Tuning and Intonation


There is an anecdote that tells of a notable musician from Indonesia who was visiting New York and was invited to attend a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra. After the concert, he was asked how he enjoyed the evening’s performance. His reply, made through an interpreter, was that he enjoyed the beginning of the concert very much indeed, but that he lost interest after the “man with the stick” came out and began waving at the musicians. The Indonesian orchestra, or “Gamelan” uses scales in which an octave may be divided into as many as twenty-two notes. Small wonder that the limitations of western harmonies wouldn’t be as interesting to that musician as the sound of an orchestra tuning before a concert.

That story illustrates what has become my mantra as to tuning and intonation, which is, There Are No Absolutes. I define tuning as the process of adjusting the open strings or notes of an instrument to certain, arbitrary pitches. I define intonation as the manipulation or adjustment of an instrument in order to provide for predictable interaction and cooperation between notes when played melodically or harmonically, alone or in concert with other instruments and voices. Those are big words that mean you gotta do something to make your instrument sound right…and I don’t mean plug into a tuner!

Plugging a guitar into a tuner is a good place to start. It will put you into the ballpark. But as soon as you start to play open chords with your “perfectly tuned” guitar, you will find that some notes don’t sound right in relation to others. Fret placement is a compromise. Frets are placed as they are so that a guitar can easily play in more than one key or tonal center. But the nature of intervals is such that the note ‘B’ as the fifth of an E major chord is not the same as the note ‘B’ as the third of a G major chord. ‘G’ sharp, as the third in E major is not the same as ‘A’ flat in ‘F’ minor. The tuner will say that these notes are correct, but how the note functions within the harmonic structure will dictate slight variations in pitch. The interval of the fifth, as defined by the overtone sequence, is bigger than the tuner says it is. If you were to stack fifth upon fifth until you arrive at the starting pitch, you will arrive at a note quite sharp from where you would expect. And the major third is a bit smaller. This can be demonstrated by playing the natural harmonic at the seventh fret on the ‘A’ string and listening to the difference between adding the ‘G’ sharp at the fourth fret of the ‘E’ string and then playing the harmonic at the same position. Notice that the harmonic occurs just a bit inside the fret and not at the fret itself. The harmonic note is lower in pitch than the fretted note, but when played with the ‘E’ harmonic, it just sounds better.

There are some new tuning systems being touted as solutions to these variances. But no system can replace a discerning ear. My solution is this. Tune to the song. Determine the key of the song and what chords are to be played. Determine the position of those chords. Are they barre chords? are they fingerings which combine open strings with fretted notes? After making those determinations, tune the notes that are actually to be played. It doesn’t matter if the tuner says that the open strings are in tune if the first chord is a big open ‘G’ chord. Play the ”B’ at the second fret of the ‘A’ string and tune that note to the open ‘B’ string. Tune the ‘G’ on the ‘E’ string to the open ‘G’ string. you will find that your chords will sound richer…until you go to another key. And then you’ll have to start all over again.

The point is that you can’t be lazy. Tuning and intonation are very personal and are much more a matter of taste than most musicians will admit. If you play music, that alone indicates that you have some sensitivity. An electronic tuner has no feelings. It doesn’t care if you sound like crap or not. You have the responsibility to fall in love with tuning and intonation, and to make these things more important than how fast you can shred. If you love music, it’s the least you can do.