Tuning & Tone
I’ve had good conversations with fellow players and friends recently about tuning and tone. Both of these subjects are great for inviting maelstroms on the Internet, as everyone has tales to tell and preferences to defend. Our conversations never got heated, as we tended to agree on most points, and I think that developing sound strategies regarding tuning and tone are often the mark of a more seasoned player. Both are nuances that are often treated as an afterthought, but they can make all the difference. Being in tune and having a good tone are key in any setting at every level, but for those of us blessed to be asked to contribute to master recordings, the microscope is bigger and less forgiving than in most cases. In a room full of peers on their respective instruments and an engineer or two and a producer (or seven), those of us playing non-fretted instruments get scrutinized. I had a couple of eye opening experiences with tuning in my Ricky Skaggs days.
EARS AND TUNERS
Prior to moving to Nashville, in the late seventies, I had always tuned by ear. I’d grab an E from the piano (with the pedals down), tune the strings to the E, tune it up to the best of my ability, and play. When the Korg tuner came out, life changed for the better. Suddenly you could see a number value for each of your strings. I started relying on the tuner but would still tweak the tuning a bit using my ear. I’d spend my nights playing in clubs and beer halls playing in tune the best that I could. considering my inexperience.
FIRST SKAGGS SESSION
“Waiting for the Sun to Shine” was the first album I recorded with Ricky. In fact it was the first album I’d ever recorded with anyone, as I was just getting started in Nashville. At that time I was playing my push-pull Emmons guitar.
I was probably so inexperienced at the time that I just "played what I knew", and was lucky for the most part to be in tune. In fact I ended up doubling most of the steel parts on the record, which miraculously turned out fine. I did have trouble on the title track when I tried getting in tune while doubling a piano line. I couldn’t understand why, when I went to my E to F position, things were flat even though I played right on the fret. I thought something was wrong because I had to play sharp to the fret to be in tune.
WAITING FOR THE STEEL TO TUNE
I started obsessing over finding the perfect way to tune. One day, right before starting the second Ricky Skaggs album, I went over to Buddy Emmons' house. At the time he was experimenting with tuning everything to 440. I decided if that was good enough for Buddy, it was good enough for me. I didn’t like the way it sounded to my ear... but I went with it.
A few days later we were cutting “Highway 40 Blues”. I was excited to try my “new” way of tuning. What a disaster! The band got the track pretty quickly, but I was called out for being out of tune. I quickly ran back in the studio and retuned my steel back to the way I’d always tuned.
After that session I began the quest to find the holy grail of tuning. I’m not sure I’ve found it yet, but I did get a great piece of advice from the late, great Weldon Myrick along the way. He said “ Tune your steel... and learn how to play it in tune “.
In other words, realize that no guitar is perfect. Playing in tune is ultimately dependent on your ears, your bar hand, and your knowledge of the neck... and the particular guitar that you are playing.
Tuning is also dependent on everyone else on that stage or in that studio. You can be in tune with yourself but the guitar or keyboard might have an effect on their sound, which can change the perception of the pitch center. Sometimes when that happens you just have to hang on and trust your ability.
As I became more experienced in the studio, I went back to tuning by ear. I’ll get my E from the tuner, then tune everything to that string. I then check my intervals in different positions and tweak accordingly. When I play, I use my ear to adjust. I try to be conscious of where everyone else is playing so that I’m not muddying up the sound. In the studio I’m constantly tuning depending on everything else in the room.
PRACTICE PLAYING IN TUNE
When I practice, I spend lots of time on intonation by finding the same notes on different strings and the same chords in different positions. I’ll invent redundant exercises to make large jumps between positions. I’ll also practice scales and melodies on different strings and pedal positions. Doing this has made me acutely aware of the importance of the bar hand. A seasoned player will be able to adjust and “sweeten “ their tuning by changing the bar pressure and using vibrato.
I was lucky enough to have had a background in vocal music. In high school I sang in chamber choirs and always sang along with the radio. By the time I started playing steel, at twenty years old, I already had a developed ear. It’s taken me a lifetime to develop technique
in order to play a steel guitar in tune.
I’m still working on it.