Session Guitar: Do You Suffer from Guitar Tuner Dependency?

by Ron Zabrocki
Posted Dec 18, 2013 at 11:26am

It always starts with something small, a seemingly insignificant act that can have a huge effect on the rest of your life.

Horror stories usually begin like this.

Guitar tuners. We all use them. Clip-on. Stomp box. Software. Part of your modeler. Built in to your guitar.

I use them every day in the studio. But have you ever had to get in tune without one? No problem, right? Just do all the little tricks we do to get a guitar in tune and keep it in tune. After all, if you aren't in tune, nothing you play will sound good.

I was commenting this morning on a group page on Facebook. We were discussing robotic guitar tuners, tuning machines that tune themselves. I first saw this on a Gibson guitar. Now I saw a new one. Then I did a search. I even saw a robotic tuning tool.

It got me thinking: How may young guitarists are taught to tune the guitar by ear these days? I mean really taught, as in making it a requirement?

Back in the day, when dinosaurs walked the earth and a Strobo-Tuner cost a small fortune, we had to tune our guitars by ear. We'd tune to a pitchfork, piano or another guitar. This was an acquired and required skill. Imagine not being able to tune your own instrument! How would that affect your intonation? Your ability to bend in pitch to a half-step or whole step or more? Even pressing down too hard can alter the pitch.

Now let's take this part of our craft even further. If you don't learn how to hear pitch properly, you also will not be able to sing in tune — or listen deep for better part playing ... or hear intervallic relationships. Depending on an outside source to properly pitch your instrument is not very different than allowing Auto-Tune to pitch your voice! Or instrument! Does anybody but me see a problematic trend here?

How many of you are budding producers or engineers? Yesterday I was mixing a track that had bells on it. I felt they needed to be doubled with strings. They just didn't sound right. So I played the part and thought the string sample I was using was slightly out of tune. Then I shut off the bells and the strings sounded in tune. That meant the bells were the culprit. I had to tune the bell samples up by 10 cents. That is not a lot, but it's enough to make them uncomfortable.

I don't believe everything must be in perfect pitch. But I do require relative pitch. And being able to accurately tune slightly out of pitch and doubling to a guitar in perfect pitch gives a chorus effect a million times better than any digital emulation. Analog, baby! See? It's not only about being in tune! It is about controlling tuning. And you must be able to do this on the fly. Even locking systems go out.

I'd like you to try something. Buy a tuning fork — or use a keyboard to tune your guitar. Learn to hear and match pitches at least once a day. I agree with using a source to tune if you are onstage or in a noisy environment. And they certainly have their place in the studio or if you are recording alone. But a guitar is not a perfect instrument. String gauge, temperature fluctuations, fret height, tuning pegs, how hard you fret and pick, are the strings properly stretched, how many windings around the pole and actual quality of the construction can all have dramatic or subtle fluctuations that need to be constantly checked.

But for your practice time, try tuning by ear. Tune to a track, the radio, television or, if you are lucky enough these days, another instrument/player. This habit and skill can only improve your overall musicianship! Let's be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Be the best you can be. Start with a small, "insignificant" thing like tuning. It might be more important than you think.

I'd love to hear your comments and a raise of hands on how many tune by ear regularly or not.

Ron Zabrocki on Ron Zabrocki: I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.