Author: Daniel, Bert

That Thing

The first one I ever saw was maybe eight or ten years ago. It looked like such a handy thing. Obviously, it was very useful and probably something that every aspiring musician should own. I saw this thing at the very first jam I ever went to. Practically everything there was a new experience for me. But that thing, that thing that all the good musicians seemed to have, was something I decided I must have too.

I was a newbie and I was painfully aware of that fact at this first jam. The party was at my friend Tony's house and most of my friends there were fellow bicycling enthusiasts. They wouldn't know or care if I knew how to play bluegrass like the smattering of local musically-inclined friends Tony had also invited. No pressure. Tony had given me a heads up about the musical possibilities ahead of time. He was a newbie like me, shy about playing with others, but he advised me "bring your instrument, just in case".

I didn't play very much music that night but I learned a lot. Tony's musician friends were just so good that it was overwhelming for a newbie like me. Tony didn't play much either but at least he had a good reason. He and Cynthia were busy attending to their guests, but he did manage to sit down and play at least one tune on his new banjo. And I couldn't deny the fact that the mandolin case propped against the wall did indeed contain an instrument which I had brought. I too was ultimately forced into showing how bad I was at it despite my several months of serious study.

Well you get the idea. Your first jam can be very traumatic, as it was for me that night. But you live, and you learn, and you persist and maybe some day you'll have as much fun as the good musicians that were there at your first jam. I knew I had to practice more. I knew I had to gain more experience.

I also knew that I had enough disposable income to obtain whatever technological fix might speed me to my desired goal of musical proficiency. And that Thing, the gizmo of the moment that night, seemed to be one of those weird things hanging off of literally every guitar stock I saw: the Intellitouch Clip-on Tuner.

It was about five inches long and an inch or so wide and deep. It was clipped onto the headstock of each instrument so the performers could retune whenever they needed to. They could go right on playing after tuning without disturbing the others in the process. I knew (from my study, not from my experience) that playing in tune was one of the "secrets" of playing well together in a jam situation. This new gizmo really impressed me from that perspective.

But one thing about this five inch long gizmo really bothered me. It stuck out a lot. Since I couldn't really play my expensive instrument, I gloried in the esthetics of its construction and I resented anybody, no matter how good, who would defile the sanctity of a beautiful Martin guitar or a Gibson mandolin or a Schierhorn resonator by sticking a piece of plastic off the end. It just didn't look right, yet the experienced jammers just kept that thing clipped on, tune after tune, and didn't worry about it.

Not me. I bought one, but for years I always remembered to take it off and put it in my case after tuning. Tuners belong in the case after tuning, just like the pitch pipe. I even wondered if we were better off for having these techno-fixes. Maybe we weren't. Sometimes I'd hit a button by mistake without realizing it and the setting would deviate from 440 standard. I'd puzzle over why my tuning was so at odds with everybody else's for a while. If I played with a piano I'd have to adjust to whatever tuning they were in. I couldn't play along with some old recordings, for example old Stanley Brothers, because they tuned up about a half a step from standard on many tunes.

Over the years, and after many jams, I've come to realize that these tuners are here to stay. I've bought a bunch of them because I lose them about as fast as I misplace my cheater eyeglasses. I keep one in every case now. And it doesn't bother me, like it used to, for that Thing to hang off the end of my instrument all night. The newest Snark model I have is so small I can leave it on when I put my mandolin into its case. It's probably a matter of time until every new musical instrument comes with a built-in tuner.

I think it's a good idea to have an electronic tuner and to know how to use it, but I also think it's a good idea to know how to play in any tuning without one if you have to. Violin players know how to tune up in a flash. They just get a base note on one string and adjust the other three strings to a perfect fifth. Part of knowing how to play a fiddle well involves having an ear for the exact pitch so you can get your finger to do its job properly on the fretless instrument. A purist would tune a different way for every new key. Sweet tuning they call it. The standard tempered scale is just an approximation.

That "Thing" has become something I would never want to live without. When my strings go flat or sharp, I want a quick way to retune on the fly so I can be ready for the next time I'm needed during a fast moving jam. But if I have the time and a fiddle player gives me a good A, you can bet the farm I'll take it. When your tuner tells you one thing and your ear tells you another, trust the ear because when it comes down to brass tacks, the sound is the only thing that counts!
THE DAILY GRIST…"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote.”—Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790, inventor, statesman, author, philosopher, and founding father

Posted:  4/8/2013

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