Hello fellow players,
This is Bob Hempker with today’s newsletter.
Today I’d like to talk about the challenges of tuning. I’ve seen and heard the subject greatly debated time after time by steel players for years. There are so many different methods of tuning your instrument. The bottom line is what you play has to sound in tune to you and hopefully in tune with who you’re playing with and whoever is listening to you play.
One virtually overlooked element when it comes to tuning is our ears. It doesn’t matter if we tune tempered, straight up or however. When we don’t use our ears and carefully listen to what we’re playing, chances are we’re going to sound out of tune.
Let’s face it, we play an instrument that lies somewhere between a totally perfect instrument and an imperfect fretted instrument. Let me explain. We don’t have frets like a guitar which would put us the category of a violin, viola, cello, slide trombone etc. But we do have a bar in our left hand that is totally straight.
It’s hard to bend a note into tune that might be in the middle of our chord or the parts we happen to be playing. This takes years and years of work and practice training our ears on how we tune and how we play to perfect our technique.
I’m not going to endorse any particular mode of tuning. What works for one of us may not work for someone else. Again, we have to sound in tune to ourselves to begin with. From there, we want to sound as much in tune as possible to other people.
Electronic tuners are great. I like them because I can tune with my volume pedal backed off and noise going on around me. If you tune strictly by your ears, other sounds around you get blended in with the strings you’re trying to get in tune with each other. That can absolutely drive you insane.
I also use the time between songs while the singer is talking to the audience. I back my volume pedal off to where no one hears me and touch up my tuning with the electronic tuner.
Musical instruments drift in and out of tuning all on their own. Throw in temperature changes, air conditioners, heaters and such kicking on and off and blowing across our instruments and we have a challenge of staying in tune. If you’re playing an outdoor show, it’s even worse.
There are several clubs where the band plays right next to the entrance in order to draw people in from the street. In such circumstances, every time the door opens and closes, your instrument is subject to climate changes. This can play havoc with your tuning.
In a recording studio, the heat and air conditioning kicks on and off just like anywhere else also. And of course, in a recording situation, tuning is very critical. If you’re playing an auditorium or stadium, overhead stage lighting can also affect your tuning because they generate heat and they are constantly turned on and off so the temperature can change rapidly. When the lights are on, sometimes it burns the bald spot on the top of my head. When the turns the lights off you instantly feel the coolness and so does your instrument.
A good analogy on how heat and cold can affect your tuning is to compare the lines on a power pole in cold winter they’re tight and taut. In summer heat they somewhat sag. The strings on a musical instrument are no different. So we need to be prepared. We are going to go out of tune.
You also warm the strings on your instrument with your hands sliding across it so bear in mind you’re not going to stay in tune. You have to touch up your tuning constantly while you’re playing a gig.
Now I would like to address the issues on tuners. I’m not going to recommend any particular brand. I just like to make sure that I can run directly through the tuner straight out of my guitar, then into the volume pedal. In order to do this, we have to experiment with different tuners.
We have to find one that doesn’t change our tone by just running through it. Usually the higher end, more expensive tuners have components in them that eliminate the tuner from having any effect on the tone of our instrument.
Again, I’m not going to recommend tempered tuning or straight up tuning. I have played both ways and I’ve heard other players play both ways. You can sound in tune doing either. Just be sure that you don’t forget to use your ears.
I knew a certain steel guitar player who would set and take at least an hour or longer to tune his instrument with a tuner making sure each and every little note or pedal change was precisely in tune with his tuning chart. But when he would play, he sounded out of tune to me and I have heard other people say the same thing. He wasn’t using his ears.
Playing in tune is more important than being in tune. A good exercise is to deliberately detune some stings on your guitar, then try to play and make it sound in tune while you’re playing. That should provide many hours of entertainment.
Bear in mind the people you’re playing with need to tweak their instrument’s tuning also. I’ve worked with many guitar players and bass players who would tune their instrument before a gig and then never pay a bit of attention to it.
Keep in mind, it may not be you that’s out of tune. It may be somebody else. You have to listen closely. It really drives me crazy when the bass is out of tune because that usually is the foundation of the chord that everybody else is trying to play in tune with.
It’s good to have a gentleman’s agreement with the rest of the band where we can in a tactful, diplomatic manner ask each other, “Hey, could you check your tuning?” It shouldn’t bruise anyone’s ego. If it does, they don’t deserve to be on the stage with you. This is part of being professional.
I want to thank Liam, a customer who purchased a guitar from us a while back who just called in here to ask about tuning. Before he called, we were wondering what topic to use for the newsletter. Thanks Liam.
Steel Guitar Nashville
123 Mid Town Court
Hendersonville, TN. 37075
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