The Buzz Feiten Tuning System
by Jan "Nusse" Dahlin
from FUZZ magazine, Sweden, #2/98
© Jan "Nusse" Dahlin / FUZZ, 1998
reproduced by permission
No guitarist escapes it. We have all experienced it, in more or less serious degrees. Mostly pretty seriously. Some of us, when young and uninitiated, even went back to the shop and complained that there was something wrong with the guitar - "The damn thing won't tune properly..." Most often we returned home with the same guitar, persuaded by salesmen with more mouth than knowledge...
Since then we have learned to live with the problem; bend a couple of strings a bit extra here, or avoid other strings there. We have avoided certain key signatures because they sounded bad with the rest of the band. Retuned the guitar for certain songs. We have even denied ourselves from playing a lot of good music simply because it sounded out of tune.
But this is not just the whinings of inexperienced or oversensitive guitarists; no conventional guitar in the world tunes perfectly in every key. And there is a very good reason for that; all conventional guitars in the world are, of necessity, designed to sound slightly out of tune. Because, quite simply, the scale used on the guitar is a compromise. Apart from the octaves - which are always true - none of the intervals (distances between notes) agree with the natural note row. If you want to play the guitar in different keys you have to compromise a bit and temper - even out - the intervals. What this means for the guitar is that it is constructed around an even-tempered scale where all the notes are reasonably - but not perfectly - in tune in all keys.
The phenomenon also applies to other polyphonic (capable of sounding more than one note at a time) instruments. Pianos and other keyboard instruments are also deliberately tuned slightly "off" from perfect, so as to function in multiple key signatures. But there are greater possibilities to even out the differences here, since the piano has a separate set of strings for each note - if you play a different note, you activate different strings. There are wider possibilities for fine adjustments of the scale, without compromises.
But do you have to put up with this imperfection, a tuned but nevertheless slightly out of tune guitar? Eddie Van Halen doesn't anymore. Neither do Keith Richards, Steve Vai, Frank Gambale, Larry Carlton, Joe Satriani, Scott Henderson, Mick Mars, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Pete Anderson, Wayne Johnson and a growing number of guitarists around the world.
They all play on guitars which have been adjusted and intonated according to "The Buzz Feiten Tuning System". Well-known guitar builders like Tom Anderson and John Suhr have also snapped up the idea and now build their guitars with the new system. (Just before our material deadline we received the news that Washburn have adopted the Feiten system on their US-made guitars.)
Buzz Feiten, guitarist and innovator
But who the devil is Buzz Feiten, and what does the man do to the guitars? Buzz has been around for a while. Some readers maybe remember him from his time with the Paul Butterfield Bluesband or the Rascals. If not, he has also played with Chicago, Mr Mister, James Taylor, Kenny Loggins, Feiten Larsen Band, Bob Dylan, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Gregg Allman, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and many others.
Buz started serious research to examine whether anything could be done to improve the weaknesses of guitar tuning at the beginning of the '90's. He discovered among other things that most guitars - despite correct tuning - always sound slightly sharp on the first couple of frets. Buzz tried moving the nut a little closer to the first fret. After measuring and testing a number of different positions he worked out a placing for the nut where several of the known problems were dramatically reduced. But the problem of dissonances between the strings and further up the neck remained.
Together with guitar technician Greg Back, Buzz began investigating the conventional way to intonate. Normally the guitar is intonated according to the mathematical model which assumes that the intervals are all the same size, and you find yourself in conflict with the natural note row - what the ear "wants" to hear to experience intervals as harmonious. Buzz began to suspect that, in effect, he was trying to perfect a bad model, and started working on other ways to intonate instead.
- We started studying the system that is used on the piano carefully, and then we calculated a series of formulas for optimising the guitar's intonation, to eliminate or minimise the dissonances. You can't follow the piano's model exactly, but you can use the same principles of tuning the octaves successively sharper the further you get from Middle C and tuning them slightly flatter the further down you go. Strangely enough, no-one has done this from a scientific approach earlier - not for the guitar. Since you are working with very small differences you have to intonate with a strobe tuner, but once the intonation has been set you can tune normally with a tuning fork or a tuner.
How does one get one's guitar intonated according to your system?
- It is done by authorised retrofitters who I train and approve. The system is patented, and even if the alterations made are small, a whole lot of theoretical and practical knowledge is needed to do it correctly.
An initiated intonator's impressions
Paul Guy, a guitar repairer for the last 20 years and a contributor to FUZZ from the beginning, has long been engaged in the problems involved in the tuning and intonation of the guitar. Among other things, he has written a pamphlet on the subject. ("Tuning The Guitar". Can be found on this website. /Webmaster.) Paul contacted Buzz Feiten and obtained permission to reftrofit two guitars for some well-known Swedish guitarists to test. He signed a contract in which he promised not to reveal the figures for the position of the nut and for intonation. At first Paul was very sceptical, but says now:
- I will never go back to the old intonation method on my own guitars. When Ulf Zackrisson (editor of FUZZ) asked me to check out Feiten's system I was sceptical, to say the least. There have been others who have claimed to have developed systems to improve the guitar's intonation, but they have mostly been pure hocus-pocus, or far too complex - interchangeable fingerboards for each key, zig-zag frets and other weirdnesses, for example. Buzz Feiten's system works far more convincingly, it is based on exact calculations, and is relatively simple to reproduce. It's probably the biggest thing to happen to the guitar in 2 or 300 years. The results are astounding when you consider the small adjustments made to the instrument.
