The Buzz Feiten Tuning System
by Paul Guy

Feiten FAQ

Every guitarist is familiar with the problem: no matter how good the guitar, however carefully intonated and tuned it is, the darn thing still sounds a bit "out" in certain chord positions and key signatures. The Buzz Feiten Tuning System solves this problem by using a new approach to the intonation and tuning of the guitar which offers a dramatic improvement in chord consonance. You can at last play any chord, in any position, in any key signature, with pleasing results.

The traditional method of intonating a guitar references each string only to itself. But you can only play one note at a time on any one string. The important thing is for the string to be in tune with the other strings, not with itself. The Feiten system is designed to put the strings in tune with each other.

In Buzz Feiten's words: "The tempered tuning system is made up of two parts: the first involves moving the nut slightly closer to the bridge. The second deals with intonating the guitar to a precise pitch-offset formula, which is similar to the way pianos are tuned. Piano tuners have known for 400 years that in order for a piano to sound pleasant, the tuning must be "tempered" by adjusting it slightly out of tune to a very precise formula."

All guitar players are familiar with the common tendency of most guitars to play slightly sharp at the first couple of frets. Lowering the nut as far at it will go before the open string rattles on the first fret minimises this effect, but does not totally eliminate it.

There are two key differences between each string's open note and all its fretted notes.

1) Finger pressure on every note except the open note.. The finger stretches the string slightly, sharpening the note produced. This sharpening effect normally increases in a fairly linear way towards the higher frets and is compensated for by lengthening the string at the bridge saddle over and above the theoretical scale length. So far so good.

However, an anomaly arises in the intervals between the open note and the first couple of frets, because of the second key difference between open and fretted notes, which the design of the conventional fingerboard fails to take into account. This is:

2) "End effects" on the open note alone. As the string is held motionless at the nut and the bridge, the first tiny part of it at each end is prevented from vibrating freely. The effective open string length is therefore slightly shorter than the theoretical string length used to calculate the fret locations. This means that depressing a string at the first fret shortens it a tad too much for it to create the correct frequency - it sounds sharp relative to the open string. This cannot be compensated for at the bridge saddle without compromising the intonation of the rest of the frets.

By shortening the distance from the nut to the first fret, the note created by depressing the string at the first fret is flattened relative to the open string. Since the frets are not moved - they are placed in accordance with theory - their pitches are unaffected by the moving of the nut. It is only the relative pitch of the open string to the notes at the first couple of frets that is perceptibly altered. The Buzz Feiten Tuning System includes formulas for calculating the optimal amount of nut compensation for the scale length, string gauge and string type in use.

But this is only the beginning. Once the nut has been moved to the correct location, the guitar is intonated according to the "Feiten Tempered Tuning Tables" - a very specific list of "offsets" from the theoretically correct, mathematical intervals. The mathematical intervals only take the strings' fundamental frequencies into account. But strings do not just generate fundamentals; they also produce a whole spectrum of overtones (or "harmonics"). The string has to vibrate in smaller and smaller divisions of its length as the overtones increase in frequency, but it is not infinitely flexible. The higher the overtone the more the string has to struggle to vibrate. The stiffness of the string causes the overtones to become sharper and sharper the higher they get. This phenomenon is called "inharmonicity".

If notes played together are to sound consonant, then above all, their overtones must blend together. The high overtones of the lower notes in a chord should not clash with the low overtones of the higher notes. On pianos, therefore, the octaves are tuned progressively flatter starting about an octave below Middle C, and progressively sharper starting about an octave above Middle C. Piano tuners "stretch" the tuning of the piano +/- 50 cents or more across 7 octaves on smaller instruments. Inharmonicity is minimised on grand pianos by lengthening the lower strings as much as possible, but even the largest concert grands are normally "stretched" at least +/- 25 cents across 8 octaves. Inharmonicity is nowhere near as extreme on the guitar -across only four octaves - but it is a factor.

Feiten's "offsets" build a carefully balanced "stretch" into the guitar's tuning, and also make some subtle modifications to the intervals between certain adjacent pairs of strings. As Buzz puts it, "I have learned how much pitch I can borrow from one string and lend to another to make them sound in tune."

The end result of these combined adjustments is a guitar where every chord, in every position, and in every key signature, tunes pleasingly. Even open chords are in tune with each other - changing from open G to open E no longer elicits a wince... Chords sound more open, with ringing overtones and longer sustain, as the overtones no longer cancel each other out. String separation is dramatically improved. Retuning for different keys is eliminated.

The Feiten system can be applied to practically any acoustic or electric guitar or bass guitar.

© Paul Guy 1999


What modifications must be made to the instrument?
First off, the guitar should be well-adjusted, with the frets level and properly crowned. The nut is also important and should be replaced if it is poor. A small amount of wood is removed from the end of the fingerboard to move the nut slightly closer to the first fret. This is a very small adjustment and can be hidden completely in most cases. (Vintage instruments can be fitted with a "shelf" nut instead. This allows you to re-install the original nut in case you ever want to sell the instrument.) You have to commit to the system on an acoustic guitar because the bridge saddle slot has to be moved. But often, you can't tell the modification was made.

How does one tune the modified guitar?
Any correct tuning method will work, but for optimal results, tune E's on each string: open high E, 5th fret on the B, 9th fret on the G, 14th fret on the D, 7th fret on the A and 12th fret on the low E.

Do I need a special tuner?
For normal tuning, anything will work. Best for everyday use is Korg's DT-7 tuner, which has a BFTS mode and an "open string/12th fret" button for checking intonation. The DT-7 is suitable for electric, acoustic and bass guitars.

What if I change string gauge?
You should re-intonate to the system's specs.

Can I play with guitarists who don't use the system?
Absolutely, in fact Joe Satriani says he likes what happens when he layers tempered and non-tempered guitars. Because the system is based on very small, subtle pitch adjustments, you'll just sound more focused when you play with another guitarist - and the clarity is especially noticeable if there's a keyboard in the mix.

Is the system only available factory-installed?
No. Several high-end builders are using the system, and just about any electric guitar can be retrofitted for about $175. For more information, call Greg Back on (310) 459-3928 (USA).
(In Scandinavia, call Paul Guy on (+46) 8 644 1440.)

The Buzz Feiten Tuning System -TEST by Jan Dahlin
From FUZZ magazine, Sweden

Buzz Feiten website

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