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Do It Yourself

Fret Fax

Article from Phaze 1, November 1988

terrific tips from the top

THIS IS THE FIRST in a series of articles aimed at anyone picking up a guitar for the first time, and trying desperately to make some sort of sense of it. As you probably don't need telling, it can be a bit daunting when you first start playing any instrument, but it you follow the easy stages of this series, you should make reasonable progress. Providing you practise, that is.

This month, we'll look at the problem of tuning the guitar. This can be a real hassle in the early stages, especially if you're finding it difficult to recognise the pitch of the notes. And there's our first technical word — what do we actually mean by "pitch"? Well, simply the level of sound in terms of "high" (lead guitar or cymbal) or "low" (bass guitar or bass drum).

The guitar poses certain special problems here, because it doesn't have a fixed pitch like some instruments; you constantly have to adjust it so that the strings are "in tune" with each other. To do that, you must obviously make sure that the pitch of each string is correct. There are mechanical aids available from music stores which will help a great deal initially. You could buy a set of "pitch pipes" for £1.50 or so, and tune each string in turn to the notes E A D G B E, going up from the lowest sounding 6th string. More on this later.

The second mechanical solution is to buy a guitar tuner, powered by a battery, and tune the same six notes using the visual display. This is much more accurate, and the instructions that come with most models of tuner are pretty helpful. The major difference is that with this method, you tune by looking, not by listening — an obvious advantage for the inexperienced musician. The major drawback is the cost of the tuner - £20 for even the simplest. Without a doubt, though, if you can find the money it's worth every penny to do away with some of the agony of tuning.

That's not to say you shouldn't learn to tune musically - it's just that at the stage when an instrument is new to you physically, the last thing you want is extra problems. Nevertheless, the great moment will arrive when you need to work out a method of tuning which doesn't involve mechanical aids. It's here that you can begin to develop your ear for sounds, and begin to gather some technical information. So here goes.

First, notes are named by letters A B C D E F G only. You'll recall the six strings of the guitar are tuned to the notes in Diagram A.

Don't worry about the music notation here - just think letter names for now. The notation does show that the lowest-sounding string has the lowest-looking symbol, but that's about it. How to make sure that the strings are correctly tuned? The idea is to tune each one relative to the next.

Obviously, you have to make sure that the pitch of the 6th string, the lowest E, is correct. This is where the pitch pipes come in handy. Blow the lowest E and try to tune the lowest-sounding string (the thickest string physically), matching the sounds as accurately as you can. This is not easy, so be patient. At first, the likelihood is you'll be distracted by the physical problems of turning the tuning heads on the guitar. There may be questions you need to ask yourself. How do you raise the pitch of a string? Tighten it. How do you lower the pitch of a string? Slacken it off.

When you've sorted that, try and tune the guitar to the sounds of the pitch pipes. Remember, the notes have to be very accurately tuned if chords and lead lines are to sound right, so take a great deal of care to be accurate. Don't be put off by the fact that the notes sound different as pipe sounds, when compared to guitar string sounds - all western instruments make characteristic sounds, but they all use the same notes. A tune played on the bagpipes sounds different in tone and texture from the same tune played on an electric guitar, but the notes are still the same.

When you feel happy, you should take the first step to tuning from out string to another. Look at Diagram B.

From this you'll see the letter names and the notation. If you finger the 5th fret of the 6th string, and pluck the string, it should sound the note A the same pitch as the 3th string as you tuned it to the pitch pipes. (We call an unfretted string an "open" string, by the way.)

Once you are satisfied that the two notes are exactly the same, you have successfully tuned the 5th string to the 6th. If you look at the diagram again, you'll see that the 5th fret of the 5th string should sound D, the open 4th string; the 5th fret of the 4th string sounds G, the open 3rd string; the 4th fret of the 3rd string sounds B, the open 2nd string, and the 5th fret of the 2nd string sounds E, the open 1st string.

Now originally, you tuned the strings to the sound of the pitch pipes — and you may have been very accurate.

Now originally, you tuned the strings to the sound of the pitch – and you may have been very accurate. If you weren't, you now have a second bash at getting a well–tuned guitar. One difficulty you may come across as being uncertain when two strings are near in pitch, but not exactly right. If you find that happening to your ear, just raise or lower the pitch of the string you're tuning enough to convince you whether you should be raising the pitch (tightening the string) or lowering the pitch (slackening the string).

If all the above sounds (and proves) a rather laborious process, that's because it's meant to be. Tuning is absolutely vital to everything you do musically, and not just on guitar. So any amount of time you spend on it is time well spent.

Next time, much more excitement, as we start looking at chords and relating them to simple song material, In the meantime, happy tuning.

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Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

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Phaze 1 - Nov 1988

Do It Yourself

Feature by Peter Driver

Previous article in this issue:

> Snap, Crackle, Pop & Other N...

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> Key Lines

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