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  1. #1
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    Are Guitars Built to Sound Best in Standard Tuning?

    I know this isn’t the best forum in the world to ask this, but I also know we have both guitarists and engineers here, so I thought I could get some FOOback from some of y’all.

    When talking about acoustic guitars, are they built to sound their best in standard tuning?

    I ask this because I recently bought a Seagull Entourage Rustic CW guitar, which, to me, is the best sounding guitar I have ever had a chance to play. It didn’t cost all that much, but, to me, it sounded better than some of the $2000-3000 guitars I got to try (but could never buy). The catch, though, is that is only sounds fantastic in standard tuning.

    By “fantastic,” I mean the sympathetic vibrations and overtones I hear are more amazing than anything I have ever heard. I will play stuff on the low E string and the entire guitar will sing along as though I have an orchestra backing me up. (I tried three of the same model of guitar side by side and the one I bought sounded much better than the other two of the same model, from the same controlled room, and everything.)

    BUT, when I use an alternate tuning (especially DADGAD), the guitar sounds like utter crap. It sounds like a tiny toy. I use a tuner and tune it as tight as I can, and I use my ears and fine tune it other times, but I just can’t get it to sound good whatsoever if I am not using standard tuning.

    Are my ears playing tricks on myself, or would just about any guitar sound its best in standard tuning?

    That being said, I assume that the pros would have different guitars "set up" for each tuning. I only have one guitar and I am not going to buy a guitar for each alternate tuning I may use some day, so I don't plan on having the guitar re-set up just so I can play Celtic music when the mood strikes.

  2. #2
    BF's Level 12 Wizard SingingSabre's Avatar
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    I'm willing to bet that the resonance of each individual guitar will match tunings slightly differently.
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    Curmudgeon in Training 20grit's Avatar
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    I've toured some shops who specifically tested their tops to a standard they believed would provide the best tone in Standard. Huss and Dalton being one of them. Others just design to a known standard and go with it. Many guitars respond better to the tension of standard than any of the dropped tunings. I keep all my older (ready 60 years or older) guitars in a dropped tuning, be it open G, Open D or simply full step down. Most of these are small bodies like L-00's, Parlor guitars and the dropped tuning actually sounds a bit more pleasing to my ears. It mellows the sound out. If you plan to play in a group, forget it. You won't get the cut or volume out of a lower tuned guitar, even with a capo.

    Mostly, it's purely subjective....
    If it was a guitar you'd leave in a dropped tuning constantly, I'd say to try heavier strings. You might just try different strings in general. I use a lot of Silk and Steel strings on my lower tuned guitars. They're actually a lighter gauge but provide a nice sound.

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    Senior Member Ultraslide's Avatar
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    The short answer is no.

    Every guitar is different. Some respond to being tuned down and some respond to being capo'd up a fret or two. It depends on personal taste, strings and wood. I like smaller bodied guitars tuned down a 1/2 step, it's kind of muddy with rich harmonics, but I play mostly finger style and slide. Some people like crispy and tight guitars capo'd up - like a Taylor. I know one guy who tunes each of his acoustics by ear to the pitch where they sound and intonate best. His guitars always sound amazing.
    All I'm saying is ... large pigs can run faster than you think.

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    Curmudgeon in Training 20grit's Avatar
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    Going with the above, I have a guitar for every tuning. Not that I had a tuning in mind and found a guitar, but that each guitar eventually found itself staying in the tuning it sounded best in. I have guitars in full step down, half step down, step and a half, Open D (and DADGAD, i've not found a guitar that lost tonal quality switching between the two), Open G, etc. I have yet to find a guitar I wanted to subject to Open E. I don't have it in my heart to do that to one. In my time doing this, I've yet to find a guitar that when played with a capo didn't lose tonal quality. I hate using one as a result. My Henderson, a fantastic guitar, sounds so much worse with the capo. Even at two frets, the volume and tone are just degraded too much.

    Find your guitar's sweet spot. Then don't change it. If you do, expect to sacrifice.

  6. #6
    Banned. ModoVincere's Avatar
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    They are built to sound best when played by someone besides me.

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    Senior Member Ultraslide's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 20grit View Post
    I have yet to find a guitar I wanted to subject to Open E. I don't have it in my heart to do that to one.
    A Tele with 9's ... playing Jumpin' Jack Flash ;-)

    For capos it almost always to play someone else's tune. All I ever do with a capo is double track one "normal" and one tuned down a 1/2 then capo'd up one. The overtones blending on a nice guitar are sweet.
    All I'm saying is ... large pigs can run faster than you think.

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    BF's Level 12 Wizard SingingSabre's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 20grit View Post
    Going with the above, I have a guitar for every tuning. Not that I had a tuning in mind and found a guitar, but that each guitar eventually found itself staying in the tuning it sounded best in. I have guitars in full step down, half step down, step and a half, Open D (and DADGAD, i've not found a guitar that lost tonal quality switching between the two), Open G, etc. I have yet to find a guitar I wanted to subject to Open E. I don't have it in my heart to do that to one. In my time doing this, I've yet to find a guitar that when played with a capo didn't lose tonal quality. I hate using one as a result. My Henderson, a fantastic guitar, sounds so much worse with the capo. Even at two frets, the volume and tone are just degraded too much.

