Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Tuning and Intonation

There is an anecdote that tells of a notable musician from Indonesia who was visiting New York and was invited to attend a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra. After the concert, he was asked how he enjoyed the evening's performance. His reply, made through an interpreter, was that he enjoyed the beginning of the concert very much indeed, but that he lost interest after the "man with the stick" came out and began waving at the musicians. The Indonesian orchestra, or "Gamelan" uses scales in which an octave may be divided into as many as twenty-two notes. Small wonder that the limitations of western harmonies wouldn't be as interesting to that musician as the sound of an orchestra tuning before a concert.

That story illustrates what has become my mantra as to tuning and intonation, which is, There Are No Absolutes. I define tuning as the process of adjusting the open strings or notes of an instrument to certain, arbitrary pitches. I define intonation as the manipulation or adjustment of an instrument in order to provide for predictable interaction and cooperation between notes when played melodically or harmonically, alone or in concert with other instruments and voices. Those are big words that mean you gotta do something to make your instrument sound right...and I don't mean plug into a tuner!

Plugging a guitar into a tuner is a good place to start. It will put you into the ballpark. But as soon as you start to play open chords with your "perfectly tuned" guitar, you will find that some notes don't sound right in relation to others. Fret placement is a compromise. Frets are placed as they are so that a guitar can easily play in more than one key or tonal center. But the nature of intervals is such that the note 'B' as the fifth of an E major chord is not the same as the note 'B' as the third of a G major chord. 'G' sharp, as the third in E major is not the same as 'A' flat in 'F' minor. The tuner will say that these notes are correct, but how the note functions within the harmonic structure will dictate slight variations in pitch. The interval of the fifth, as defined by the overtone sequence, is bigger than the tuner says it is. If you were to stack fifth upon fifth until you arrive at the starting pitch, you will arrive at a note quite sharp from where you would expect. And the major third is a bit smaller. This can be demonstrated by playing the natural harmonic at the seventh fret on the 'A' string and listening to the difference between adding the 'G' sharp at the fourth fret of the 'E' string and then playing the harmonic at the same position. Notice that the harmonic occurs just a bit inside the fret and not at the fret itself. The harmonic note is lower in pitch than the fretted note, but when played with the 'E' harmonic, it just sounds better.

There are some new tuning systems being touted as solutions to these variances. But no system can replace a discerning ear. My solution is this. Tune to the song. Determine the key of the song and what chords are to be played. Determine the position of those chords. Are they barre chords? are they fingerings which combine open strings with fretted notes? After making those determinations, tune the notes that are actually to be played. It doesn't matter if the tuner says that the open strings are in tune if the first chord is a big open 'G' chord. Play the ''B' at the second fret of the 'A' string and tune that note to the open 'B' string. Tune the 'G' on the 'E' string to the open 'G' string. you will find that your chords will sound richer...until you go to another key. And then you'll have to start all over again.

The point is that you can't be lazy. Tuning and intonation are very personal and are much more a matter of taste than most musicians will admit. If you play music, that alone indicates that you have some sensitivity. An electronic tuner has no feelings. It doesn't care if you sound like crap or not. You have the responsibility to fall in love with tuning and intonation, and to make these things more important than how fast you can shred. If you love music, it's the least you can do.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tuning...I Mean, New Mexico or Bust

This was going to be an essay on tuning…but I just received an email from a reader who said that she was hooked on my family’s emigration to California so here we go, on to New Mexico!

New Mexico! To kid from Cleveland it seemed every bit as exotic as Old Mexico. Little did I know at the time that the road to this romantic sounding place would be only the first stage of the most boring fifteen hundred miles I would ever experience. We had pulled into El Reno after dark and it wasn’t until morning that I realized we were in the middle of a part of a countryside that had no features whatsoever. I could look in any direction and see only a pale blue sky meeting the brown, scrubby horizon. There was no rise of hill or fall of valley anywhere to be seen. Only the white grain silos of El Reno interrupted the flat vista in the distance.

At this time, the interstate system was far from completed and much of our trip through the western states was over what is now called “Historic” Route 66. As “Route 66” was also the name of a popular television program, my brother and I naively expected to see movie stars whizzing by in red corvettes. The weather had changed noticeably. And so we stripped off our jackets, took our places in the Ford and set off for our goal, Gallup, New Mexico.