Harmonious reactions among some well-known Swedish guitarists
Micke Nord, who is recording an album in Spain with Roxette as this is being written, was one of the first to test the Feiten system.
- It works. It tunes like a grand piano, more or less. The guitar is in tune all over the neck and I was a little nonplussed at first. I have long been used to compensating by bending a little extra here and there or by replacing certain harmonies with licks and figures, and now you don't need to do that any more. It takes a little time for your muscle memory to get accustomed but it works - no doubt about it. I was in the studio just recently with an acoustic guitar against a grand piano and the dissonances can become very obvious in that situation. Partly because two acoustic instruments get very naked and exposed and partly because it's harder to compensate on an acoustic guitar, because you are usually using heavier strings, which are harder to bend. Then I wonder how it will be to play with another guitarist who hasn't intonated the same way. You can easily get intermodulations between the guitars in big PAs, if they're not in tune. I will definitely get some of my guitars intonated for the Feiten system, maybe not all 40, but some of them.
Staffan Linder, Guitar teacher at Royal College of Music, Stockholm:
- Just at first it was a little unfamiliar and different, after that it felt more and more right and it was pleasant to hear clean chords even way up on the neck. I thought: "This sounds sweet here - and here too - " and so on. The difficulty of tuning the guitar is always a problem, so I think Feiten's system will be appreciated, not least in studio situations.
Clas Yngstrom, who is recording two albums at the moment, one with Hendrix tunes arranged for big band, and a 20 year jubilee (!) record with Sky High:
- I thought it was amazing. It's always a problem to get the guitar to tune, most of all with ballad chords and with open chords. It's like living with a chronic illness, this thing with the guitar's weak points. I often make it worse for myself by using floating vibratos and stuff because I want to pull the arm up as well as push it down, hit the bar and so on, and all that puts the guitar out of tune. So of course I'm grateful for this news. You really hear the difference so I think it's a great thing. I'd like to do it on all my guitars. It makes the guitar more like a real instrument, somehow, than the compromise it really is now.
Goran Elmquist, producer at Khabang Studios and studio musician:
- I was afraid it would sound completely different at first, since you are accustomed to the guitar's sound, and we guitarists have learned to compensate in our own ways. But after playing and listening for a while it sounded completely right. It works in different chords and you don't need to compensate or avoid the problem by voicing chords another way. It will probably simplify at recordings since many guitarists even tune with wrong methods, using fifth harmonics and such.
Jonas Isaacsson, guitarist (formerly with Roxette):
- It sure as hell tunes well. But I don't know if I need it. I have found my own ways around the problems - I've made the guitar work for me.
John Norum, home recently from a tour with Dokken, and now rehearsing with The John Norum Band:
- It gives fantastically clean chords, almost like a piano. Some almost sound sampled. I always have to retune in the studio for chords way up on the neck and you shouldn't need to do that now. I even got a feeling that it was easier to bend now, easier to hit the right note somehow. I shall definitely be getting at least one guitar done - to start with.
We had heard a lot of enthusiastic reactions before we got the opportunity to try Feiten's system ourselves and decided on a critical approach. The world of guitar sounds is full of myths and hardly needs one more.
At first it felt and sounded a bit unusual. The fingers fly, and out of habit, start using all the ingrained tricks to ameliorate, hide or avoid dissonances. When, after a while, you discover that you don't need to mute certain strings, press others a bit harder, or camouflage by putting some vibrato on whole chords - then things start to happen. An open E in first position was perfectly combinable with an open G for example. The same with open C, A, and D. Above all, all chords which mix open strings with fretted notes work much better than normally, no matter where on the neck you are playing. Open D and open G even tune clean as a whistle at the 14th and 15th frets.
All of a sudden you find yourself playing those songs you played twenty years ago - before your self-criticism and musical ear had developed to the point that you learned to avoid them. "Proud Mary" in open chords - oh well. The intro to "It's Only Love", with its usually bent F and later the A in the bridge which was often either omitted or tuned slightly sour so that the beginning D would tune cleanly.
So over to the distortion department. Chord accompaniment on fifths adhered together considerably better - whatever strings you play on - even on the G, B and high E. Two- and three-string riffs the same. Keith Richards riffs and such figures could suddenly be combined with other chords without any notable problems. Across the board the difference was almost more noticeable with distortion than without. The concept of string separation gets a whole other clarity and just the feeling of being able to use even more strings in both open and barre chords opens whole new vistas.
Overall it is hard to resist the improvement the Feiten system brings - critical or not. The guitar doesn't tune "perfectly" - it can never do that, because of its construction - but the improvement was highly concrete and not one of us at FUZZ had ever played a guitar that tuned and rang better - and we have played a guitar or three between us...
Maybe we can even start saying that the guitar has been given a bit better chance to attain the reputation as a classical instrument which it was once refused. It is completely clear that the guitarist has been given greater opportunities to play a wider range of music.
© Jan "Nusse" Dahlin / FUZZ, 1998
From FUZZ magazine, Sweden, #2/98.
Reproduced by permission. Translation: Paul Guy
The Buzz Feiten Tuning System (by Paul Guy)
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