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This series of articles is written with the beginner and intermediate level performer in mind. It is also written primarily for musicians that play instruments and sing during their performance. However, with a little imagination these principles can be applied to public speaking, teaching or reading poetry. These suggestions are by no means original. Many of them come from more seasoned performers of music and other arts who I cite whenever possible.

Get In Tune

Whether it's fair on not, people judge your musicianship by how in tune your instrument and singing are. Let's talk about getting that instrument in tune. Much of what follows is about tuning guitars, but some the ideas mentioned here will apply to any stringed instrument. Here are some pointers I learned from the experts:

First, do your best to have your instrument tuned before you go on stage. There is limited time at open mics, and often there are a lot of performers who want some of it. Many musicians and audience members will consider it inconsiderate if you spend stage time tuning up. It's not a good idea if you want to make friends or impress anyone in the audience. Furthermore, imagine how many fewer songs would be played in the course of an evening if every act spent stage time tuning up.

Second, tune up at the venue. Some like to tune up at home. Others remember that their guitar was in tune when they last put it in the case so they assume it is still in tune. But, this is not always true. Changes in temperature, humidity and air pressure over the course of a few days or the jostling in a car on the way to the gig often makes an instrument go out of tune.

How do You Tune That Instrument?

There are countless ways to tune your instrument.

One obvious way is with an electric tuner. I strongly recommend a chromatic tuner. These will indicate which of the twelve chromatic tones the string is closest to and whether it is flat or sharp of that tone. It has two distinct advantages over tuners that only have the 6 pitches of the standard tuned guitar. First, you or a friend may want to use the tuner for a mandolin or violin which have strings tuned to pitches different from a guitar's. Second, one day you may wish to use an alternative tuning or tune the whole guitar down a half step or whole step. Without the chromatic pitches on your tuner, it won't be of much help. The six tone tuners may even deter you from attempting alternative tunings and thereby stifle your creativity.

Keep in mind that no stringed instrument has perfect intonation and that its intonation changes with the seasons and climate. So you need to learn how to fine-tune your instrument. The way to do this is usually particular to the specific instrument you own. But, here are a couple of neat tips I learned from some of the experts:

Have you ever seen someone tune the A string of there guitar to the 5th fret of the low E string, then tune the D string to the 5th fret of the A and so on? This may work, but usually it leads to problems. This is because if the intonation of the 5th fret is off by the slightest amount, the A string will be a tiny bit off. The D string a little bit more off and by the time you get to the high E you will be off by four or five times the original amount.

A different and often better way to tune up is by using harmonics. When tuning one string five half steps above another, the 5th fret harmonic of the lower string and the 7th fret harmonic of the higher string should be basically identical. I say "basically identical" because, again, no intonation is perfect and you may have to make minor compromises here or there to get the best sound. With my guitar, for instance, I have to tune my A string so that it's 7th fret harmonic is just the tiniest bit higher than the E string's 5th fret harmonic. This method avoids some of the potential problems. But once again, by tuning the A to the E and then the D to the A and so on, you are compounding slight deviations. So, further refinement may be necessary.

A third way of tuning is to use a combination of harmonic and fret tuning. This can work wonders on that elusive B string that always seems to sound off. To get my B in the best tune possible, I like to tune the B string's 3rd fret (which is a D pitch) to the 12th fret harmonic of the D string. Further, I tune the high E string's 3rd fret (which is a G pitch) to the 12th fret harmonic of the G string. One reason I do this is because I play a lot of songs in the key of G or D and thus it is more important to have those pitches right on rather than an open B or open E. It would be ideal to have all pitches right on, but that just doesn't happen very often.

In the long run tuning your instrument becomes a personal and individual technique. You can use any or all of the above techniques or others. In the process you can really get to know your guitar and develop a sense of pitch that can lead to better singing and easier learning of new songs. You can probably learn additional tuning tricks by asking those performers at the open mics and professional concerts who always seem to be in tune. Asking is a great way of learning and making friends.

Tuning After You Play

Finally, have you ever considered the importance of tuning your instrument before you put it away? There's a pretty neat theory that over many years, if the instrument is kept in tune, the molecules of the wood re-arrange themselves in a way that harmonizes with the tuning. I'm not qualified to explain this scientifically, but the end result is a guitar that resonates a warmer, deeper sound. This theory reminds me of some very old houses of worship or concert halls I've been in where you can actually still feel the resonance of the singing and music that has occurred in them over the centuries. I don't know how true this theory is, but for some reason my fifteen-year-old Martin is sounding better and better with each passing year. So, I tune that puppy up before I put it to bed - just in case it helps.

Spook Handy runs "The Spook Handy Show," New Jersey's longest running open mic, at the Corner Tavern in New Brunswick. The show began in 1985 and has over 860 nights under its belt. He is also a songwriter and performer and a co-coordinator of the Princeton Songwriters, the New Jersey chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. For more information on Spook Handy go to

MusicDishProvided by the MusicDish Network. Copyright © Tag It 2004 - Republished with Permission