Why tune up? (Stoned ramblings.)

These are stoned ramblings. You have been warned.

A recent PM conversation with someone who’s learning to play the guitar led to them asking me why I say always tune up. I’m not alone in saying this – it’s pretty basic as to the what you should do. Everyone tells you to tune up, right? The question is, why do people tell you to tune up.?

T|he answer is not really so simple and many people will give you the most outlandish answers I’ve ever heard. I’m going to make it way more complicated than it needs to be – but I’ll try to explain it as I go along.

Strings, if you’ve ever pulled them out of the new case or removed them from your stringed instruments, have memory. That means that they tend to retain the shape they have been fixed in. It’s a process due to the molecular reshaping when force is exerted on them – but that’s not important. Basically, when you pull a string out of a brand new package, it has the tendency to remain in its previous shape.

A more salient example of this is when you unravel a string to remove it from the tuning peg – it retains that shape pretty well.

If you add more energy to your strings, they will break. If you don’t believe me, (you need new strings anyhow) take your skinniest string and rest a lit cigarette on it. Go on, I’ll wait… (Don’t do that unless you’re going to change the strings anyways.)

Then, there’s friction in the system – and some of it is manifest as stiction. This force is overcome when you add more energy to the system (or when energy already in the system moves to a disordered state). In human-speak, this means it has the tendency to loosen at a more rapid rate.

How much of this is true and how much of this is so insignificant may actually be bordering on something between reality and legend. Is it truly a factor? Absolutely. Simple physics tells us that it’s a factor. But, in the days when you’re able to set your precise tone with an electronic instrument, how much does this matter? If you tune up, you have the greatest potential energy in the system.

I’ve done some testing and, frankly, it isn’t a significant factor all the time. Sometimes, it’s not significant over the period of time that I am concerned with. It really depends on the guitar. I’ve made lots of observations but I haven’t bothered to keep the data. I’ve not done rigorous study, in other words.

Either way, I’m not kidding. If you want to see it. just play with your tuner on and watch to see if the pitch decreases with greater speed than it does if you tuned down to that pitch. The answer depends on so many factors – and most of us actually don’t even tune that precisely. Many of us just tune the guitar to itself. Some guitars can be downright terrible and you’ll have to find a balance for them – including wanting to find a balance for intonation. In this area, some guitars are better than other guitars.

On top of that, if you’ve got relatively new strings and aren’t beating on them for years, the difference isn’t that much. It still exists – it’s just not as great as some people make it out to be. Frankly, tune to whoever gave you an A and call it good. The audience isn’t going to notice. You’re generally not playing for a refined ear or the studio. If you’re recording then practice the best effort. If you’re playing for an audience that’s seated, practice your best effort. If you’re playing in a dive bar and you want to hurry up so that you can get a drink, then it doesn’t really matter. You can just be in tune with the rest of the band and call it good.

If it doesn’t always matter, why do I tell people this? Well, I also tell people to keep their instrument in good shape. I tell them to maintain it. I tell them to keep it clean. I tell them to do drills every day, stretch every day, and run scales every day, and play every day, and all sorts of other things. Most good guitars go out of tune at about the same rate, even if you tune them down to pitch. There’s usually not a whole lot of difference between them.

How much of that I actually do myself? Not so much. I wipe stuff down and hang it back up. I check intonation real quick and then see how quickly something goes out of tune. I throw new strings on if I’m going to record. If I’m going to perform, I’ll restring everything. For the record, I hate having to rush to string a guitar. A pick winder is your friend, but that’s something we’ll talk about another day.

Why did I write this? Well… It’s always been some sort of guitar legend. I know even piano tuners do it and have for years and years. I assume it goes back before that, but I don’t have any historic record for that can’t provide a citation. So, I write this because I don’t really see it that well covered elsewhere. Otherwise, I’d just link you to that.

It’s always been a legend and some people don’t pay it much attention. I can’t say that I blame them. Some people give it more credence than others, and sometimes they’re right – depending on the guitar they’re playing.

I guess the point is that the legend has some basis in reality. You can see how much it impacts you by just watching the pitch with your tuner. Hammer on it for five minutes and see if it’s out of tune. Check it at the 12th fret – is it in tune there?  Check in another five minutes. Keep doing that.

