Just Desserts

“Guitar players spend half their lives tuning the guitar,” states Steve Kimock, “and the other half playing out of tune.” He is, of course, only joking—or is he? You might be surprised to learn how much truth there is to his little jest, particularly if, like most guitarists, you’re unaware of how imperfect your fretboard’s system of 12 equal divisions of the octave actually is.
Publish date:
Social count:
“Guitar players spend half their lives tuning the guitar,” states Steve Kimock, “and the other half playing out of tune.” He is, of course, only joking—or is he? You might be surprised to learn how much truth there is to his little jest, particularly if, like most guitarists, you’re unaware of how imperfect your fretboard’s system of 12 equal divisions of the octave actually is.

“Do you ever play a chord on the guitar, get it in tune, and find that when you switch to another chord, everything suddenly sounds out of tune?” asks Kimock. “Your reaction might be, ‘What’s wrong with my guitar? What’s wrong with me?’ The answer is nothing is wrong with you or your guitar. You’re simply hearing in a five-limit harmonic system—just like every other person who’s been born over the last 15,000 years—while rendering music on an instrument that is stuck in a two-limit system. The only fret on the guitar that’s actually in tune with the overtone series is the octave—the 12th fret, in the case of an open string [Fig. 1]. The other frets have been shifted around so that they’re each exactly the same distance apart, pitchwise. This equal tempering was done to accommodate our modern practices of chromaticism and modulation—in other words, to allow us to play equally out of tune in every key [laughs].”

Being one who lives for the satisfying resonance of pure harmony, laughing is all Kimock can do to keep from crying, because when it comes to intervals of thirds and sevenths—the lifeblood of blues, rock, and jazz—the fretboard is tragically out of tune. Need proof? Get out your most perfectly intonated guitar, tune up, and then strike the open low-E string. Now, while that’s ringing, pluck the G# at the 4th fret of the first string [Ex. 1]. Together, these two pitches generate a major third (plus two octaves). Sounds good, right? Well, as you’ll soon be able to hear for yourself, this interval is completely sharp—so sharp, in fact, it makes Kimock grimace like he just took a swig off a carton of spoiled milk. The good news is he’s about to share several sly ways to break out of the equal-tempered harmonic prison that is the fretboard.

True Blue Notes

“That 4th-fret G# may be a major 3 according to the piano or your electronic guitar tuner, but that’s not the note you’ll hear Aretha Franklin sing,” asserts Kimock, who cites Bill Frisell and Jeff Beck as being among the few modern guitarists who regularly play just intervals. “That’s also not the sweet major 3 inflection you’ll hear from a barber shop quartet, or even from most orchestras. And that is most definitely not the note you’ll hear on recordings by Lightnin’ Hopkins or other true American blues players—players from back before the British Invasion came along and essentially turned blues into fixed-interval rock guitar.”

The 3 the great blues legends played and sang can be heard as a harmonic plucked just behind (“about 14 cents toward the nut”) the 4th fret of the lowest string, as Kimock demonstrates in Fig. 2. Let it ring against the fretted G# on the first string [Ex. 2], and you’ll likely find the notes are so far apart in pitch, the dissonance they create makes you cringe. “The harmonic is the 3 you want,” advises Kimock. It’s the 3 you hear in early American blues, because remember, there was a time when the only instrument available was a piece of fence wire strung across the porch. People got their notes from harmonics such as this 3 as well as the 5 and the minor 7—overtones that are already within the tonic note, like these [Ex. 3]. It’s through these pitches that you create true tonal harmony. Played or sung together, these tones are so consonant they actually fuse into one sound.”

The Secret of Great Tone

Kimock has a well-earned reputation as being one of those rare guitarists with “great tone”—a full-spectrum sound you can bask in on his latest album, Eudemonic [Sci Fidelity], or at live shows across the country. (A veteran of Zero, Phil Lesh & Friends, and The Other Ones—and famous for being one of Jerry Garcia’s favorite contemporary guitarists—Kimock is huge in the jam band scene and beyond.) But Kimock’s revered tone is not just a result of his obsessive attention to tubes, speakers, cables, pickups, and other crucial elements of his signal path. Nor can his stellar sound be solely attributed to his impeccable sense of phrasing or even his desirable amp setup (which includes such sexy circuits as a 50-watt Dumble Overdrive Special, a Two Rock-modified Fender Bandmaster, and an original stereo Magnatone TC-1 rotating speaker simulator). As with any great player, a huge part of Kimock’s sound comes from his ears.

