The other night I was playing a show with my daughter Lexie, and one of the acts who were playing before us suddenly became aware that I was there in the audience. She right away was having tuning problems, and called out to me saying” you’re the one with the genius ears, can you help me tune?!” This was so funny, and I actually had her tune up right from my seat, as she then told a story about being backstage at a show many years ago, and how everyone had to pass me their guitars so I could tune them for them!
The thing about how I tune a guitar is that I understand the “non-tempered” nature of how a guitar is tuned. (Unlike a piano, which is truly tempered with several strings representing each note.) With a guitar, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, you’ll notice that if it’s in tune for E, it’ll sound “out” when you play a C chord, and other fairly disconcerting and annoying tuning problems! I have learned to sort of “split the difference” when it comes to these tuning problems, but more than this, I also concentrate on tuning for whatever the particular positions are that I’m about to play in. This is really the key to doing it right, because if you know that certain positions are going to be more prevalent than others in a given song, you might as well take that into account when tuning!
This wonderful singer/songwriter, Jemima James, was meanwhile, telling this “Arlen tuning story” from the stage, and then all of a sudden I went off on my own story about how I used to reach around John Prine’s back onstage, and tune and tweak his guitar while he was doing his uncontrollable strumming! I used to whisper to John when he was just about to launch into a song things like “your B string is flat”, to which he’d respond, “I have no idea what that means!” He then said, “hey Arlen, please feel free to just tune me while I play”, so it actually became a real “part of the show” that I would come up behind him and keep on tuning his guitar, while he continued to play in a total cloud of cigarette smoke!
Certainly some funny stories come out of this, but I can honestly say there’s nothing like not only having a great and accurate ear, but knowing that others love to put their trust in that “ear”! Stay in tune, and if not, please listen to those strings, and really try to isolate the problems, as opposed to continuing to tune the wrong notes to the wrong strings…sometimes it can get out of hand, to say the least!! Good luck!