The remainder of Oklahoma was uneventful save for the stop we made at the Texas state line. Now this was something new and exciting. A real trading post! Surrounded by a real log stockade just like in the movies. And inside they had real Indian stuff, ostensibly made by real Indians. Piles and piles of real Indian drums, real Indian blankets, dolls, head-dresses, keychains, snow-globes, pen and pencil sets…WAIT A MINUTE! Keychains, snow-globes and pen and pencil sets??? The dew was off the lily as far as this “real Indian” shit was concerned. Even a kid who’s experience with Indians was limited to the TV article knows that Indians don’t sit in their teepees gazing into the distant hills, their thoughts drifting to the gallant tales of the warrior exploits of their forefathers, while hammering out plastic, “real Indian” key chains! Ah, but then I saw a sign that promised to make the stop worthwhile. “Come see the Genuine American Bison” it screamed, “Ruler of the Great Plains”. My brother and I ran out and found ourselves looking over a rail fence into a muddy corral pock-marked with bovine landmines. Leaning against the fence where what looked like two clothes-racks covered in brown, matted fur, each one crowned by what seemed to be a chewing buffalo head. For a quarter each, we could pet the clothes-rack and hold a handful of hay under its nostrils…to see if it was breathing, I supposed. Real Indian stuff and Geuine Bison my twelve year old ass. Back to the car we went.

I’ve driven through the Texas panhandle a dozen times since that first trip and I still wonder if they’re ever going to finish the goddamn place. Not once, ever, never have I driven across that part of the state without encountering at least five hundred miles of road construction. We must have thought that the countryside was interesting though because I have boxes of pictures marked “Texas” but they all look the same. Cement pavement disappearing into brown horizon. The only difference from shot to shot are the clouds. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the sign speeding toward us. “Entering the State of New Mexico” it said.

We shot past the sign and the obligatory stockade trading post, chock full of real Indian bullshit. We had stopped at one more of these shams just outside of Amarillo and had learned that the “Genuine American Bison” must indeed have been hunted to extinction. The samples that were available for the pleasure of the westward migration could not have outrun a real Indian pony, wooden or otherwise. The part of New Mexico that I saw from the back seat at seventy miles an hour is just as boring when seen from thirty thousand feet up at seven hundred miles an hour. I learned the first time around that I’m just not a desert person. I keep hearing about how beautiful the desert is and how lovely the desert flowers are and how beautiful the sunsets burn on the western horizon. That’s all bullshit written by the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce. Those things only seem beautiful in contrast to the total absence of any discernibly recognizable life forms. Show me some trees, some grass, a river with real water in it…I mean Christ! They call the Rio Grande a river! And they do it without laughing out loud. Well, as I said, I’m just not a desert person.

Which brings me to the crowning glory of the day, dinner in Gallup, New Mexico. Our very first experience with Mexican food. From that time to this, I have learned to love Mexican cuisine. Not only to love it, but to honor it, respect it, savor it. On that night so long ago in Gallup, New Mexico, what I learned was to FEAR Mexican food. At least I learned to fear the repercussions of that particular Mexican food. I have enjoyed many types of cuisine that qualify as Mexican food. But I have never eaten anything that was in such a goddamn hurry as I did that night. And prolific too. It seemed to grow inside. I could swear that I left more in the way of Mexican food in Gallup than I ever put inside myself. And I certainly didn’t think that I took any with me although I kept making donations all the way to Barstow the next leg of the trip. I wish that I could have a bank account that accrued interest like that meal did.

One more day of travel and we would be in California. But that is for another time. Until then, don’t forget to tune your guitar…and pass the hot sauce!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Great Guitar Sounds

A great electric guitar sound is a matter of personal esthetics, and, like all beauty, it is in the eyes (or, in this case, the ears) of the beholder. Getting a guitar sound for recording purposes always must be the result of a close partnership between the player, the producer and the recording engineer. A good producer should have a solid concept of what he wants to hear, and the foresight to have hired a player that has not only the talent, but the proper equipment, physical as well as mental, to bring to life the concept in his head. My favorite recording engineers as far as documenting guitar sounds to media, be it analog tape or in the digital realm, are the ones who understand the concept of simplicity. They tend to take the shortest path from the players fingers to the studio monitors. And the best sounding players usually stick to what they do best, plug a guitar they know into an amp they know, and play.

