Robo scientists, Richard Feynman, is quoted as saying, “If you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics”. In a similar light, if you haven’t had a guitar tuning nightmare, you haven’t recorded guitar. Otherwise outstanding guitar players often come to the conclusion that they can’t play a D chord in tune. (Just for the record, it’s generally more embarrassing when a person isn’t aware of their D chord problem than it actually is for them to actually have a D chord tuning problem.) It’s a very common problem. Very common! The studio world makes this whole tuning issue a total freakin’ nightmare on a bad day.
In this blog, I’m going to discuss advanced techniques to save you a few billion hours in time in the next few years. I’m making the assumption that you already know how damn good a performance playing IN TUNE sounds and how awful a performance that is 1% off sounds. While many bands may not have the budget, inclination, or ear to care, the serious projects will require mega tuning. It’s easy to waste a weekend on a single riff. I know. I’ve done it.
Some guitar players don’t have much trouble and can just jump in and rock. These guitar players are few and far between. If you’ve never had tuning troubles, odds are good that you haven’t really heard in tune guitars before. Guitars that are REALLY in tune are dramatically clearer, bigger, meaner, and better on the engineering end and dramatically more musical. I’m convinced that the #1 reason people struggle with recording acoustic guitars is they are trying to compensate for the boxy sound of a barely out-of-tune guitar with mic placement and such. When you get the guitar REALLY in-tune, you will hear it and LOVE it.
#1 – A Tuner Is Just a Gadget
Tuners are nice little devices. They tell you the frequency of the note a person has struck. The problem is strings go sharp when you first hit them and go flat immediately afterwards. This means that just because you got a string to land on “E” or whatever on the tuner doesn’t mean when you strike it with 10x more (or less) force in the take that the string will go sharp.
#2 – Never Tune Flat
One of my favorite tactics that I use daily is to never turn the tuning peg flat. If I’m tuning the G string and I end up being a little sharp, I don’t grab the tuning peg. I simply bend the G string HARD. There is always slack hiding in the string and a hard bend will yank that slack right out of there. If you leave this slack in there, it will slowly come out over time and the guitar will drift flat as you play it.
If you aren’t so great at bends (it amazes me as a crappy lead guitar player that some really talented guitar players look like something is wrong with them when they attempt to bend a string!) it’s okay to physically grab the string with your right and and pull on it a bit. You don’t want to yank TOO hard, but you can probably pull a little harder than you think.
This one takes a bit of practice as you have to nail your pitch by SLOWLY turning the tuning peg sharper and sharper. (Kinda like when getting gas for your car. No one wants to go over the magic dollar amount in your head.) Of course, if you go too far, you should just bend the string, and repeat.
In rare occasions when you go too sharp and there isn’t enough slack, always go way down so you can come back up, bend the string, and tighten it some more. Repeat.
#3 – Stretch ‘em Hard!
I see guitar players all the time who toss brand new strings on, tune up, and think they are ready to track. I’m not sure where they got that idea, but I’m positive all of ‘em have fought through wild tuning fluctuations at first. I stretch strings AGGRESSIVELY. I always start with by placing my left hand over the 22th fret and press down pretty hard. My right hand will be under the 24nd fret pulling up. I give it a good, slow tug and attempt to pull everything I can out of that 23rd fret. Then I move down a fret and repeat. I do this for the entire guitar. I can do it pretty quickly and it’s not a huge deal if you skip a fret here or there.
My right hand is usually fairly torn up, so I try to use some kind of cloth as padding.
If you take a guitar that was freshly strung and just tuned up without stretching, you can often pull a full step out of the thing. Some of that is going to be slippage in the tuning peg, obviously, but a nice chunk of that is slack that you would have had to deal with during tracking. Always stretch ‘em!
#4 – Tune Up If You Have To Wait
While not an Earth shattering tactic, if I know I’m not tracking for a few hours, I’ll go ahead and tune up an extra half step after doing all that stretching. Why? I figure the extra tension while I’m not doing anything will help work out a bit of the slack. It’s probably not perfect, but it only takes a second. Anything that saves a ruined take is worth doing.
#5 – How Do You Tune?
I know there are quite a few guitar players that debate over how you should tune. Some guys claim they want the initial attack to land exactly on the note. The problem with this is the string will drop in pitch in a hurry immediately afterwards making sustained notes and chords go flat. Some guys claim you should wait a good three seconds to let the pitch fall. This will get the guitar in tune for the long sustained stuff, but the initial attack will always be a bit sharp.
I tend to take a hybrid approach. I like to give about one second to make sure the note just after the initial attack is in tune. This method is the best of both worlds approach for me. There are certain notes that I have to deal with during tracking, but this approach tends to be the most effective for me.
#6 – Take Note Of How You Play
I’m not sure why so many guys who smash their strings with the sledgehammer known as their right hand turn into delicate fairy princess mode when they stomp on the tuner, but it’s an epidemic. Make sure you tune how you play. It’ll save you decades of trouble.
#7 – Throw The Tuner Out
When it comes time to really get a guitar in tune, it usually takes a bit of abandonment of the tuner. The tuner is a good tool, but it can’t compensate for problems with a guitar or with the hands. Almost everyone needs a little sweetening on the G string. (Usually this requires tuning it just a hair sharp, but not always.) The B and High E string are optional, but often benefit as well.
#8 – Tune Specific To The Chord
If one chord is giving you ultra-trouble, I recommend tuning to that chord and punching in. 95% of the time it’s the player at fault, but you can compensate for that by tuning specifically to that chord. This is no different than a singer re-singing a phrase because of pitch. Take your time and get it right.
#9 – Can You Play A D Chord?
99% of all guitar players thing that playing a good ol’ D chord is for babies. Then they start recording and can’t the damn thing in tune. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. This happens to the seemingly best of guitar players. Usually, there is some much crappier guitar player in the band that can do it no problem. You may want to double check and make sure you can play a D chord in tune. The odds are not in your favor.
#10 – Practice Playing In Tune
I see plenty of guitar players who just obsess over flashy playing. I’m usually shocked by how few of them play in tune consistently. It’s as if they never even thought about it. This is one reason why I love practicing guitar using an emulator through my studio monitors to drum loops. It forces me to play in tune and on time as if it were a real take. This skill is dramatically different from anything a person does in their practice area. It’s something any serious guitar player SHOULD work on. If you aren’t a guitar player, but just a recording guy, you should push this message. Make a big deal about this tuning business.