    Find your guitar's sweet spot. Then don't change it. If you do, expect to sacrifice.
    So no Goo Goo Dolls covers for you?

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    Curmudgeon in Training 20grit's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SingingSabre View Post
    So no Goo Goo Dolls covers for you?

    No time soon, should I run our of things to play I might....

    I'm sure there's something better though.

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    Senior Member AnthonyG's Avatar
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    Guitars aren't BUILT to sound best in one tuning but they can be SETUP to sound best in one tuning. Its called intonation. This is where a single string is in accurate pitch at EVERY fret or as close as possible to being in accurate pitch at every fret. Perfect intonation is next to impossible on a stringed, fretted instrument. Factors involved in setting intonation are string length in relation to fretting which can be adjusted slightly by adjusting the nut and bridge CAREFULLY with a file, string height, string gauge and as you have noticed string tension. Strings tuned to a higher or lower tension will intonate slightly differently but this can be compensated for with different string gauges or adjustments to string length by adjusting the bridge.

    Now actually adjusting the intonation yourself is possible but its a minefield. If your already happy with intonation in standard tuning then changing ANYTHING is asking for trouble.

    Now having said this I'm a little surprised that you can notice a HUGE difference when you detune to open D. You could try some open tunings with tension closer to standard and see what happens.

    Anthony
    Last edited by AnthonyG; 03-21-11 at 04:07 PM.

  11. #11
    Administrator Allen's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ModoVincere View Post
    They are built to sound best when played by someone besides me.
    Me playing a guitar would be like me running a nuclear sub: I would have no idea what I was doing and the resulting catastrophe could potentially ruin countless lives.

  12. #12
    Ogr8nwmypstmksnosnse pgoat's Avatar
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    I've seen luthiers "tuning" the tops of acoustic guitars to have a desirable fundamental frequency, but even with low priced solid bodies I've felt the instrument was just more resonant in a certain key.

    For example at one point I owned three identical G&L Teles and they were all in standard tuning with the same exact string gauge, but one rang best in B, another in G and another in E. The "B" guitar was the sweetest sounding of the bunch but it really favored that key, to the point where there were some wolf notes in other keys...and it was not an intonation or fret dressing issue. More like sympathetic harmonics between strings at work.
    Quote Originally Posted by jsharr View Post
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    Ogr8nwmypstmksnosnse pgoat's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AllenG View Post
    Me playing a guitar would be like me running a nuclear sub: I would have no idea what I was doing and the resulting catastrophe could potentially ruin countless lives.
    you just described my 40-yrs of amateur musicianship.
    Quote Originally Posted by jsharr View Post
    People whose sig line does not include a jsharr quote annoy me.

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    Banned. ModoVincere's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pgoat View Post
    I've seen luthiers "tuning" the tops of acoustic guitars to have a desirable fundamental frequency, but even with low priced solid bodies I've felt the instrument was just more resonant in a certain key.

    For example at one point I owned three identical G&L Teles and they were all in standard tuning with the same exact string gauge, but one rang best in B, another in G and another in E. The "B" guitar was the sweetest sounding of the bunch but it really favored that key, to the point where there were some wolf notes in other keys...and it was not an intonation or fret dressing issue. More like sympathetic harmonics between strings at work.
    yep, each piece of wood is unique. The density of it will vary from piece to piece, even if its only very slight variations. Then there may be thickness variations in the shellac or other sealer/paint used. So, yes, each guitar is unique and will have slightly different characteristics.

  15. #15
    beast mode bluevelo's Avatar
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    Well, ask the guitarists in Sonic Youth, who use a lot of alternate tunings, or Robert Fripp, who now plays in New Standard tuning...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_standard_tuning

    Van Halen also has experimented with tweaking standard guitar tuning.

  16. #16
    Senior Member telebianchi's Avatar
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    While you could design a guitar to sound better in a particular tuning (and even here "better" is a very subjective term), I would wager that few are done that way and then only one-off custom instruments. Mainstream manufacturers, however, are not going to be putting that effort into it because of the subjective nature of "better". Even expensive hand made guitars from Martin, Gibson, Breedlove and many, many smaller lesser known brands are still being sold to appeal to a broad audience.

    Seagull makes really nice guitars and I think are some of the best value for $$ in the sub-$1000 market. But they are definitely trying to sell to that broad audience and not looking for some specialized instrument.

    The only model guitar I've ever heard of that was designed with open tunings in mind was the Taylor Leo Kotke 12-string (Model LKSM). But the design there was to make sure the neck and top were strong enough to allow for the added tension and stress of 12 strings, and heavier guage strings, which Kotke often uses in varied open tunings. If you've ever played with 12-strings, you know that once they are in tune you barely want to look at them in fear that something will start to go out. My understanding is that Kotke wanted a 12 string that he could reliably retune even several times during one show.
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