If it gets lower (the space between wave peaks is further apart and it gets flat sounding) with greater rapidity then it’s an issue. Sometimes, it doesn’t have that much of an impact It’s going to vary based on so many things that it’s really up to you and the guitar – but I’m always going to suggest you do it, just like I always suggest cleaning your guitar before putting it away.

It may even vary depending on what type of music you’re playing. In other words, the more energy you put into the system the faster you’ll overcome the forces that hold the string in place. That’s energy and it’s gotta go somewhere.  The more energy you put into it (the harder you play) the faster you’ll go out of tune. It will vary a lot depending on the instrument and the system used to hold the strings in place, with some systems being more capable than others.

What do I mean by more capable? Let’s get geeky about it.

It’s all about energy… Really!

If you want to see this, heat a cup of coffee and put it on your desk. Watch it. Let me know when it, by itself, gets warmer instead of colder. Without adding energy to the system – it trends towards disorder. This is the same thing that’s happening in your guitar.

Some of that energy is transferred in the form of sound. Some of it is even heat. If you check the temperature of various bits of the guitar with fairly accurate gear, you’ll see some parts of it are warmer and, indeed, energy is being transferred out of it as heat. That energy transferred as heat could be wasted energy or it could be energy not absorbed by the system holding the strings in place. 

What that means is be nice to your guitar. It may not make you a living, but it does give you something in return for the amount of energy you put into it. It’s just simple physics!

It’s able to be expressed mathematically. Really – I’m not kidding.

I realize that I’m pretty stoned and I might be speaking gibberish – but there’s a method to my madness – and a madness to my method.

If you want to figure this out mathematically, and express the figures for your specific instrument, you can get some precise measurement equipment, assume a few spherical cows, and get a fairly accurate mathematical answer to this.

Here, I’m not kidding. If you want to do the math, follow this link. That won’t even give you an absolutely exact figure, and you’re going to have to do a bunch of research, testing, and a whole lot of very exact data collection. As far as I know, nobody has ever done this work – there’s been no really good academic study into precisely this and that’s an area of interest that I have.

If such a study is done, I predict that it is going to vary significantly. Of this I’m really confident. Someone should study this and put it up for peer review. I’d absolutely read that.

So, we’ll have to content ourselves without exact numbers until someone does that study. Fucked if I know the exact amount and no, I’m not going to go find out. But!!!

What else is going on? What else is happening? Here comes the fun part…

First, I need to tell you that when you’re playing, you’re smashing atoms all around. Yeah, you’re shooting particles off in every direction. You’re emitting heat, electrons, and all sorts of fun stuff. The energy isn’t just being observed as sound. Your eyes don’t see it, but it’s there – you can observe it. You’re putting energy your into the guitar. (An electric guitar amplifier amplifies this signal – it increases the amount of energy in the system – which comes from the battery or wall, but that’s also not important.)

Second, that means when you’re playing amplified music – you’re telling electrons what to do. Some of this is expressed as sound, some of it is heat, but you’re smashing bits of matter together and causing it to make electrons exchange at a controlled rate of speed. You see it as string vibration and hear it as sound. If you touch the amps, you feel it as heat.

If you want to realize how awesome this truly is, per cubic centimeter, you emit more energy than our star (Sol) does. When you’re playing, you’re emitting even more energy than that. Then, it’s being amplified, emitted as waves that shape the air, vibrating a fine membrane of tissue in the ear, causing electrons to be exchanged that result in tiny chemical responses, and we humans interpret that as sound.

Frankly, that’s fucking awesome!

By the way… Heat’s often considered waste heat or energy needed to not be absorbed in order to maintain structural integrity. Some heat is good, some heat is bad. If your guitar is on fire, it’s probably bad. (Take a lesson, Jimi…)

And some of that energy is transferred away from the system in your tuning pegs and in the strings themselves. Which is why you always tune up. It puts you at the most optimal state of energy – usually.

By the way, if you don’t know what spherical cows are, I highly encourage looking that up – but only if you really want to try to figure out the math for it all. If you don’t believe you’re emitting energy outside the spectrum you can usually observe, look at yourself in the mirror with a thermal camera.

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