• gmhaudio

Guitar and Bass Tuning Tips for the Studio

Updated: Dec 8, 2018

Guitar and Bass Tuning Tips for the Studio

Of course tuning is important when playing the guitar, and is something live players obviously care about as well which is why a tuner is the first pedal on everyone’s pedal board. But when recording it takes on another level of importance. When lots of guitar is being layered in a recording either by double tracking or just having multiple guitarists in a band, small tuning issues can clash and cause a song to sound “off” in a way that might be hard for the listener to pinpoint but they will definitely notice. Not to mention a recording is a permanent record that should represent your music at its best, so playing in tune is essential. Don’t slack on this early on in the recording process because it is something you can't go back and fix later.

1. Check the Intonation

Just as important as if the open notes are in tune is tuning of the fretted notes. Dialing this in is called “intonating” the guitar and is usually adjusted by moving the bridge saddles. If you aren’t familiar with how exactly to adjust this there are lots of resources online (here’s one https://www.sweetwater.com/insync/how-to-set-your-electric-guitars-intonation/), you can also ask your recording engineer (I always check the intonation at the start of a guitar tracking session), or take the instrument to a tech where intonation will be part of a standard setup. Keep in mind that anytime you change strings or tuning, the intonation will probably have to be adjusted as well.

2. Tune up to the note

This one is subtle but you should always tune up to the note (from it sounding flat) rather than down to it (from it sounding sharp). If the note is sharp tune it flat past the correct tuning and then up to pitch. If you get into the habit of doing this every time you will have an easier time keeping your guitar in tune in any scenario. This works because the string can get caught up on the nut or the bridge when tuning down and be more difficult to dial in. Worse yet, if you tune it down to pitch and the string is still caught up, a hard pick will instantly knock it flat.

3. Tune after every take

Nothing is worse than nailing the perfect take only to hear it on playback and realize it was slightly out of tune. Tune early, tune often, and never get caught with an out of tune G string when it’s time to shine. This one is easy to do but also easy to let slip through the cracks if you don't make it a habit.

4. Tune to the part

The guitar is an imperfect instrument and even a “perfectly” in tune and intonated guitar will not necessarily sound perfectly in tune across every note on the instrument. This can be particularly noticeable on the first few frets of the high strings of a guitar. If you have ever tuned up only to play an F chord and wonder what happened you know what I’m talking about.

This is an inherent limitation of the simple design of a guitar fretboard and the physics of vibrating strings. There have even been some products that attempt to deal with this. Music Man basses use a compensated nut which subtly changes the string lengths and True Temperament fretboards make for some trippy looking instruments which are theoretically in tune at every note.

Music Man Compensated Nut

True Temperament Neck

But what are those of us with more or less “normal” guitars supposed to do about this? The answer is simple: rather than tuning to the open string, tune to the notes you actually play in a given part. If you are playing chords up at the 10th fret don’t bother tuning the strings open, tune them so that each note of the chords is in tune. This works with chords, riffs, anything you may be playing, especially if tracking a song in sections.

Sometimes you may find that it is impossible to even get all of the notes you play in a specific part in tune, especially complicated parts that involve open and fretted strings across the neck. That’s OK, just focus on the most important notes, notes which are accented or held out on the part.