Tuning a piano is a big job, but it is very straightforward. You can tune each string to its note, and then you’re done. All of the “A’s” are “A’s,” and et cetera. Pianos are meant to be in tune when they are played, and they go there willingly. There’s very little mystery about it.
Guitars are not as simple as all that. Only six strings, but where the notes must be set is not straightforward at all. Six strings, E, A, D, G, B, and E again, but if you merely tune each string to the designated note you will not be able to play chords without the whole thing sounding very sour. Guitars are not meant to be played “in tune,” in fact they are never in tune at all, it’s impossible, they are inherently out of tune.
So tuning a guitar is a real challenge. You need to know quite a bit about what you’re doing, and you need to have a pretty good ear.
As you go from the E to the A, the D and the G, and finally to the B and the other E, the notes must get a little bit sharper every time you move to a new string. Or else it’s trouble, I’m not making this up. You can’t just take one of those electronic boxes and put all the notes where the needle meets the center point. After you get a good E, you need to play an A at the fifth fret and see where the needle goes. It’ll be an A, but it’ll be a little sharp. Then you need to put the A string to the same point on the meter, the same sharpness. And there you go, by the time you get to the other E it’s all pretty sharp indeed.
I like to start from the A myself, get a good A up on the A string. All bands and orchestras tune to the same A, and if they think it’s important, well, I just trust them. I don’t know why they do it that way, but they must have a reason, mustn’t they? These days I keep an A tuning fork around, set the A, and do the rest by ear.
Even then, when you’re done and you’ve got it pretty much where you want it, you need to play a few chords to be on the safe side, and you’ll probably end up sweetening it some more, somewhere.
Then there’s scale length, you’d assume that it was standard, but you’d be wrong. Most guitars have either a twenty-five and a half inch scale, nut to bridge, or a twenty-four and three-quarters inch scale. If you get used to tuning one or the other, switching can be quite an adjustment. Some manufacturers use unique scale lengths, like twenty-five inches, you have to wonder: what were they thinking?
Guitars are mysterious things from the get go, even before you start to play a song. After you start to play something the guitar quickly goes out of the tune you just so laboriously put it in. The rougher you play, the faster it goes out.
Pianos, then, are models of decorum. Simple to tune (although labor intensive, with eighty-eight strings and all), and then they stay in tune for a while, unless the humidity changes or something. Nobody’s hanging on the strings all the time, just little hammers hitting them a little shot.
It occurs to me that tuning pianos is like building a car, or a camera. Just make exactly the right parts, and put them together in exactly the correct manner. No mystery, it’s right or it’s wrong. Tuning a guitar is more like building a life. Some things are more wrong than right, some more right than wrong, but most of it is off in the grey zone somewhere, and it’s all very personal.
Life, like a guitar, is all about feel. What feels right to one person may feel quite wrong to someone else. Often in life, as with a guitar, the clearly right thing turns out to be a little bit wrong. Life comes in different styles and sizes too, and whatever it is that you are accustomed to may be comfortable for you but pinch for someone else.
For guitars, as in life, the truth is an unattainable goal. You have to get used to notes that are a little bit sharp, or a little bit flat, as the situation may require. In either thing, if one were to demand the pure truth, the results would sound a little bit sour to most people. If one is to build a proper life, or tune a guitar, one must have a certain flexibility, a sense of humor about things. One must be accepting of imperfection, and try one’s best to work with it.
I have no idea what brought all of this on. Too much time on my hands, I suppose.