Part 3: Two General Approaches to Tuning

There are lots of ways to tune a stringed instrument, but here in Part 3 of this series we’ll discuss two widely practiced approaches.  We’ll call them “Electronic Tuning” and “Fret Tuning”.  While the boundaries between them can get a bit blurred, these groupings should serve for our discussion. ********************************************** The most recent approach to tuning, Electronic Tuning, is a radical departure from anything that has come before it.  For the first time in the history of our race, many people no longer use the sense of hearing to tune a musical instrument.  The idea that the sense of sight instead of the sense of hearing would be used to tune something we listen to would have been dismissed as totally absurd in the long ago days before electronic tuners – that is to say the early 1990s and on back to the dawn of time.  Electronic tuning now dominates all tuning methods in some parts of the world, and this appears to be especially true with Ukulele players.  Most who use electronic tuning today have never even thought of another approach, and having never experienced anything else, have difficulty imagining how anything else could be useful.  And it is true that electronic tuners can be very useful in certain circumstances.  First of all, for those performing in public, an electronic tuner is a good tool for those venues where you may not be able to hear well enough to tune in any other way.  Then there is the issue of speed.  Even compared to a person with a practiced ear, electronic tuning is generally the fastest way to go.  And finally there is the issue of accuracy.  After all, isn’t the main function of tuning to get your notes as accurately aligned as possible? Can’t an electronic device do that better than your own ear?  You might think that technology trumps human sensitivity, but unless you’ve got some fairly sophisticated equipment, the usual practice is to design and sell to a standard that’s “good enough”.  Of course “good enough” is a subjective judgement - everyone will have their own definition of what that is.  A lot of the inexpensive tuners, for example, can be off by 1%.  That means if one string is 1% high, another can be 1% low, meaning 2% off from each other.  This is getting into the territory that even untrained ears may notice.  If speed and the ability to tune in a noisy setting are key, then electronic tuning is the way to go.  We’ll discuss accuracy in more detail in a moment, but if that is also important, then don’t bargain shop.  Finally a chromatic tuner - one that simply tells you what note you’re playing instead of how far off you are from Club Tuning - will allow a flexibility that many players will also find useful.  ********************************************** Another approach to tuning, Fret Tuning can be done in various forms.  What we’ll now discuss is the form most folks today are most familiar with - a form generally called “Tuning with Reference”.  It is where one note of your tuning comes from a reference point; then the other strings of your instrument are tuned to that string.  Common reference points for stringed instruments would be a piano note, tuning fork or pitch pipe.  Sometimes you simply tune to another player’s note.  Symphony Orchestras still universally use this system, often tuning to an Oboe.  We mentioned a blurring of boundaries between Electronic Tuning and Fret Tuning, and a very common mix of these techniques today is that when fret tuning to a reference, an electronic tuner is used for the reference note, in place of a piano note, pitch pipe or tuning fork.   The landmark book on Ukulele Tunings - the Ukulele Handbook was first published in Europe in the late 1980s, and it instructs players on one of the most common methods to tune in this fashion, a procedure sometimes called the Unison Method.  Here, is Alex Richter’s procedure for Unison tuning of an Ukulele in the reentrant Key of C.       1)   Tune the a’ string with a tuning fork. 2) Grasp the 4 th  string at the 2 nd  fret and check for harmony with the 1 st  tuned string. 3) Grasp the 3 rd  string at the 7 th  fret and tune it with the 4 th  string. 4) By grasping the 3 rd  string at the 4 th  fret you can tune the 2 nd  string. There can be many variations on this theme.  With Linear tuning, for example, one procedure would be to use something along these lines (paraphrasing Alex):      1)   Tune the g string with an outside reference. 2) Grasp the 4 th  string at the 5 th  fret and check the 3 rd  string for harmony with the 4 th  tuned string. 3) Grasp the 3 rd  string at the 4 th  fret and check the 2 nd  string for harmony with the 3 rd  tuned string. 4) By grasping the 2 nd  string at the 5 th  fret you can tune the 1 st  string. Tuning with a reference is still a fairly common practice with many musicians.  Looking back at the example of the Symphony Orchestra, one of the prime uses for this method is in ensemble playing.  We’ll discuss that in more depth in Part 6. ********************************************** To those who have only used Electronic Tuning, at first glance Fret Tuning seems like a rather cumbersome operation.  In practice, however, it’s a lot simpler than it appears when you try to write it out - we’ll demonstrate how simple it truly can be in a Part 4 video.  As we mentioned earlier, Electronic Tuning will still likely be the fastest way to go.  But given that, there are reasons some folks will want to consider an alternative. First and foremost is the fundamental necessity of training your ear.  Due to their reliance on electronic tuners, many people today don’t trust their sense of pitch.  And let’s be clear at this point; when we speak of a sense of pitch, we’re not speaking of “perfect pitch”.  Perfect pitch is the ability to remember a certain frequency and then to be able to sing or tune exactly to that frequency.  That is a rare ability, and is completely apart from this discussion. What we’re speaking of is the ability to hear whether notes are in harmony with each other This is a common ability that almost everyone has.  Practically everyone can tell, for example, when a singer is “off key”.  They are not “in tune” with the rest of their ensemble.  This is the only “sense of pitch” you need to be able to tune from a reference.  Still, some people have a keener sense of pitch than others.  To be able to tune a musical instrument well, many players will need to refine this sense to some degree. It is true that there are some people who are tone deaf.  Electronic tuners will be a godsend for those folks, but there are about as many truly tone deaf people as there are those with perfect pitch.  Many of the people who consider themselves tone deaf simply have a poorly refined sense of pitch and have never understood how to improve that sense.  