“You can tune a guitar, but you can’t …..
There – I had to say it. The unofficial “Stairway to Heaven” of jokes. I have to admit that “Stairway to Heaven” is a great song and tuna fish has somehow stood the test of time regardless of how it’s perceived. And am I the only one that realizes somebody actually originated that joke and it probably got the first head turn or musical joke groan? Perhaps it was the champion of jokes at one time and lost its magnificence. Somewhere and at some point, somebody said or thought, “Hey, I better tune this thing.” OR “I wish they would tune that thing!” So began the elusive and never ending episode of instrument tuning.
I recall during my career a top caliber musician once said to me, “If you have rhythm they love you, if you don’t they hate you.” Amusing enough and probably has more truth to it than we might realize. I also recall when during a performance as I was in the midst of my favorite thing to do – retune a 12 string on stage – I said aloud, “I just keep twisting knobs until I don’t feel sick anymore.” Got a chuckle from the audience for the moment, but the more I thought about that comment, the more I realized how true it seemed to be.
When I have a guitar in perfect (or as perfect as you can get) tune, I actually feel better. I almost seem to feel healthier, happier, and downright ready for lunar travel. That’s when I believe I play my best. It’s as if all the planets line up and I am ready to create a seamless sea of notes, gliding out from the sound hole of the guitar, unimpeded by any of earth’s atmospheric speed bumps.
If I’m out of tune I sense that I’m just waiting for the next turd in the pickle jar of notes to explode into the room and ruin my reputation for life.
During my college years at the University of Alabama, I began as a music Major and fondly remember one of the classes I signed up for, which I thought would be pretty much of a breeze and a write-off in the scheme of things. As it turned out, it wasn’t quite the breeze I thought it would be but it was one of the more intriguing and challenging classes I ever took and I actually had a blast. It was like going to an ear party with like ears … I mean like minds.
That was when, with the use of a piano, we underwent an entire semester of ear training, learning and sensing how to identify a Perfect 4th, a Perfect 5th, unisons, octaves and felt the repellent sound of the tritone. I didn’t like that interval – and I’m not sure – but I might be subconsciously avoiding people who do enjoy that strident sound that can turn your brain into what salt does to a slug.
I generally try to convince students to definitely utilize a tuner, but more as a checking device than an ear crutch. As I write this I’m trying to keep the image of an ear crutch out of my mind. Granted, there are many times when you absolutely need one such as when you might be playing in a noisy venue, preparing for a solid recording in a studio, forgot to de-wax from ear to ear or waxed your whole head from a performance the night before and simply can’t hear.
All that being said, whenever possible I strongly encourage all players to use a tuner to get one note in as a reference note, turn off the tuner, begin the process slowly and methodically, pass through the attempts more than once, and then check how you did with the tuner. It can prove to be almost a meditative experience with the right attitude, an opportunity to steady your breathing, and as a result warm you up for a session or performance better than running through a couple dozen arpgeggio or scale runs.
And when you do have to tune it, learn to adjust with the utmost surgical delicacy, as if you were focusing a camera that’s almost in perfect focus as you embrace sensitivity during the tuning process. It still boggles my mind when I see people just cranking away on their tuners with large circular motions. I’ve heard of spit guards at the salad bar. When I see these folks in action I feel like I need a note-to ear-splatter guard.
I must say that my favorite tuner currently is the NS Micro Headstock tuner from Planet Waves because of its accuracy, instant response and I love the way it hides behind the headstock. Contributes to audiences being under the illusion that I actually know what I’m doing!