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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: McNeil's Tempered Tuning


Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link: http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/370941

Rob MacKillop - Posted - 12/13/2020:  01:05:12


I'm re-reading Charles McNeil's "Chord System for Tenor Banjo" and on page 7, under the heading of "Professional Tuning," he says:

"Violin and Cello, etc, are tuned in perfect 5ths. The tenor banjo can not be tuned in perfect 5ths with good results. The 5ths have to be "tempered", the same as the piano tuner tempers the 4ths and 5ths, when "setting the temperament" in the middle of the keyboard.
First, tune "A" from piano or pitch pipe: then tune the 2nd string (D) to "A", and tune a perfect 5th. Second, then raise (D) just a shade higher, making the (D) string a vibration or two on the sharp side of a perfect 5th. Do the same with the 3rd and 4th strings."

He then goes on to discuss checking the tuning with harmonics.

So, A is tuned first, then all other strings tuned lightly higher relative to the A string.

On my old Favilla tenor, I'm lucky enough just to get the first string in the ballpark of A. Such fine tuning as outlined above is impossible with these old tuners. If I had decent tuners, I would give it a go.

Anyone here bother about such finess?

Ryk - Posted - 12/13/2020:  04:20:23


What a minute Rob ....... You mean you can tune a Banjo?!?

McNeil is the first book i go to in the morning and so after reading your post and grabbing my coffee i turned to the front and read his advice. Normally whatever the clip-on says is good enough for me; but fussing with the harmonic thing really made a difference to my old ears. I haven't been able to find my Peterson tuner since we moved so i can't see just how "different" the banjo is now compared to the clip on. I'm playing a Silver Belle 1 with its original tuners so ..... fuss is the operative word. I have a new-to-me Ome Ponderosa coming and will be curious as to how those tuners de-fuss the process.

You're not sales manager for those new Rickard Hi-Ratio Tuners are you?

Best,

Ryk

Parker135 - Posted - 12/13/2020:  04:38:18


I'll have try this with my GDAE tenor. It seems like I could tune A to 440 then change the A reference on the other strings by a few hertz. I'm curious to see if I can do the same by ear.

Andrew Roblin - Posted - 12/13/2020:  05:18:45


Since I play tenor and plectrum mostly in C and F and 5-string in G, I make sure the tonic chords sound as good as possible in the open position, compromising as needed to get the other positions sounding good too.

EulalieBlue - Posted - 12/13/2020:  06:28:38


Rob, I'm sure you have had plenty of opportunity to sort out tuning and temperament on fretted instruments tuned in fourths with that pesky third stuck in there to mess things up even more. The thing about tuning in fifths is that the expected perfect intervals go awry the moment you have to deal with the blasted frets that cannot be slipped around and adjusted (like they can be on certain instruments).

On bowed strings, we always learn to adjust our fingering to temper the tuning, and this can be a serious indulgence in minutiae when playing those Bach fugues for solo violin. We hear the difference between D-sharp and E-flat and rock the finger ever so slightly as necessary. Chord melody style on the tenor banjo is much more forgiving as far as the tuning details, and the quick decay also helps.

If you need a better tenor with better tuners, good ones are fairly inexpensive in the States. I can bring a couple with me when you finally adopt us.

RA

szbassoon - Posted - 12/13/2020:  06:57:56


I believe this is the reason so many 5 string players seem to have problems with tuning. It's the justly tuned strings versus the equal tempered frets.

I usually start with a justly tuned G major chord since that's easy to do without a tuner and make small adjustments by fretting.

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 12/13/2020:  07:13:47


To check for the most accurate temperament (freted instruments are laid out with frets spacing to match equal temperament) one only needs to recheck the tuning by fretting the lower string at the seventh fret and playijng it and the higher string simultaneously. If one hears a slight waver, or a steady pulse called a "beat" between the two notes, the fifth is not tuned perfectly.

Rob MacKillop - Posted - 12/13/2020:  08:13:32


Some interesting comments. I'm well aware of pulse beats, and of course different temperaments, and the ability for non-fretted string players to adjust on the fly. Tuning to the chords in first position is fine if that's where you play most of the time, but jazz tenors tend to get played over their whole compass, hence the need for a different approach.



