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Stage Tuning Thoughts

Tuning onstage can be the bane of my existence.

If you’ve seen me onstage, you know I use a lot of different tunings. Generally I’m using a different tuning each song. I’m pretty obsessive about the tuning, and Heather is also a bit… um… fixated on tuning. So I take care to tune well past what most of the audience is hearing, based on the assumption that I play better when I feel like I’m actually in tune.

But on tour, there are many variables to consider with tuning. Every day we’re in a different climate, and there are variables of humidity, temperature, light levels… the usual prescriptions of “just put a humidifier in the case” are about as useful as any prescription that starts with “just”. Add to that the fact that I’m often keeping 20 or more strings in tune (6-string acoustic, 10-string cittern, 4-string fiddle… sometimes an extra electric, and a mando… it adds up!) and it becomes a bit of a nightmare. Most important of course is a well-maintained and well-set-up instrument (and I’ll have a few things to say about this later too). But there are a few considerations that I keep in mind to make tuning easier and faster:

1. Think about which tunings are coming up next, and consider which strings you want to change first. When you lower one string, the rest of the strings will tighten slightly in response, and vice versa. I often start by tuning strings down (to keep from increasing the overall string tension too much, which can stress the instrument’s neck) and then tune any strings that need to go up, up to pitch. The one exception is if I’m tuning to CGCGCE (Fille du Roy, Ten Feet Tall) when I tune the B up to C, then tune the lower strings down.

2. Remember you’re going to have to tune at least two times, possibly three times. Again, this is because changing the tension of one string impacts the overall tension of the system. This is even more the case with any kind of floating bridge. When I use my lite-ash Strat, which has its bridge set up to float (so I can pull up and push down), I have to tune several times to change tunings, because not only does the system include six strings and a neck, but also three springs in the back. (I don’t change tunings on that one often, because frankly it’s a pain in the backside.) So do a rough tuning, then go back and adjust each string.

3. I often find it’s best to tune the strings alternating from one end to the other – for example, E – E – A – B – D – G. This helps to keep a floating bridge from getting pulled to one side.

4. Consider what the song you’re tuning to will contain. If I’m tuning to DADGAD for a song with lots of drones, I’ll make sure to keep the strings pretty closely to their tuner-dictated tunings; but if I’m playing EADGBE and in G or C, I’ll often tune my B string very slightly flat, as that compensates for the slightly wide fifth of the G chord on the B string. (I’ll come back to the subject of compensated and tempered tunings, and the nightmare that is the guitar’s tuning system, in a later post). When I tune to CGCGCE, the E gets tuned about 2 cents flat to widen the major third in a C chord.

5. Tune your higher strings slowly; even tuning down from E to D too quickly can make a .012″ string go spoing (as I’ve discovered twice on this tour!)

6. When you’ve tuned the guitar, strum a few chords and listen carefully. If the overall tuning doesn’t feel right, trust your ears over your tuner.

I hope this helps a bit. Let me know what you think – any problems you encounter or tips & tricks you’ve learned over the years?  Maybe your tips will help me tomorrow night in San Diego… 😉

8 responses on “Stage Tuning Thoughts

  1. Vince Conaway

    I very thankfully do not have perfect pitch: performing live I find it much easier to change the six strings that are technically correct than the 56 that are off 440 but fine together

  2. Dara

    The endless adventure of paired strings keeps me from doing much anything with multiple tunings on stage. I’d kind of like to use this drop-open-Esus2 I’ve been playing with but, well, yeah.

    I also worry a little about the high E strings being higher tension than the others but I don’t know how much I’m overthinking that. (Your comments on neck stress add to my worry.)

  3. James Mahaffey

    With a fixed bridge, I like to tune high to low. It seems to require less tweaking after the first adjustment. Also, I am sure it’s a pain when touring, but multiple axes with dedicated tunings makes things simpler, if not costly. I suppose you could always try those robot tuners…
    How many different tunings do you use? Maybe you could set up a few for one set and changing tunings as needed between sets. This would require less guitars, but might still be a workable solution.
    If you had a new Les Paul, it would most certainly be easier and perhaps ideal.

  4. Heather

    Do *not* encourage him, Jim. Seriously. Ben just compared your wisdom to that of Desmond Tutu. 😉

  5. Mahray

    I was going to suggest you need a roadie just to do your tuning.

    I struggle with tuning timpani, particularly when you’re going from hot van to air-conditioned hall, or the other direction. Doesn’t help when different orchestras tune to A440, or A441, or… whatever the oboist happens to play :headdesk:

    Just refuse to play anything that requires open strings, then you’ll be right!

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