Said it before, say it again, I never really liked the guitar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great when it’s played well. There is no instrument quite as compelling in so many genres. But you gotta have a certain agreement with it in order to really make it sing. And above all, you simply cannot fight it.
And by the way, I will immediately stipulate that some of the absolute best guitar music ever made has been made by people who do not have this agreement, who do fight like Ahab for every note. I’m one of them. But that’s different. There will always be something missing for those who don’t really surrender to the instrument. As with ‘The Great Whale Dick’ it may be a hell of a fight, but you will never win.
The big issue for me, aside from having elfin-sized hands (and I don’t mean Tolkien-elves, I mean the ones that make the cookies and live in small trees) is that the guitar doesn’t really sound ‘good’ in most keys. Fortunately, the ones it does sound good in are the ones in which people play rock and roll and other idiomatic musics like Flamenco that the thing was just made for. These are the keys with all the open strings. The more open strings, the better.
Now all those ‘jazzy’ keys, you know the ones with all those pesky flats have chords that can sound awfully out of tune. Some people are more sensitive to this dissonance than others. I sure am. So there’s always a certain self-loathing whenever I strap on.
I always thought that my tendency to shy away from big chords was to avoid working my tiny little fingers to the bone, but I now realise that it was also because the less strings you whack on the less grindingly out of tune those notes will sound.
The key to playing in tune is having a light touch. The harder you whack a guitar string the more out of tune it sounds. It goes sharp when you hit it and then goes flat again as the sound dies away. Somewhere in the middle it sounds ‘in tune’. It’s like that Doppler Effect of train whistles going by. The harder you hit, the worse this effect becomes.
So since the pitch is changing all during the ‘life-cycle of the notes’ this begs the question: how does one even tune a guitar? If you’re Pete Townshend, you probably tune for that big attack and forget about the rest. Most people try to split the difference. One key to making a good guitar tuner is to make it kinda ‘insensitive’. Since the pitch is changing all the time, if the gizmo was really ‘accurate’ you’d see the needle jumping around endlessly and never get a reading you could live with.
I spent many years trying to get an even touch so I could play (more) in tune and most nights I hold my own. And on top of that, I was constantly doing little ‘micro-tuning.’ I’d twitch each tuner a little here, a little there based on the key of the upcoming song. Sometimes it helped. Other times? 😀
But again all this effort is an act of self-control that I never wanted to have to deal with. Rock and roll is about many things but self-control ain’t one of ’em.
Here’s another fun fact: all guitarists unconsciously do this thing I call ‘frog gripping’, which is kinda like perfect pitch and simply cannot be taught. The individual fingers of the left hand automatically squish down at varying pressures while playing chords, making very fine adjustments to the pitch of each note so the overall effect is more in tune. It sounds impossible–as impossible as a frog suctioning its way up the side of a wall, but they do it (guitarists, I mean. The frogs do the wall thing. ) Some guys do this much better than others. Nobody ‘tries’ to do this. But the minds/hands/ears of some people seem to want to play more sonorously and their hands ‘find a way’ and I find that magical.
When yer first starting out, it’s comforting to think of a fretted instrument as sort of like a vertical keyboard; a series of on-off switches. The frets take care of those pesky tuning problems. You just have to hit the right switches as the right time and the instrument takes care of the rest. Ironically, the better one gets the less that appears to be true. Many people reach a point where they are good enough to realise that they just can’t stand the intonation problems; that the instrument just will never be ‘a friend’. Of course by then, I was pretty much stuck with it. 😀