Electric guitars are really very simple. The complications arise when a musician tries to be all things with a minimum of equipment. I love the ability to simulate five hundred guitar sounds with a single rack space piece of gear. But a real room with a real tube amp is just, well, it’s just more fun, goddammit! And if we’re not having fun, what’s the point anyway?

Some time ago, I was working with a guitarist on his solo record, I’ll call him Sam. Sam was probably the best pure blues/rock player I had ever been in the same room with. Not the most famous, although he had done some notable things in the past, but clearly a most exciting and masterful soloist. And his rhythm playing was equally as jaw-dropping. We were struggling with his gear and just couldn’t quite get what he wanted. Sam was playing a stunning piece of quilted maple furniture that was fitted with the latest in electronic innovations and was plugged into his own amp, a modern channel-switching hybrid. You could, with the push of a button, instantly get one of a half-dozen sounds…non of which were usable. I asked Sam what the rotary switch on his guitar did, and when he couldn’t come up with a coherent answer, I thought I should ask the ultimate question. “Sam” I asked, “what sound are you looking for on this song?” He answered that he was going for a vintage fat Stratocaster rhythm tone. I told Sam to take thirty minutes, and I would see if I could help out.

While Sam took a break, I put a set of .013 through .056 nickel-wound strings on my own Strat (in a future blog, I’ll discuss how to get a guitar to stay in tune with a quick string change) and aimed a Shure SM57 into the speaker cone of a beat-up tweed deluxe that lived in the studio. I put the pick-up selector on the neck position and taped it, turned all the knobs on the amp to five, and called Sam into the room.

Sam stepped up to the plate, took a few swings and told me that this was the sound that he had been looking for all week. I guess I must be some sort of magician. Let’s see. Sam wanted a sound that was, in the early 60s, the only rhythm sound available to most guitarists, a fender guitar, strung with what was standard at that time, played through a fender amp with the simplest mic in the studio hanging in front of it. No magic here. I would have had a much harder time trying to figure out how to make something sound as cheesy as his high-tech rig. The engineer opened the mic, brought up the fader, said “fuck yeah” and rolled tape.

You see, an engineer is only as good as what he has to work with. There are not enough knobs, effects, bells or whistles in the studio to make a crap rig, or a crap player sound good. A good engineer will take the time to actually listen to the amp and use his ear to find that spot where the mic will hear the amp best. But if the sound is not there to begin with, there is no way it will get to tape.

Now some players will think that I’m nuts to put set of .013s on a vintage Strat. They’ll talk about issues like tension and neck adjustments, but what they are really concerned with is playability. BABIES! The fact is that old guitar records sound big and fat because old guitars came with big, fat strings on them. You can’t baby a guitar. If the neck can’t take a healthy set of strings, then what makes you think that it will sound worth a damn with slinkys? Yeah, sure, I would string a guitar with lighter strings for playability purposes. But man, if you’ve never chunked out some power chords on a Les Paul with .013s through a nice simple Marshall or strummed full, open chords on an ES345 through an AC30…well, you should try it and see if playability is really such a big issue.

It’s all about the sound. And a great sound is worth a few callouses. So my advise for the day is, keep it simple, don’t be a crybaby and TURN IT UP!

Friday, August 18, 2006


Deterrence. Does it work? What is it, really? Why do we refrain from “breaking the rules”. Is it because we are afraid of getting caught, or is there some higher moral code that dictates our behavior in a society in which our freedoms frequently overlap the freedoms of those around us? What makes it wrong to speed, to steal, or to kill. What makes it right for society to kill a killer? What makes a kindergartener think twice before confiscating his neighbor’s cookies?

Big questions…huge answers. I read in the porcelain library every morning and my latest diversion has been one of those yearbooks issued by publishers rounding up the major stories in world politics, sports and the arts. This book chronicled the events of 1952 and the international affairs of that year cast an interesting light across the years toward many of the issues facing our society at present. I am left with the impression that there was much to be changed, and frustrated that we have seemingly learned little from the experiences of our recent history.