I find it interesting that McNeil mentions such subtleties, while they are rarely discussed for specifically the tenor banjo today. Either our ears are not so refined, or our fretting systems are more refined. Mind you, many of us play vintage instruments. I suspect electronic tuners are making us lazy. What raised my eyebrow with McNeil is that three-quarters of the strings are deliberately tuned sharp, not just one or two. And why, if he suggests tuning the A to the piano, does he not suggest doing likewise for the other notes, considering he mentions the piano is tempered in the middle (not the outer octaves?)?



On instruments with good tuners, I tend to tune the tonic chord all over the fretboard, averaging out any differences.



 



Anyway, pitch was likely do have been different when many of these vintage instruments were made, and that raises other questions. A rabbit hole emerges, but I think I'll not peer too deeply into it.



Here's Ralf Leenen "doing a McNeil" in a very interesting video for a related instrument:



youtu.be/CsBLtzRtixE



 



 


Edited by - Rob MacKillop on 12/13/2020 08:22:55

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 12/13/2020:  13:51:49


Tuning all four strings to the piano's temperament can be problematic simply due to tiny imperfections in said piano. (If you've ever had lengthy experiences with that instrument, you'll know that there are three strings per note, and that there can be false strings among them. It's always somewhat of a compromise, and among different brands of piano, one can get slightly different beat rates (many Baldwins beat noticeably slowly in the banjo's tuning range). It's always more accurate to tune one's own instrument to itself, rather than try to tune each individual note to a source that may or may not be tuned perfectly. A violinist or cellist tunes his/her other strings from that initial "A"  in the orchestra pit; the oboe only sounds that "A" and not the other three notes.



The "A' is usually accepted because most orchestras tune to "A." Although pitch has changed, the principles governing equal temperament have not. It's simply that at a lower pitch, the beat rates are minutely slower.  And as far as banjos are concerned, they don't go back before E.T. was the standard.



I do feel that electronic tuners tend to make ears a little lazy. To me, it;s important to actually  hear what one is doing, rather than just seeing it in flashing lights. Just as there are imperfections in pianos, there can also be imperfections in banjos, and compromises must sometimes be made for worn or poorly spaced frets or other imperfections, Before I refretted my old Gibson, I always had to tweak the temperament to compensate for unevenly worn frets. The banjo was never perfectly tuned, but hearing where a chord might contain a bad interval, always allowed adjustments to be made to bring it extremely close. You can't do that with electronic tuners.

banjopaolo - Posted - 12/13/2020:  23:31:49


Temperated instruments are a total mess! I had a mandolin mutiny some time ago, it seemed impossible to find the right bridge setting to play in tune all over the neck!
Tenor banjo have the same problem of course and I think that the 5th tuning makes all more complicated!

I have no rules: just use my ears and a elettronica tuner... and they not always get on well!

sethb - Posted - 12/15/2020:  13:00:26


As tough as equal temperament can be, the alternative is a lot worse. 



If you're wondering how musicians dealt with the problem through the centuries, and how the issue was finally solved (after a fashion) take a look at "Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization," by Stuart Isacoff.  Here's the Amazon link:  amazon.com/Temperament-Became-...mp;sr=1-4



BTW, I agree that using an electronic tuner is usually only one-half of the job of tuning a banjo.  In my experience, you still need to go back and compare each open string to the same note fretted on next string, and make whatever tiny adjustments are necessary.  In addition to getting the banjo in better tune with itself, it's a great way to exercise your ears and keep them in good working order.  And trying out a few chords after that can be helpful, too.  For some reason, the closed G7 chord that starts on the third fret is always helpful to me in hearing when something isn't quite right.  And it's usually the G string and the B string that need tweaking (on a plectrum tuned CGBD) because the wound G string always seems to go flat after playing for a while. 



