Tone deaf for B?
October 8, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

When I try to tune a stringed instrument (guitar, uke, autoharp), the B string always sounds off to me, no matter what I do. Why?

I've always had this problem. Otherwise I have a pretty good ear, but a B string will always sound too sharp or too flat. It's probably not a matter of faulty intonation, because this happens on many different instruments (different guitars, and, as I said, different kinds of instrument altogether). Any insight into this minor mystery?
posted by Beardman to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It could be a pitch that you're especially sensitive to, or it could be an issue of temperament.
posted by supercres at 11:33 AM on October 8, 2010

As far as I know, this is a pretty common problem because of inconsistencies in the scale used to intonate guitars (and most noticeable when playing open strings or in the first few frets). There are actually a few different products that supposedly fix this problem, mostly by changing where the strings break over the nut at the end of the fretboard. For example, this or this.
posted by sbrollins at 11:40 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

To follow up-- does it sound out of tune by itself, as a single note, or only with other strings in a chord or interval?

On guitar, lots of people have come up with ways to get equal temperament up and down the length of the neck. As an example, check out the Buzz Feiten tuning system. For another, check out these frets.

Also, how are you tuning? 5th and 7th fret harmonics, while easy to hear, are not going to leave you in good shape. This article explains why you should only use unisons and octaves.

As a result, some intervals and chords are always going to sound bad-- that's what gives a B a different character than a D, something composers can rely on to great effect.
posted by supercres at 11:44 AM on October 8, 2010

There was a pretty extensive discussion of this over on MeFiMu a couple of years ago.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:51 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

There was a pretty extensive discussion of this over on MeFiMu a couple of years ago.

Wow! Thank you. Maybe it's time to head to MeTa and ask for a pony to expand the scope of "Search previous questions".

I noticed that in that thread, Chococat writes:

umbĂș, that's a great answer that I should have found myself. Thanks a bunch. And thank goodness this isn't AskMe.

Uh, yes...thank goodness. Damn you Chococat! To think I dedicated a song to you!
posted by Beardman at 12:04 PM on October 8, 2010

Peterson strobe tuners have "sweetened tuning" presets that correct for this problem on 6 string guitars. The method described here (similar to supercres' link above) worked pretty well for me until I switched.
posted by Lorin at 12:32 PM on October 8, 2010

I've had same problem with every guitar I've played. My quickie solution is to tune the B-string just a hair flat, and test it out by playing a root-position A-chord. It's always a bit of a compromise, but that seems to work out pretty well.
posted by Crane Shot at 4:23 PM on October 8, 2010

uncleozzy's link has comments that mention almost everything I could think of about the subject without breaking out one of my music books and some things I didn't think of.

You can always go fretless and avoid playing B open on that string and every other note you could "tune" as you'd please due to not being boxed in on a fret.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:30 PM on October 8, 2010

Well. there is pythagorean tuning. medaeval modes, just intonation, wolf tones, and the well-tempered clavier. And the blues. (and other things).

But if I was like mystic, I might suggest that some keys are just plain evil.
posted by ovvl at 6:21 PM on October 8, 2010

I bet I know what it is. But you have to know a little about equal temperament. Sorry if I go over something you already know.

Equal temperament is a tuning system that makes it possible to play in different keys without getting too out of tune. It accomplishes this by making the notes of the scale just slightly out of tune, to sort of straddle all the different keys. If you were to make all the intervals perfectly in tune for the key of G, it'd make it WAY out of tune for other keys. Guitars use equal temperament, as does just about all Western music.

The amount of out-of-tuneness is different for each interval of the scale though. A fourth is hardly out of tune, as is the fifth. The third happens to be way out of tune. Now guess what: the only third on the open strings of a guitar is between the G and -- the B.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:28 PM on October 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older Aesopiazzolla?   |   Dissociated Sex Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.