Tuning is a fundamental yet often overlooked aspect of guitar playing. Whether you're strumming chords, shredding solos, or exploring harmonic landscapes, the tuning system you employ has a profound effect on the music you create. The two main systems for tuning are "equal temperament" and "just intonation." While equal temperament allows for versatile play across all keys, just intonation offers a more harmonically pure sound, especially in specific keys. As Steve Kimock aptly observes in an article by Jude Gold published in Guitar Player, "Guitar players spend half their lives tuning the guitar, and the other half playing out of tune" (Gold, 2005).
Equal temperament is a tuning system that divides the octave into 12 equally spaced semitones. This is the system employed by most modern fretted instruments and keyboards. It allows musicians to play in any key with relative ease, facilitating complex compositional techniques such as chromaticism and modulation. However, this versatility comes at the expense of harmonic purity. According to Kimock, "the only fret on the guitar that's actually in tune with the overtone series is the octave—the 12th fret, in the case of an open string" (Gold, 2005).Pros:
In contrast, just intonation is a tuning system that relies on the pure intervals found in the natural harmonic series. For example, when you pluck a string, you're not just hearing that one pitch; you're hearing a whole series of overtones that contribute to the timbre or quality of that note. Just intonation aims to replicate these natural intervals as closely as possible, delivering a more harmonically satisfying sound. But the system is not without its drawbacks; playing in keys other than the one for which the guitar is tuned can produce discordant results.Pros:
Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses, and choosing between them often comes down to the style of music you want to play. For instance, if you need to switch keys frequently or you're involved in music that demands complex harmonic changes, then equal temperament might be for you. However, if you're looking for that "great tone" that Kimock talks about—a tone that resonates at a deeply emotional level—just intonation could be your answer (Gold, 2005).
The quest for perfect tuning may be a never-ending journey, but
understanding the characteristics and limitations of equal temperament
and just intonation can help you make a more informed choice. After
all, as Kimock puts it, nothing is wrong with you or your guitar if it
sounds out of tune when switching from one chord to another. You're
navigating between different tuning systems, each with its own set of
compromises (Gold, 2005).
So, the next time you pick up your guitar, consider what you're looking to express. Whether you opt for the versatility of equal temperament or the harmonic purity of just intonation, remember that each system offers its own pathway to musical bliss.
Gold, Jude. "Just Desserts: Steve Kimock Shares the Sweet Sounds of Justly Tuned Thirds and Sevenths." Guitar Player, December 2005.