Finally, frustrated tuners should take heart.  Since the banjo is basically a rhythm instrument, especially if you're comping and not playing melody, unless your axe is WAY out of tune with other instruments in the band, most people won't notice anyway.  So don't "let the perfect get in the way of the good," as they say.  SETH 

Muskrat - Posted - 01/07/2021:  02:28:35


quote:

Originally posted by Rob MacKillop



…The 5ths have to be "tempered", the same as the piano tuner tempers the 4ths and 5ths, when "setting the temperament" in the middle of the keyboard.…"



 



This doesn't really make sense to me. Pianos are usually tuned in "stretch" tuning. This is where the treble notes become slightly sharp they higher up you go, and the bass notes get slightly flatter as you play lower. I sometimes do this on my guitars but never tried it on a banjo. On a 4-string banjo you could tune one of the middle notes exactly to 440 and then "stretch" tune the outside strings. I think McNeil was probably giving advice for playing with orchestras. Not applicable to today's most common situation of small groups.






 


Edited by - Muskrat on 01/07/2021 02:29:56

Rob MacKillop - Posted - 01/07/2021:  02:50:23


To clarify, McNeil said that, not me. I actual do the opposite of you, Dan, in that I have by basses very slightly sharp, and the treble very slightly flat! Maybe we're all deluding ourselves, and once a tune is up and running, nobody notices...

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 01/07/2021:  07:21:35


quote:

Originally posted by Muskrat

quote:

Originally posted by Rob MacKillop



…The 5ths have to be "tempered", the same as the piano tuner tempers the 4ths and 5ths, when "setting the temperament" in the middle of the keyboard.…"



 



This doesn't really make sense to me. Pianos are usually tuned in "stretch" tuning. This is where the treble notes become slightly sharp they higher up you go, and the bass notes get slightly flatter as you play lower. I sometimes do this on my guitars but never tried it on a banjo. On a 4-string banjo you could tune one of the middle notes exactly to 440 and then "stretch" tune the outside strings. I think McNeil was probably giving advice for playing with orchestras. Not applicable to today's most common situation of small groups.






 






While it is true that there is some stretch involved with piano octaves, the middle of the keyboard is where the temperament is set. It's also that range where a banjo is tuned, so in reality, there is no problem settin a temperament with fifths on a banjo.



I believe a little more information is also in order concerning that "Stretch." Every stringed instrument is imperfect due to physics. Even though the octave harmonic is supposed to be produced at half the string's length, that is physically impossible in the real world due to the stiffness of the string. In effect, one gets two slightly short sections, with a tiny stiff section between them, which, due to that shortness, will be a tiny bit sharp. A piano tuner doesn't actually stretch octaves; he merely matches the upper string to the slightly sharp lower string's octave overtone. If he didn't do this, every octave would sound flat. (It's actually a bit more complicated due to the presence of other intervals and their own slightly distorted harmonics, but that's not something that can be broached in a single paragraph.) Any string has this problem, although some string materials are more problematic than others. The range an instrument encompasses also adds to the minute stretch of the highest and lowest notes. 



Were one to try to stretch the fifths as you have suggested, he would wind up with an untempered banjo, because, as noted, the "stretching" doesn't occur until one is out of the range where the temperament has been set. There is virtually no stretching in that area. 



 

CGDA - Posted - 01/07/2021:  09:13:27


I finally can understand why the tuning of my banjos looks always wrong to me, that's not because of my old ears!

gitman - Posted - 01/09/2021:  14:42:56


Being a stickler re tuning myself I finally got me a new tuning app on my phone : it's called iStrobosoft and is sold by - surprise - PETERSON !!!! for a few € more I also got the "sweetener" set of tunings which already have the temperaments "built-in" for guitar and other stringed instruments. What can I say, it works like a charm. My archtops and my Banjo sound their best now, I save a LOT of time and grief on gigs (I have my phone on the music stand in front of me, with the little grabber (I just clip it on to the bridge) plugged in and can touch up my tuning between songs in a breeze ! Highly recommended, check it out.

geoB - Posted - 01/12/2021:  03:38:09


I was going to suggest a digital Peterson strobe tuner. They're about a hundred fifty bucks, however a tuning fork worth its salt isn't cheap either.

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