 cents flat. In C-tuning the drop was only 5 cents. Sustained notes would of course sound a tiny bit flat, but the most important thing was to have the clipped notes of fast riffs play in tune. I had to tune to the attack phase and not worry about sustained notes.

I learnt a lot more about the dark art of tuning guitars. This was also a regular subject in my conversations with Hannu. After a bit of additional communication I managed to come up with a modus operandi tailor-made for him.

  • Tuning strings to the sustained note means reading the tuner 2-3 seconds after the attack. You give the string time to “find” its vibrational speed. If the string is really flabby its pitch might drop even further later on, but the most reliable moment to determine the pitch is just at the 3 second mark.
  • Tuning strings to the attack means reading the pitch at the attack. Many Metal guitarists play fast, muted downstrokes, and want to hear well-tuned fifths. If you tuned the strings to the sustain phase the fifth may read anywhere from two to 18 cents flat.

This is easy to check using a strobe tuner, which – thanks to its accurate readings – allows you to temper a guitar to fit the genre and playing style of any guitarist. Often using a natural harmonic will result in a more stable reading on the tuner.

Using only harmonics to tune your guitar may be handy, but isn’t actually going to result in a well-tuned guitar. Using the 5th and 7th fret method will result in out-of-tune fifths, because the fifth is not a pure interval on the guitar, when fretted against open strings.

Using this tuning method will have your guitar play in tune only when you fret fifths. Tuning imperfections start to mount from one string to another, and open chords sound like a real mess. The 5th and 7th fret harmonics work well only for Metal genres, because this music relies mostly on fast riffs played in fretted fifths.

I make use of natural harmonics in a slightly different way. I first play the bottom-most open string with a very hard attack and look at the tuner’s reading. Then I check how much the 12th fret harmonic is “offset” in relation to the open string. I write down the offset and the use it to temper the pitch of the open string. This way the open string rings true at the moment of attack and then slowly trails of into being slightly flat. (Video is only in Finnish, apologies for all our foreign readers.)

MY NEXT CLIENTS WERE AMORPHIS. The band’s rhythm guitarist, Tomi Koivusaari, is another player with a punishing right-hand attack. His Gibson-style guitar’s frets weren’t in optimal condition, though. The guitar would have badly needed a fret stoning, or even a complete refret, as perfect frets are the key to achieving spot-on intonation. If the guitar has uneven frets, you’re forced to adjust the neck with more forward bow than usual, to give the strings more room to vibrate without fret rattles and buzzes. Adjustments to the truss rod or the string height always mean that you have to reset the intonation, and an excessive forward bow will result in slightly out-of-tune intervals in the middle of the fretboard. Trouble was, we were in the middle of a tour and I didn’t have all the necessary tools with me.

The guitar in question was his favourite instrument. Even though we were carrying a spare in better condition, Tomi preferred to use his main squeeze. This meant I had to use all the tricks I knew.

I had to raise the strings to avoid rattles, but this meant the intonation started to suffer. Because he was playing with thick strings in a low tuning, it was hard to accurately tune the guitar. Additional tuning woes were caused by a badly-finished, too high top nut.

On the other hand this was a situation I had faced before. This was the same conundrum I had faced on my old classical guitar. The major third on the middle strings sounded very fruity.

My main cause for concern was the g-string. Tomi used plenty of open major chords in addition to fretted fifths. The open E major chord tends to be a problem on most Les Paul-type guitars. When I played the first fret g# it sounded very sharp. Combined with the starting point of a too-large major third in our tuning temperament this made the situation barely bearable. Due to the fat strings the situation isn’t much different, when listening to major thirds in 3rd fret barré chords. What could I do? (Video is only in Finnish, apologies for all our foreign readers.)

I decided to play the 3rd fret G major barré chord and tune the b on the g-string to pitch. This put the major third interval between the D- and g-strings in tune, and also worked to make the open E major acceptable. The g-string had to be tuned six cents flat compared to standard.

