The joys and pains of tuning, Part II (b)

One of the most frustrating problems that many guitarists experience is getting open chords to play in tune on their instruments. How many players have had their guitars properly set up, with the action, intonation, truss rod, and string height at first fret all carefully adjusted only to find that open chords sound terrible? I certainly have. The instinct when this happens is to start messing about with the intonation at the bridge, which will make no difference to the issue at hand, and will only create new problems elsewhere on the fretboard.

The problem is with the nut. It’s in the wrong place, usually too far from the first fret, meaning that all notes at the first three or four frets will be sharp; and the reason that messing around at the bridge won’t help is that any adjustment you make there will have virtually no effect below the fourth fret.

This situation arises quite a bit, and it happens because when some guitar makers calibrate and cut the fretboard, they will cut it for the nut at the zero point of the scale length (the scale length being the distance from the front edge of the nut to the centre of the bridge). And there’s where the problem lies. The nut shouldn’t be at the zero point of the scale length, it should sit slightly short of it. So, some compensation is needed, just as it’s needed at the bridge to adjust for the fact that the strings are stretched whenever you push them down to the frets. In effect, intonation is set at both ends of the strings.

The solution is to move the nut to the correct position, although, as it turns out, the correct position can vary from guitar to guitar. This might seem like you’re changing the scale length, but that’s not quite how it works. The scale length is chosen by the makers (25.4 inches for Martin, 24.75 inches for Gibson, etc.) and from this measurement the fretboard is calibrated using the 17.817 rule. This is where the scale length is divided by 17.817 to give the position of the first fret, the remainder is divided by 17.817 to give the position of the second fret, and so on. Any compensation which is then made to the nut end of the fretboard is needed because, even when the strings are as low as possible at the first fret, the act of pushing the strings down on to the fret is enough to make them play sharp.

I’ve developed a method for nut compensation that has worked with every guitar I’ve tried it on, and I’ll go through it now. The first thing that’s needed is a sufficiently accurate tuner. Pedal tuners aren’t really suitable, and any tuner apps I’ve tried just aren’t accurate enough. In my opinion, this tuner:

tuner 1

the Korg GT-120, is the best digital tuner out there. The needle is smooth and accurate, and the tuner is responsive whether you’re using the built in mic, a clip on one, or a cable for electric or electro-acoustic guitars.

Using the tuner, let’s have a look at the problem at hand. Here’s the reading for the in tune open G string of a Sigma guitar I worked on.

tuner 2

The needle is dead centre, and both the red pointers are on. Now, here’s how it was at the first fret, G#.

tuner 3

As you can see, it’s quite a bit sharp. This will make an open E chord sound pretty nasty. Maybe you’d instinctively lower the G string a bit, but then it would be flat in an open C chord, and you’d end up going round in circles. The other strings are similarly sharp, which means that all fretted notes are going to sound pretty out of tune in relation to open notes over the first three or four frets.
The tool I use to trim the fretboard is a Tusq saddle blank with some medium sandpaper attached by double sided tape.
sanding block
I make sure that the sandpaper is carefully trimmed at the bottom edge so that only wood from the end of the fretboard is removed, and not from the bottom of the slot.

This is a long process; sand back the end of the fretboard a bit, replace the nut (without glue at this stage), and check the intonation at the first fret. Repeat till the first three frets are in tune on all strings. When replacing the nut, the nut slot will obviously be wider than before, so I build the nut up at the back using a mixture of superglue and baking soda, like this:

and then sand it down to fit, like this.
nut 2
This has to be repeated each time you remove wood from the end of the fretboard. When it’s done, a new nut can be made, although most times I’ll just sand it smooth, polish it and keep the same nut. Another approach is what I did with this Strat, where a piece of rosewood veneer was used to fill the gap left by moving the nut forward.
Here’s that G# again after the process is complete.
tuner 5
It’s spot on, as are all the other strings.

Although this is a laborious process, and it can certainly cost you a few sets of strings, the good thing is that once it’s done, it’s done. It’s a permanent fix. The difference is remarkable. Open chords play beautifully in tune (according to equal temperament tuning, of course), tuning is improved across the fretboard, and playing with a capo needs no retuning.

How to stop worrying and embrace string rattle

Throughout my years of teaching guitar, and also setting them up, there is one thing that seems to bother more students and players than anything else, which is odd, because it doesn’t seem to bother the musicians who made them want to play in the first place. It’s string “buzz”, or what I refer to as “rattle”.

The first thing to do is to ascertain the difference between string buzz and string rattle (also, sometimes, called string slap).

String buzz is an unwelcome phenomenon caused either by the string not being pressed firmly enough to the fret, or by a vibrating string coming into contact with the next fret, because that fret is too high, or because the string is pressed against a worn fret, making it lower than the others (or, in the case of an open string, the first fret, because a nut slot is too deep). In these cases, the string will sound fuzzy no matter how softly it is struck.

String rattle (or slap), on the other hand, is where a string is struck with sufficient force, on a properly set up guitar, for it to vibrate against the next fret, or the first fret if the string is open. There’s no doubt that this can happen inadvertently, but good players can do it deliberately as an effect.

The best way to illustrate this, I think, is with a few examples. I’m only going to reference two guitar players here, David Gilmour and Neil Young, both of them legendary and highly regarded by generations of players and music fans alike. Neither of them are particularly technical players, but both are very expressive, and both are great for the purpose of this post.

Here’s David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd, playing an acoustic version of Breathe from the Dark Side of the Moon album on a Martin D-35.

Listen to the low E string when he digs into the E minor chord. It rattles. Look at the bridge saddle to get an idea of how low the action is on the guitar. This, and the rattle it engenders, is a deliberate choice by Gilmour. The guitar plays cleanly with a moderate attack, but when he attacks it more forcefully, the effect is of the guitar growling, and it makes the guitar sound alive and organic.

The same is true of his electric guitar setup and sound. Here’s Have a Cigar from Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album, played on a Fender Stratocaster.

Listen to the intro where the guitar part is more isolated, and hear how much the low E string rattles, both open, and at the G note on the 3rd fret (the other wound strings will do the same to a degree). The point again is that he’s digging into the strings quite hard, and the result is the growling, snarling effect you hear.

Here’s a Neil Young example, and it’s a cracker, that illustrates the main issue concerning string rattle; technique.

This is You and Me from Neil Young’s 1992 album Harvest Moon. This was most likely played on his Martin D-45, and it’s in Drop D tuning (low E string tuned down to D).

This track is strummed, but I believe he plays it with his fingers and not a pick, hence the softer tone, although the playing is still dynamic. Note how there’s barely any string slap at all until the first chorus begins at 1:28, when he starts to lean into the low string with his thumb, and then it only happens when he wants it to.

And that’s the point; to have your guitar set up properly and to learn how to get it to do what you want. This means knowing how hard to attack the strings, and at which point along the string length, to get the tones and effects you want, all of which, of course, takes time and practise. Playing close to the end of the neck will yield a thick, bassy tone, and will make string rattle hard to control. Move close to the bridge, and the sound will be brighter and harder. In between these two extremes is usually best, somewhere between the centre of the sound hole and the edge nearest the bridge.

To finish here’s Neil Young playing Old Man at the BBC in 1971 on the same Martin D-45. This audience got a preview of what would be a highlight of 1972’s Harvest album.

All those hammer-ons wouldn’t sound so good if the action were too high, and the guitar wouldn’t sound so vibrant either. Lots of strings rattle here, open and fretted ones, and all of it’s deliberate.

Embrace string rattle. Learn to control it. It’s all part of playing guitar.