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You’re Out of Tune (But That’s Okay)

The modern, equal-temperament tuning system we use in Western music makes a few fudgy concessions to deal with the limitations of set-tuned instruments like guitar.

Interested in exploring the history of scales and temperaments? J. Murray Barbour's classic Tuning and Temperament: A Historical Survey examines the various systems that have been used across the centuries.

Do you remember the first

time you felt intonation?

I was in junior high, taking my

second guitar lesson. My teacher,

Mike Hoover, hit a 5th-fret

E harmonic on the 6th string

and then struck the 7th-fret E

harmonic on the A string. As he

slowly turned a tuner, I felt the

fast pulse of the discord begin

to slow down and eventually

stop as the two notes became

one. I could almost see the sine

waves line up. Like so many

guitarists, that was the moment

I began a quest to achieve perfect

intonation. Regrettably, this

isn't as simple as that early harmonic

lesson led me to believe.

Duke Ellington said he only

really understood music when he

grasped the difference between

G# and Ab. The Duke never did

explain his cryptic quote, but he

was probably talking about tonal

context and enharmonics. G#

and Ab are “enharmonic," which

means they are tones that have

the same pitch, but different

letter names. (Which name you

use depends on the scale association.)

Though they're literally

the same note on the piano and

guitar, if you mathematically

work out the frequencies, there

actually is a difference: G# is 41

cents lower.

Quibbling purists talk this

way to make dumb guitar

schmoes like me feel inferior.

However, there is scientific

truth to this sharp and flat

distinction, and whether you

know it or not, you've probably

been unconsciously adjusting

for it. According to the laws of

physics, intervals change with

keys. But the modern, equal-temperament

tuning system we

use in Western music makes a

few fudgy concessions to deal

with the limitations of set-tuned

instruments like guitar.

The math behind tuning

looks like the calculus-class

chalkboard in the movie A

Beautiful Mind, but in a nutshell,

it works like this: With

equal temperament, the octave

is divided into 12 half-steps,

and each adjacent interval has

an identical frequency ratio.

But—here's the rub—except

for octaves, no intervals have

exact ratios.

Harmony is order in chaos.

Pythagorean tuning found harmony

in fifths, but perfect fifths

produce out-of-tune octaves and

thirds. A slew of mathematicians

have suggested meantone

temperament could remedy the

Pythagorean shortcomings by

narrowing all fifths, except for

one. The problem? Meantone

tuning produces more than 12

notes in an octave. Renaissance

instrument builders produced

keyboards with split accidental

keys—D# and Eb, G# and Ab,

and others.

J.S. Bach popularized wohl

temperiert tuning, a scheme

that grew into the system used

on modern keyboards. This

employs built-in dissonance that

sounds right(ish) in context. Hit

a middle C on a piano, then

the highest and lowest C notes.

You'll hear imperfect intervals,

but it's close enough for rock

and roll ... or Bach.

Because masterful a cappella

groups and string ensembles

aren't bound by frets, their

members can individually

adjust their intonation in real

time. This allows them to produce

incredibly sweet harmony.

About 15 years ago, the Beach

Boys did an album in Nashville

with country artists. I was lucky

enough to play in the house

band for one of their Nashville

shows. We did our soundcheck,

then Brian Wilson, Mike Love,

Al Jardine, Bruce Johnson,

and Carl Wilson sang a cappella

to ring in their monitors.

Though I'd never been a Beach

Boys fan before, I can honestly

say I'd never heard anything

so extraordinary. Without our

instruments cluttering up the

sonic landscape with questionable

tuning, those voices produced

pure harmony.

Though our static fretboard

rules out such pitch flexibility,

there are ways we can improve

our intonation. Most good

players do this, though often

unconsciously. Ever notice how

when you play songs, you avoid

certain strings or chord voicings

because they just don't sound

right? That's you adjusting for a

glitch in the system.

Another example is our

beloved big, dumb power

chords. They always sound great

because removing that pesky

third gives you closer intonation

and a fun ambiguity. (Is it

major? Is it minor?) Add a little

distortion, and tuning becomes

even less of an issue. Ever notice

how gently manipulating a

whammy bar or adding a bit of

chorus or Leslie simulation can

make a guitar sit well in a mix?

As sound swirls around, intonation

becomes less pronounced.

The fine art of vibrato and

bending probably originated in

an attempt to adjust intonation.

The intonation quest can

become an unhealthy obsession,

but a heightened awareness

will improve your playing.

How far you take it depends

on whether you are a “God is

in the details" or a “don't sweat

the small stuff " player. I'm a

bit of both. If I'm tracking a

song in the key of G, I start

by tuning flat to the tuner, but

then retune by ear with my

fingers hitting a G on both E

strings. I let my ear and gear

guide me and just try to feel

something. I've found that

sometimes the heavy overtones

humbuckers generate seem

to jack with intonation when

I'm utilizing all six strings in

a chord. But other times, for

big dumb rock or dark jazzy

stuff, those delicious humbuckers

fatten up the closer triads,

power chords, or single lines

that would sound anemic in

single-coil land.

If you ever find yourself

preoccupied with tuning and

worrying about how you can

sound right with an instrument

that will not physically

play in tune, listen to brother

Duane Allman's slide on the

end of “Layla," or Jimmy Page

in “Heartbreaker," or Keith

Richards in “Sympathy for the

Devil." They may be out of

tune with the Western scale,

but they are all perfectly in tune

with the song's emotion. The

ambiguity of intonation is part

of the beauty, sadness, and tension

in music. Hearing that, I

see the hand of the divine and

sense the mystery of it all.

John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.

John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at

or and check out his new band, The Tennessee Hot Damns.