I believe the universe has it in for us guitar players.
| It has been said that guitar players spend half their time tuning and they spend the other half playing out of tune. As a guitar player, this always disturbed me. I did some investigating and found out that the harmonic series does not match up to the mathematics involved, which is why tempered tuning, which makes it possible for pianos to play equally in in all twelve keys, is a compromise, and that nice Steinway you paid a fortune for, and pay even more for regular tunings, is never really in tune. As a musician with a mathematics background, this really disturbs me.|
I have always considered it a cruel joke of the universe that the math and the music don’t work out the way they should. Or the way I think they should. And being a guitar player who has worked with “real” musicians (wind, brass and bowed string players), (oh, yeah, drummers and vocalists too), I have always been paranoid regarding my “folkie” image. No, no one actually uses that term, but I know what they’re thinking! It sucks to play a first position open D major chord perfectly in tune, only to have it go totally out when playing the barre at the 10th fret. (Yes, people actually do this!) And since most of these musicians, brilliant in their chosen art, usually don’t have a clue about the physics behind it, I can’t very well respond with “Hey, blame Einstein!”
So why does this phenomenon occur? I have no idea. But I plan to research further. All I know is this:
Tune a low C on a piano. Now tune the G above it to a perfect fifth. (Make sure you’re using a full-size piano. If it’s a table top keyboard with all the bells and whistles, you’ll run out of keys.) Now the D above G. And so on. This will eventually bring you to an F, then to the very last key on the right, which is a C. Have you tuned each fifth perfectly? Good. Now compare the high C with the starting C. They should be perfectly in tune with each other right. HAH! You fell for it! Pisses you off, right? The sad thing is, there’s no one who can complain to. (I was kidding about blaming Einstein. He didn’t create the universe, just observed and reported on it.)
So what do we do? Accept the fact that our ears have become accustomed to the wonkiness presented? Because they have. Start listening to music of other cultures with different tuning systems? This is getting tougher because of the Westernization of non-Western music (and other art forms, but mostly music). Incidentally, as much as non-Western music may sound out of tune to Westerners, Western music sounds just as bad to non-Westerners. (Read that again because I’m too lazy to edit.) The complexity of Bach means absolutely nothing to a tabla player playing in 19/8 time.
But back to that out-of-tune guitar I’ve been playing since I was 9 years old. (Metaphorically, I don’t actually have the same guitar.) Although there have been some attempts to correct the tuning anomaly of fretted instruments, most guitarists, mandolinist, banjoists, etc. I know don’t really care. We go on our merry way fooling the average listener hoping that no one catches on. Or to paraphrase Philip Toshio Sudo, author of “Zen Guitar”, we should just pick up our guitars, tune up, and play.