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How To Get And Stay In Tune
by Gary Talley
© 2001 Gary Talley. First printed in Just Plain Notes V1.105. Reprinted with permission. All Rights Reserved.

Living in Nashville, where there's a writer's night on every street corner, it seems, I've seen hundreds of singer/songwriter/guitar players perform onstage. You would think the quality of songwriting/ performing would be a little higher than the national norm. And it probably is.

However, one thing I continually see ( even at The Bluebird Café ) is that at least 50% of the guitars are noticeably OUT OF TUNE.. I have done many writer's nights where the other writers ask me to join in on guitar when they play their songs. Way too many times, I have to stop playing immediately, because they are so far out of tune that it sounds awful. This is especially true when they are using a capo. What's wrong ?

Two things : ( 1 ) Even if you use an electronic tuner, if you only tune the OPEN strings, that does not mean that the fretted notes will be in tune. If your guitar has really good intonation, it will be pretty close. How do you remedy this ? It's easy. After getting the open strings in tune, check the notes on the 3rd fret. To do this, you need a chromatic tuner, one that reads the pitch of ANY note, not just the notes of the open strings. Tuners that are not chromatic are not worth the paper they're printed on. Well, you know what I mean. O.K. , that will help a lot.

Here's the other thing : ( 2 ) CAPOS usually make your guitar go out of Tune ! Why ? Because they squeeze the neck TOO HARD , way harder than you would with your fingers. They make your strings go SHARP, ( by varying degrees ). The most popular kind of capo, the quick clamp-on ones that almost everybody uses, is the WORST kind to use, as far as tuning goes. It is not adjustable , so there's no way to get it not to squeeze too hard. What you need is an ADJUSTABLE capo . Not only does it need to be adjustable , you need to be able to adjust the tension while it's ON THE GUITAR . Most of the popular brands of capos do not do this . The capo I use ( made by a company called Paige ) has a bar that goes across the neck and is fastened to a curved bar that goes around the back of the neck. The tension is adjusted by a screw in the lower curved bar. You put the capo in place , fasten it , then tighten the screw until you get a CLEAR note on each string. When you have a clear ( not buzzy ) note , STOP tightening the screw. That's all you need . The tighter you adjust it , the more out of tune it gets. This kind of capo takes a couple of seconds longer to put on , but to me it's well worth it to be in tune .

Sometimes your capo might make your strings go sharp an equal amount , so that you still sound in tune . But when somebody in standard pitch without a capo tries to accompany you , it's horrible . that's because you & your non-adjustable capo are sharp relative to the other guitar.

Oh , yeah … one more thing ; STRINGS ! You can not expect an ancient set of strings to play in tune . Songwriters are notorious for hating to change strings. I use and recommend Elixir guitar strings , which sound really good and last 3 or 4 times longer than other strings .

Oh yeah …one more thing … if your strings are too high off the fretboard , not only is it harder to play , but putting a capo on makes you more out of tune than if your strings were lower.

Oh yeah…just two more things : ( 1 ) On most acoustic guitars, it is a bit dicey to set the intonation yourself , because you usually don't have an adjustable bridge like most electrics do. A good luthier can help you with that.

And finally ( I think ) ( 2 ) There is a relatively recent invention called the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. ( see http://www.buzzfeiten.com/ ) Buzz, a phenomenal guitarist and inventor , designed a new tuning system for guitar. It requires about $175 worth of modifications on your guitar , but I've talked to some great players who swear by it.

Well, that's about it. I hope this info helps you get ( and stay ) in tune any questions can be addressed to garytalley2@home.com.


I ( Gary Talley ) was born & raised in Memphis,TN. and have ( has ) spent my ( his ) entire life ( so far ) surrounded by music. But never mind that. He ( I ) has ( have ) been playing music professionally for more than 30 years & writing/teaching for 20 years. I do not have a day gig. I've been teaching guitar to songwriters in Nashville for a really really long time. I am so tired. After discovering that many songwriters ( beginners and pros ) didn't know what they needed to know about music and guitar playing, I made an instructional video called "Guitar Playing for Songwriters". It really works. My website is http://www.garytalley.com/ and has lots of cool stuff. Between writing, playing sessions, doing gigs with my old band, The Box Tops (and I DO mean old), I travel around the whole wide world doing guitar workshops and helping the poor ( poor guitar players, that is ). Please hire me. Buy my video. Let's do lunch.
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