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tuning tips for dulcimer and guitar


tuning hints and tips for dulcimer and guitar players 


Dan with dulcimer and guitar  
this article was written for and published in several magazines in the UK folk press back in early 1990's - it is published here with few changes as these points are all still valid

This article offers suggestions on tuning the (mountain) dulcimer and guitar to help you to enjoy your playing.  It’s written from the perspective of the performer but players who play for their own enjoyment will find some useful tips here too.


Change your strings once they have lost their sparkle, long before they show any signs of wear. At some point in their lives old strings become difficult to tune - it’s also harder to hear their pitch when they sound dull.  New strings will not only make tuning easier but they will enhance the tone of your instrument.
When changing strings, try to end up with four winds of string on the capstan of the machine head when the string is taught.  Fewer winds will increase the risk of the string breaking at the point where it kinks to go through the capstan.  Greater than four winds will increase the risk of the string slipping on the capstan and so going out of tune.
Before using a new string, first tune it up to the required pitch, then pre-stretch it by gently but firmly pulling it away from the frets by about an inch.  Do this several times and after each stretch re-tune the string.  Continue this process until the string settles down and doesn’t need re-tuning after stretching.  Your new strings should now behave predictably.
Clean plain strings regularly using a product like Fast Fret and wound strings with a dry, lint-free cloth.  Not only will this improve the tone of your instrument and make it easier to play, but it will also avoid the build up of grime.  Dirt will interfere with the normal vibration of the string in all sorts of undesirable ways.
Keep a clean cloth in your instrument case and wipe your hands with it before you play, particularly if you are hot or nervous.  This will significantly increase the life of your strings and save you a little money.

Environmental factors
A good case will not only protect your instrument from physical damage but it will also shield it from changes in temperature and humidity whilst in transit.  When you get to the venue, open the case to allow the woods of the instrument and the strings to acclimatise to the conditions in the room, then tune up before your performance.
Obviously you want to be seen when you play but avoid leaving your instrument under a bright spot-light for any longer than is necessary.

When tuning the instrument, always tune up to the note, rather than down to it.  If you need to flatten a string, take it to just below the desired pitch, then tune up to it, taking up any play in the machine heads.


Electronic/chromatic tuners are useful for tuning your instrument in noisy environments.  If you tune all of the strings using a tuner your instrument will be tuned to an even-tempered scale.  In general this approach is suitable for modern  music, ensemble playing and guitars in standard tuning.
An alternative approach, suitable for traditional music, solo playing and guitars in open tunings, is to tune your instrument to itself.  Use a tuning folk (for example) to tune one string then tune the other strings to this reference string using harmonics. This will tune your instrument to a natural temperament which will sound louder and more resonant than tuning to a tempered scale.  Use the 3rd/bass string on a dulcimer and the 3rd/G-string on a guitar as the reference string - these are the most stable strings and are least often re-tuned.
Using harmonics to tune has two advantages:  Firstly, it negates any geometric inaccuracies.  Secondly it allows you to tune using beats.  As you get close to the note you will hear pulsing beats in the chord become slower and disappear at perfect match.  As you drift away from the note, the beats get faster.  


Dan tuning guitar using a tuning fork

Plan your programme to minimise re-tuning, making any changes during the interval.
Time seems to fly when you are on-stage, so stay cool and give yourself time to sort out any tuning problems.  Your audience will respect you for getting it right and you’ll feel more confident knowing that you’re in tune.
Well done!  Now you can relax and get into the spirit of music.

• change your strings regularly
• leave 4 winds on the machine head
• pre-stretch new strings
• keep your strings & hands clean
• use a good case
• allow the instrument to acclimatise to a new environment
• avoid bright lights
• always tune up to the note
• plan your programme carefully
• on stage, take your time
• relax and enjoy your playing

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