To prevent this little offset to mess up the overall tuning of the guitar, I had to intonate the string to zero offset. This gave me a g-string that played very close to equal temperament on the upper frets. The slight shift in pitch started very gradually going from the 5th fret upwards, and the result sounds pleasant on all frets. This type of quick fix got the band through the rest of the tour, when it was finally time to have some fretwork done to make tuning easier.

Having to fix tuning- and intonation-issues on the road made me feel more confident that I was getting closer to the core problems. My greatest Eureka-Moment came to me at a Biker-festival in Dortmund, Germany.

ON THAT TRIP I met Pauli Hauta-aho, who is nowadays playing with the group The Blanko. Back then we were on tour with the Leningrad Cowboys. Once our own slot was finished, we took the opportunity to watch the late Gary Moore’s headlining spot from right next to the stage.

Gary Moore played great with a fat and creamy sound, but for some reason he changed guitars for each song. I listened very attentively to the master’s playing and his tuning. For each song his tuning was perfect; and I suddenly realised the obvious: his guitar tech was tuning each of his guitars to fit each song’s key! And in an instant, the constant guitar changes of major guitarists started to make a lot of sense to me.

My mind started flashing up countless memories of gigs past before my eyes. All those guitarists who seemed to be changing guitars all the time. It is possible, of course, that one Les Paul was better suited for a certain song, and another fitted another song better. But somehow I hope – not least to give those guitarists the benefit of the doubt – that the guitar changes were driven by key-specific sweetened tunings.

GUITAR BUILDERS around the world had long used certain methods and tricks to compensate for the shortcomings of our tuning system, without me being aware of this. Naturally, it took an American to “invent” a solution and market it widely. Buzz Feiten is a guitarist with a well-developed ear for pitch. He patented many of the little trick that luthiers all over the world had already been using for centuries.

In Buzz Feiten’s system the top nut is moved forward from its theoretical position, in order to make open chords sound much truer. This is one part of his tempering. At the bridge end Feiten uses a set of official intonation offsets to make the guitar a much more in-tune affair, when combined with his patented nut position and an accurate tuner.

Another company is Earvana, who offer pre-compensated top nuts for different guitar types. As the Earvana nuts are meant as more of a “quick fix” solution, the company is not offering any offset settings for intonation adjustment. Guitars with their nuts can be tuned like a regular instrument.

Somebody who has gone the extra mile in trying to fix the guitar’s inherent tuning problems is tuning guru Paul Guy, who I have mentioned earlier. He is one of the developers of the True Temperament fret system, meant to give you a guitar that will produce true intervals in any key. The bent frets sure look strange, but also serve to underline how large some of the compromises on a “regular” guitar really are. This fretting system calls for the greatest care in the installation process, but it really delivers on its promise. The guitar’s intonation becomes virtually perfect, and very much like a keyboard instrument.

Even though I have played with the thought of acquiring one of those elusive True Temperament-instruments for years, I’m not quite sure I’m totally convinced. I feel the playability suffers and there also seems to be a certain something missing. Could it be that part of the enormous charm of the guitar lies in its tuning discrepancies?

MY NEXT JOB was with the band HIM. The group’s previous, German technician had converted all of Mikko Lindström’s guitar to the “magical” Buzz Feiten system. Strangely enough, the group had been suffering from tuning and intonation issues, despite the Feiten system, when they had been recording their then-new record in the States. There’s always the possibility that the local guitar tech didn’t know what to do with Buzz Feiten guitars. Hard to say…

Here is a chart of the official offsets that should be used on guitars equipped with a Buzz Feiten nut:

I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out Linde’s problems with the Feiten Tuning System. I experimented a lot and made lots of notes. An additional obstacle was the guitarist’s onstage use of a standard Boss TU-2 tuner. This pedal tuner is meant to tune very quickly and efficiently, but isn’t necessarily the most accurate tuner around. It sure wasn’t accurate enough to use for Buzz Feiten’s minute adjustments.