Up until the advent of electronic tuning, improving your sense of pitch just naturally went hand in hand with learning to play your instrument.  As you practiced learning to play, you also practiced your tuning, and they improved simultaneously. In another example of blending techniques, there are some who train their ear by using an electronic tuner for their first reference note, then tune the other strings to that note, and finally go back to the tuner to “see” how they did by ear.  But while this might be somewhat helpful for true beginners, we’ve noted some accuracy problems with certain electronic tuners before, and we’re about to discuss some other shortcomings as well.  While you can use this method as a partial check while refining your sense of pitch, the moral is to not always assume the tuner is right and your ear is wrong. The main reason not to always trust the tuner is that there is an important difference between the approach of these two methods.   Electronic Tuning is generally done by tuning your open  strings to pitch.  In  Fret Tuning, after the 1st note, you’re tuning your fretted strings to pitch.  In an ideal world, this should make no difference.  You should be able to rely on perfect fret placement - ideally they should be “compensated” frets - a fret height that matches up well with your strings and playing style, strings that intonate perfectly, and a perfect set-up, including compensated nut and saddle.  But those are a lot of variables to get perfect, so in the real world, there are always some compromises to be made.  Where and by how much do you compromise?  It’s a decision that can only be made by tuning fretted strings. Note that in the tuning methods that Alex gave above, the first string - the reference string - is tuned to an outside source.  But a lot of people will then fret that string at the end of the process and listen to it against the other three fretted strings.  You may then even decide to alter your reference string slightly if it means that string plays better up the neck or in certain chords.  That’s your decision, based on the chords and notes you like to play, but you can only make those sorts of judgements if you have a somewhat refined ear. Let’s return now to the question of accuracy.  To give an example of how typical “dead on” frequency or “equal temperament” isn’t sufficient for many advanced players, consider that some of the most expensive electronic tuners offer options to not tune to standard pitch.  Based on a typical set-up for a given instrument, they’ll have options to change from equal temperament to what are called “sweetened” tunings.  These sweetened settings slightly alter the standard frequencies in order to make certain chords sound more harmonious.  You can go by these electronic pre-sets to achieve this sweetened sound, but remember that these settings are based on a mythical average instrument and mythical average set-up.  In the case of the Ukulele, at this point only reentrant C tuning pre-sets are offered, so as with the cheapest, non- chromatic tuners, relying on advanced electronics will also limit your options. A person with a truly good ear can actually do a better job in this respect - “sweetening” to the vagaries of his specific instrument and playing style instead of the “best guess” of an electronic program.  In addition to the unison tuning style we’ve mentioned, you can check octaves and adjust for certain chords you may use prominently.  The result could give you strings that are slightly off standard when open, but sound better, or “sweeter” throughout most of what you play. So is this why you need to develop your ear?  No! Of course not!  We don’t want to intimate that Ukulele players in general need to be concerned with this sort of advanced tuning.  If they are, there are multiple sources available online to go into the subject in more depth.  To cover all the methods here would take another series, and that’s not what this present series is about.  We’re not focusing here on “Tuning Accuracy”, but on which approaches to tuning can be helpful in your particular situation. The only reason to have briefly discussed accuracy in this part at all is because too many Ukulele players have chained themselves to an electronic tuner, and the main reason is because they believe it’s the most accurate way to tune!  This discussion on accuracy is only here to make the point that on a fretted instrument the well-trained human ear is capable of producing a better result than even an advanced electronic tuner.  An average ear, by the same token, will often produce a better result than an average tuner.  So if a desire for accuracy is the only thing keeping you chained to your electronics, you can break that chain right now!  All you’ll need to do is take a little time to practice your tuning.  If you’ve never taken time to practice, you’ll be shocked at how little time it takes.  It’s mainly just a matter of a little “focused listening” as you tune.  Maybe you won’t be developing your own “sweetened” tunings right off the bat, but most people can produce excellent results without electronics in a very short period (see the video in the next part).  As a matter of fact, a lot of people will be able to do it straight away. But again, why bother?  Getting close to even temperament on open strings is good enough for most players, and it’s not that there aren’t good reasons to use an electronic tuner.  We’ve outlined some reasons already, and will refer to other uses for them as we go on.   They can certainly be handy tools.  But there are simple necessities that any player would want - necessities that only come with at least an average ear.  And nothing develops you ear faster than the practice of Fret Tuning.  For example, do you want your playing to be totally dependent on batteries?  Do you want to have to frantically check your electronics after every song to see if a peg has slipped or a string has gone bad?  A player with a decent ear picks up those sorts of problems before the song is over.     But even more importantly, over-reliance on an electronic tuner can also cut you off from all sorts of other possibilities for your playing and enjoyment.  As we just discussed, it cuts you off from an important part of training for your ear.  It can cut you off from gaining a complete feel for your instruments capabilities. It can cut you off from finding playing comfort and optimal sound.  In cutting you off from all that, it places a lot of limits on what you can do with your instrument. And after all, an electronic tuner is a tool.  It’s a tool that definitely has its uses.  But you use a tool to help you.  If and when a tool starts controlling your actions it’s no longer a good tool.  As we proceed, you should gain some insight as to when it may or may not be a good tool for you.           
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