A Publication of R.W. Green Enterprises Reg'd
GUITAR TUNING (cont'd)
note with this method. One of these is the possibility of incorrect intonation of the strings leading to inaccuracy in any fretted note, in this case the fifth fret (or fourth fret, for tuning the B string to the G string). Finally, there is the small amount of string stretching which may occur when fretting a string, and which as we all know invariably alters the pitch of the fretted note in an upward direction. This error is larger the closer you are to the middle of the string, since it is then easier to stretch a string (stiffness again). Most devastating, though, is the fact that all of the errors just mentioned propagate, that is they add together as the tuner moves from string to string in this method, and while some errors cancel out, others are compounded, making successive strings less sure as to their tune with respect to the first string tuned. So, while the method of the fifth fret may be well-founded in theory, in practice it is found to be inadequate for the reasons just given.
Another popular method in the literature which I take great care in abolishing is that of tuning all strings to a common string. This method eliminates the problem of error propagation so profound in fifth fret tuning, but problems of intonation creep in here again, as well as fret placement and human error in detecting beats as in the fifth fret method (but not nearly so severe), and also the previously-mentioned string stretching error. The main problem with this method is that while one string may be only slightly sharp and another only slightly flat with respect to the reference string, the first two strings when played together may be intolerable as a tempered harmony. Thus this method also fails.
Perhaps the biggest problem with all the methods mentioned so far, however, is that because of the additive nature of the many small errors inherent in any tuning method (not necessarily propagation of error, but just plain old error addition, a well-known phenomenon in physics labs, whence I come), any method chosen for tuning of the guitar must be accompanied by verifiable proof— i.e. it must play
equally well in all keys. Because while imperfect results may be tolerable in physics labs (even expected), they may be downright annoying in a guitar's tuning. I believe the simplest and most reliable method of checking a guitar's tuning, as was suggested to me by another guitarist (who may not have realized the elegance of his method, although he recognized the difficulty of tuning) is to compare open chords of different fingerings near the nut. By using chords with open strings and by fretting only near the nut, problems of fret placement, intonation and string stretching are minimized, and a relatively accurate tuning can be achieved which will play well in all keys (albeit it takes a good deal of patience even for an experienced tuner to achieve this). Proper tempering of all keys can in fact be obtained by comparing a relatively small number of chords: G, A, C, D, E major chords open near the nut should be sufficient, although open minor chords may be used as further verification. Once tuning is complete then barre chords at a considerable distance from the nut serve as an
excellent indication that everything (including intonation) is in good order. The reliability of this method is ensured because the final result of well-tempered intervals is actually a part of the tuning process, the problems of fret placement error, intonation error, string stretching error, and human hearing error are all overcome by the necessity of hearing only dissonances of undue proportion in open major chords. This may not be a method for the beginner, but it is the only method for those like myself who find that no other method is satisfactory and when an electronic tuner is not available.
In preparing this article, the writer is grateful to Edward Dick, repairman and instrument builder of the Ottawa Folklore Centre, for pointing out the article by Barry Lipman (which I trust he now knows is not correct in its entirety), as I am to Arthur MacGregor for a good idea.
A copy of this article is being sent to Barry Lipman in New York, and any other correspondence is invited also at: TRACK TALK, P.O. Box 43, Osgoode, Ontario, Canada KOA 2W0.