My suggestion on changing a tuner did not catch up, so I adapted my old tricks when tuning my classical guitar. The most important thing to remember was that the only pure interval is an octave.

A classical guitar is usually tuned with a tuning fork, so that the open A-string is in tune. After that all other strings are tuned, so that their fretted a-notes are in tune with the A-string. And then you check all other octaves in the same manner. I first play a 7th fret E on the A-string to tune my treble e-string. The 2nd fret on the A-string gives me a B for the open b-string. I tune the g-string by ear in relation to the 3rd fret C-note. The resulting fifth is easy to tune. Often I also play the notes of a G minor scale on the A-string, while simultaneously plucking the open g-string. I listen for the way the different notes beat against the open string. Finally, I tune my bottom-E’s octave by using the treble e-String. The result is an evenly out-of-tune guitar. (Video is only in Finnish, apologies for all our foreign readers.)

I decided to use a similar technique on Linde’s SG, with a view to get the whole guitar to play well across the whole fingerboard. I tuned all the E-notes on the guitar correctly, and then I double checked other notes on the neck. I managed to get the guitar to play well all over the neck, in spite of the fact that I had disregarded Buzz Feiten’s official offsets completely. Despite doing it “my way” the guitar sounded OK to me. Did this mean that Feiten’s cryptic offsets were a lot of baloney? My baptism with fire was still before me.

THE BAND’S FORMER German guitar tech – a man I admire greatly – came to one of the band’s shows, that was close to his hometown. I saw him watching me critically all night long from the side of the stage. In the wee hours of the night he took me aside and criticised me for not tuning Linde’s guitars “correctly”, by not using the Buzz Feiten system. At that point of the tour I had already found out that Linde – or the rest of the group, for that matter – really could care less, whether I bought into this “tuning myth” or not.

I had to tell my predecessor that the wind of change had started blowing. I told him that my client was more interested in the fact that I could help him get his refreshments quickly after the show, than in whether I was sticking to minute tuning offsets. In my view the whole BTFS-thing smelled of American marketing.

Clearly, tuning issues seem to divide opinions strongly. Later, chilling on the tour bus, all these worries seem to drift away, and I remember what life on the road is all about. Music moves the soul, even if a few notes are a bit out of tune.

Accomplished brass players are often using tuning discrepancies to their advantage, as an additional ingredient that adds to the music’s feel. In Reggae or Cuban music many interesting arrangements can be heard that bolster the song’s chords.

This get even wilder if you’re using instruments that don’t adhere to our western standards of equal temperament. Here’s a nice example of a tasty, deliberately out-of-tune horn section.

THE YEARS WENT BY and my ears seemed to “settle down”. I stopped teching on the road, and instead concentrated on repair work in my workshop. I’ve never quite given up thinking about the different tuning and intonation issues of the guitar, and maybe I’m not supposed to. I even start to enjoy the occasional “pitchy” instrument I encounter on recordings and at gigs.

It’s almost 20 years since my trip to Barcelona and the experiment that first sharpened my senses to tuning issues, but there doesn’t seem to be a panacea in sight. In a way I feel that I have walked my path on the way to “perfect” tuning from start to finish, and I’m now able to accept my instrument for what it is.

The guitar is some sort of ugly duckling, with some little gene defects right from the start. It isn’t an especially glorious instrument. It’s just a wooden plank with a few wires across. But despite this – or is it really because of this – the guitar is such a likeable instrument. Take this classic recording, for example. The tuning is horrible, but this is one of the best performances of the man. Could it be that the ragged tuning is one of the things that have made this track legendary?

I could never get excited looking at “perfect” women, or listening to “pristine” synth sounds. To my mind a little dose of imperfection makes most objects much more exciting. Most of us don’t look for perfection in their partners, but rather for that special something that will keep life interesting.

The guitar is a fantastic instrument just the way it is, warts and all. This is probably why it is the most fascinating instrument on this planet. This is why this love is so enduring.

27.5.2015 Kimmo Aroluoma

The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.


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