Solving the problems of the world can be daunting so I decided to distill some of these questions into the small doses concerning my own experiences and the personal opinions formed by reconciling personal, versus public behavior

Two societal “deterrents” about which I have strong feelings are the death penalty and nuclear arms. The permanent nature of the execution of either of these events is undeniable. When a murderer is put to death by the state, that particular individual will never again cause harm to the society which carried out the final, irreversible punishment. But my question is, does the “threat” of punishment deter criminal acts? Or is it just a case of “wait til your father gets home?”

The big story of 1952 was the successful detonation by the United States of the largest, most destructive single bomb in world history, the H-bomb. The political world of 1952 was one of widespread unrest in many of the same geographical areas that we read about today. The Korean peninsula was far from peaceful. Southeast Asia was looming as the next bone of contention between the power structures of capitalism and communism. The Mid-east was continuing in its role as the age-old cauldron of religious and cultural hatred. Up to that point in history, the United States was the only world power which had executed the ultimate deterrent in modern warfare, nuclear weaponry. And it worked. The total annihilation of two Japanese cities deterred Japan from continuing their war efforts. The United States held the club of nuclear warfare over the kindergarten class that was the world of 1945 as if to say, “Allright, everyone keep your hands to themselves or nobody gets recess.” After seven years of club-waving, a survey of the world situation of 1952 indicates that the deterrence of nuclear enforcement of the “rules” was approximately nonexistent.

How many times have we heard or said the words, “ If you do that again, I’ll kick your ass”? And how often was the promised ass-kicking not forthcoming? If a galley slave, chained to the oar gets the lash, it will have the effect of subjugating that individual because there is no chance of retribution. The lasher knew that he need not look over his shoulder. A family dog can be terrorized into submission only because he depends on his master for food. If that dog had a ready and independent supply of kibble, he would chew, dig, piss and shit to his hearts content knowing that he could simply duck out of harm’s way.

Enforcement of rules does not rely on the threat of punishment in the world of relatively free individuals. We break rules all the time. We drive too fast until we get a ticket. Then we pay the fine and speed off as if nothing had happened. I believe we expend more energy and thought in circumventing the rules than we do in actually following them, especially if the rules seem to impede the natural flow. When I was a teen-ager, I frequently went out the bedroom window after my family was in bed to roam the neighborhood with my like-minded friends. I was caught sneaking back into the house three times in one summer. This frequency indicates that I learned something…I got better at sneaking back in before my absence had been discovered. My punishment for each escape was a week in my room…with no visitors…the same room with the same window through which I would escape the very first night of every new sentence. I was of the opinion that if my actions were de-criminalized, if I were allowed to go out late at night as I pleased, my parents would be saved the embarrassment of authoring ineffectual disciplinary measures. I don’t believe that we ever came to an agreement on the issue, but I did take notes for future reference in the event I ever owned a dog.

The years passed and I did own a dog or two, none of which I ever had to ground, or beat into submission for that matter. But as the saying goes, “Wisdom from the mouth of babes.” I learned a great deal about the ineffectual nature of deterrence when I began to take my oldest son to the grocery store. I suppose that he was just over two at the time that the trouble started. He was just old enough to sit in the shopping cart, reach out with his arms and pull down an entire row of breakfast cereal boxes as I sped down the aisle. I tried all the usual dad-like tricks. “Knock it off” didn’t work. I suspect that he was just taking me literally. Yelling, begging, pleading…nothing worked, and he continued to reach out with both arms, fingers working, and repeating, ”daddy, I wanna look”.

Hmmm…daddy I wanna look, eh? I decided to think like a two-year-old (not a big stretch for me) and it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, he just wanted to look. The aisle that caused us the most problems was the aisle in which the drugstore toys were displayed. Squirt guns, balloons, eggs filled with silly putty, crayons, toy cars etc. I decided to experiment. The first stop on our next trip to the market was the toy aisle. I took him out of the cart, lowered him onto the floor, and told him that he had five minutes to look and that he could pick one thing to take with him. He exhausted his curiosity in under four minutes, and concentrating on his new toy car kept him too busy to interfere with my shopping for the rest of the trip…for the rest of the time that he fit into a shopping cart for that matter.

I have no idea whatever what that story has to do with world politics. But I do know a few things about human nature. I know that if my daily needs and the daily needs of my loved ones are met, and if I have the freedom to work, play or worship if I so desire, according to my own conscience and without political conditions…well, if that were the case, I would not feel the need to enrobe myself in explosives and order a cappuccino from a dead person.