Tuning Tips

Tuning in Alternate Tunings

For every tuning you use, you should have a tuning chord comprised of roots and fifths only to check the tuning. Stay away in particular from major chords, and even minor chords for this purpose. In our tempered system of tuning, the 3rd is considerably sharp from the natural harmonics of the overtone series.

As a result, it is impossible, on a conventionally fretted guitar, to get a major or a minor chord perfectly in tune without throwing off other chords.

Here are some tuning chord examples for a few tunings:

Make sure you have your intonation adjusted accurately. Playing on a guitar with bad intonation makes it difficult, if not impossible to get in tune. As you start to get used to it, there's a tendency to become less sensitive to pitch. Though not a permanent condition, it may make you less popular with the other boys and girls in music class.

Last but not least:

ALWAYS do you fine tuning after the capo is on the desired fret. Keep in mind that it is not necessary to take the capo when moving between tunings.

ALWAYS check your tuning if you move the capo, even if you are only adjusting its angle.

ALWAYS make sure your last turn of the peg comes from below the pitch.

If the string is sharp, dip down slightly below and come back up. This is necessary with or without a capo, but especially with a capo in order to maintain even string tension on both sides of the capo or nut. Otherwise the string can easily go out of tune once you start playing

Tuning in Performance

One of the biggest challenges of performing in alternate tunings, is holding

the audience's attention between tunes while getting in and out of various tunings. There are many ways of addressing it so you maintain the show's momentum. Here are some suggestions:

1. Gather a few interesting stories to tell while tuning and practice telling them at home while you're tuning.

2. Order the set so you don't have radical tuning changes early in the set.

3. Tune as much as possible using the aforementioned tuning chords.

You can make tuning a relatively pleasant thing to hear, or at least not irritating, as it can be if you tune the 3rd string to the 4th string and then the 2nd string to the 3rd etc., constantly changing the tuning center.

4. You should always have an electronic tuner on stage to fall back on in case

you're having trouble hearing on stage.

5. Have extra strings and a string winder on stage.

Try to keep new or fresh sounding strings on your guitar. It can mean the difference between feeling inspired or hopelessly depressed, ready to quit music.

On acoustic guitar, I use medium gauge phosphor bronze strings. I like the brightness and timbre of the phosphor bronze, and prefer medium over light gauge for the increased volume and sustain. They are also better suited for certain tunings that include lower pitches. I regularly tune my 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th strings up a whole step and have never had a problem with tension on the neck or top.

As far as string breakage is concerned, every instrument has its idiosyncrasies,

but it happens to me rarely. One thing I've found is that it has much less to do with tuning up high, and more to do with friction and/or metal fatigue.

There are a couple of things you can do to avoid an untimely breakage.

String Tips

  1. Pull the string to side out of it's slot in the nut and using a regular wooden pencil, roll the lead around the nut slot to get some graphite in there. Then put the string back. This will lubricate the slot and cut down considerably on the friction that causes string too break up near the headstock. It also makes the nut last a lot longer by preventing the string from sawing its way deeper into the nut. In you've never had a new nut made, you may want to. Consult your local repair person.
  1. If you break strings down by the bridge, check the saddle and make sure the edge of the saddle on which the string rests, is not too sharp. Again consult your local repair person. While you're at it, you might want to have your intonation checked and if necessary, have a new saddle made.

Capo Tips

There are many things on a stringed instrument that are only possible in tunings containing certain open string relationships. If you're playing music that

relies heavily upon the use of open strings or string relationships, you might want to use a capo to change the key while retaining the qualities of the open strings.

Having this flexibility may be necessary when playing with other people, especially with singers. For playing styles that do not rely on open strings,  such as jazz and Brazilian music, a capo is not generally very useful, nor are alternate tunings for that matter.

A capo lowers the guitar's action considerably, which may be necessary for certain techniques such as tapping. Also there are some things that just sound better in certain keys, or with the somewhat brighter and tighter sound produced when using a capo.

I use a capo for all of my pieces where intricate tapping is involved, usually at the 2nd fret and sometimes at the 4th. The 2nd fret. Besides the obvious loss of few lower pitches, you also lose some low end frequency due to a shorter string length. You get all of this low end back and then some with the use of a pickup or transducer, especially a magnetic pickup. In a recording situation in which you are not using a pickup, you can usually get all the low end you need just by mic placement.

For anything that involves playing more that a few frets higher than the capoed fret, you might want to stay away from capoing at the 1st, 3rd even 5th fret, as it puts the dots in the wrong places. Personally, I find this distracting. If you stick to the 2nd, 4th or 6th fret, it will give you the first two or three dots correctly placed. If you are after a particular key, you can usually compensate by tuning up or down a half step to accommodate the desired capo placement.

If you're capoing above the 6th fret, this is much less important as the frets are much closer together and the neck range shortened.