“The reason I want to share this stuff is simply to remind people that they don’t have to play intervals that have that nervous, clangy, imperfect sound. The same way that the big fat fifth in a distorted power chord sounds heavy and solid, you can get any other interval to do the same thing. If you know what to listen for, all your intervals will have that big fat sound—that revved-up wahhh of a Kawasaki at 180 miles-per-hour.”

First the Bad News

Before we learn some sly ways to pull sweet intervals out of the guitar, it’s important to identify the sour ones that, as modern Western musicians, our ears have learned to accept. “You may hear this as a minor seventh,” says Kimock, pitting the D at the 3rd fret of the second string against the ringing low-E string [Ex. 4], “but truthfully, your ears are saying to you, ‘That’s close enough’—the same way I could draw a stick figure and your eyes would say, ‘That’s a man.’ That fretted D is actually completely sharp. If you want your minor sevenths to really sing, the pitch you want to go for is the same as the harmonic you hear if you pluck the lowest string about 30 cents behind the 3rd fret [Fig. 3]. Play this harmonic 7 against the fretted 7 [Ex. 5] and you’ll hear they’re actually two completely different notes.”

Another important interval that is criminally out of tune is the minor 3 [Ex. 6]. Because it doesn’t occur in the overtone series, the minor 3 can be found by simply playing the minor 7 of the IV chord (which is the same note). In other words, with E as our tonic, striking the minor 7 harmonic on the A string reveals the pure G (the minor 3 of E). Again, notice how horribly sharp the fretted note is by comparison [Ex. 7].

Sliding Into Sweet Spots

Now the fun begins, for it’s time to make intervals scream, and the first way we’re going to do that is with a slide. First, dial in a thick overdrive so that any dissonance is exaggerated and any consonance glorified. Now, let’s revisit our pure major 3—the harmonic just shy of the 4th fret of the lowest string. After plucking it, match it with the slide on the 1st string [Ex. 8a], where you’ll notice the identical pitch occurs the same distance (14 cents) back from the 4th fret, as shown in Fig. 4. Now, play that same first-string note against the open low-E string [Ex. 8b] and you’ll find the two notes resonate in perfect harmony. Apply the same process to the minor 7 [Examples 9a and 9b] and minor 3 [Examples 10a and 10b] and burn the sound of these “new” intervals into your brain.

“The harmonics literally show you where the pure notes lie on the string in relation to the nut, and that’s nowhere near the fret,” observes Kimock. “The pitches our ears love are absolutely not represented on the fretboard. To find these notes with a slide, trust your ears. Hold out for the resonance and don’t worry about where the frets are.”

Yanking Intervals In Tune

“If a note is sharp, another way you can make it in tune is by literally pushing the string flat,” offers Kimock, putting down his lap steel and grabbing his Vega archtop. “For instance, if you play this interval of a major third [Ex. 11a], it will be sharp by nature of the frets’ layout, but you can get around that by holding the fretted note solidly, and literally pushing the string towards the bridge. This lowers the tension of the vibrating segment of the string, thereby making it go slightly flat. Try it with various intervals [Examples 11b-11d].”

The goal is to get your intervals to ring with the same clarity and resonance of a perfect fifth, such as the C5 power chord in Ex. 12a. Sometimes achieving this is as simple as bending one string. The major third in Ex. 12b is often avoided by guitarists in high-gain situations because it sounds sharp, but if you simply bend the lower note up slightly (14 cents, to be exact) as Kimock does in Fig. 5—which shrinks the interval to a just major third—you’ll hear the notes lock together as one. Similarly, a major third played at the 12th fret on the second and third strings [Ex. 13a] can be tuned by bending the lower note slightly sharp [Ex. 13b]. A lot of guitarists intuitively bend intervals such as these in tune, just as they might the major third (B-G) within the standard pentatonic blues lick in Ex. 13c.

Another way of tuning intervals is by initially fretting the shape either a semi-tone too narrow [Ex. 14a] or too wide [Examples 14b and 14c] and bending the grip in tune. “The goal is to be able to adjust your intonation sharp or flat on the fly,” advises Kimock. “That’s when your playing will really come alive. Here’s an exercise that will help: Take an ordinary scale, such as this A Mixolydian fingering [Ex. 15], and apply a steady vibrato to each note [Ex. 16], tugging the string sharp and then flat with an eighth-note rhythm, in time, for four full measures. Then, do the same thing, but switch scale degrees every two measures, then every measure, and so on until you’re switching every eighth-note. This trains each finger to land on a note and instantly be able to yank it in tune. There’s a huge range available there to adjust things sharp or flat, and if you know where you’re going, you can play stuff that’s ridiculously in tune. And that’s the stuff that really lights people up.”