Tuning and the Nylon String Guitar, a Quick Note

Tuning is something most of us pay attention to. We play an instrument that requires attention to detail and the very nature of the classical guitar is such that tuning is a constant. The strings are less stabile than steel strings and the instruments respond to even small changes in temperature and humidity. One of the great conveniences that has come about is the evolution of the electronic tuner, most notably the clip on variety which attach to the headstock of the instrument for as long as they are needed.

At a recent masterclass with Maja Radovanlija of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, the topic of tuning came up, in particular when dealing with ensemble performances. Guitarists tend to rely pretty heavily upon electronic tuners and generally subscribe to the concept that A440 is always A440 on every tuner. It is supposed to work this way, but even the slightest discrepancy between “A440s” can create discord. We use our tuners somewhat religiously and rely on them to match each string to what is the accepted standard. For the most part this works, however strings differ, instruments differ, and anyone who has played a guitar for an extended period of time has been known to make adjustments depending upon the key to bring the individual instrument in tune with itself to provide the best performance.

This becomes more complicated when playing with other folks because their tuners might vary from yours, as well as their string choice, etc. In short the best way to deal with this is to have everyone tune using their tuners and then designate the “master tuner” and fine tune by ear to his or her strings. This will result in the best overall result. Radovanlija recommends devoting 10 to 15 minutes prior to performance ensuring that the group is perfectly in tune to maximize the over all tuning of the group of guitarists performing together.

Of course there will still be the need to check tuning throughout the performance as our instruments warm up in tandem with ourselves, and while tuning stability varies from guitar to guitar and string to string, it is not something we can afford to take for granted. In a perfect world, the temperature and humidity level will be the same in the green room as it is in the performance space of the venue, but often this is not the case. We also have to face those performances that have multiple groups playing in them and there are varied staging areas gradually progressing to the green room and then onto the stage. In these performance situations we can be certain that we’re going to be exposing our instruments to varied environmental influences which will affect our tuning negatively, necessitating quite a bit of adjustments along the way.

No matter how we choose to paint it, tuning is something that requires our attention and care. If we short change the time spent on it, the music suffers, the audience suffers, and ultimately we turn in a shoddy performance regardless of the amount of time we’ve devoted to rehearsing and practicing our parts. Take the time to complete the deed and we’ll all be thankful in the long run.

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