Sweet Tuning: What It Is and Why You Might Need to Do It [2023 Guide]

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If you’re curious about sweet tuning or sweetened tuning, you’ve come to the right post.

This was something I had heard about in guitar circles but was confused about what it meant until I finally decided to research it myself.

So let’s dive into what this phrase means exactly.

Sweetened Tuning and Equal Temperament

Before we get into this topic, you’ll need to have a basic understanding of equal temperament.

So let’s start with octaves. An octave, or diapason, is an interval that separates two musical pitches. It’s also a very interesting natural phenomenon.

Going one octave above a certain note, the frequency is doubled. And going down, it’s halved. For instance, A4 is at 440 Hz. A5 is exactly 880 Hz while A3 is exactly 220 Hz.

Equal temperament is a set of just intervals within one octave. Essentially, you divide one octave into a certain number of equal parts. This also means that the “distance” between two adjacent notes is always the same.

12-Tone Equal Temperament

There are many ways to divide an octave. However, pretty much all western music fits the 12-tone equal temperament.

This means that one octave is divided into 12 equal parts. We can also refer to this as a chromatic scale.

In some rare cases, you’ll also stumble upon “microtonal” music. Some musicians these days experiment with a 24-tone equal temperament. From the perspective of Western music, this means that you can divide a half-step into two quarter-steps.

You can check out some minor implementation of these quarter steps in the player below.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - Sleep Drifter (Live on KEXP)

And here’s how a 96-tone equal temperament harp sounds like:

Improvisation on Julian Carrillo's 96edo harp

Guitars and Equal Temperament Problems

Almost all guitars these days are within the 12-tone equal temperament standard. The 12th fret is exactly one octave above the open string. All of the other frets divide one string into 12 equal parts.

Well, not exactly. And this is one of the biggest misconceptions about guitars.

The conventional fretboard design is very practical. You can play any chord and any scale that’s defined by Western music theory. However, the exact difference between all the frets is not one semitone. Instead, it varies from fret to fret.

In short, a standard fretboard is a complete mess. Some of those who have practiced a lot may have a better sense of pitch. And some may notice that some chords sound a bit “off.”

You can notice this on a poorly intonated electric guitar. For instance, you can tune the bottom 6th string to E2, which equates to 82.41 Hz. On the 12th fret, it should be exactly 164.82 Hz. But if it’s not intonated well, this frequency can be a bit lower or higher.

If you’ve noticed that intervals or chords on higher frets sound out of tune, this means that your guitar is not set up properly. But even if you sort this out, a fretboard is still not perfect.

Sweetened Tuning: What Is It?

The things that I discussed above are crucial for understanding the so-called “sweetened” tuning. So what is it exactly?

Certain intervals and chords may sound a bit off on the guitar. This happens even if open strings are tuned perfectly. The solutions come in form of these sweetened tunings.

The term itself refers to any tuning that deliberately puts certain strings slightly out of tune. This way, you make certain combinations of notes on the fretboard sound perfect. And thus, certain chords will sound more in tune.

There are plenty of ways to approach this. However, all of them rely on the same principle. You’re supposed to deliberately tune certain strings slightly sharp or flat. As a result, certain intervals, chords, and keys will be more in tune.

The whole thing is about intervals and the relation between two specific notes. However, by messing with the tuning of some open strings, you make other combinations of notes sound out of tune.

This is why sweetened tunings are applied only if you’re going to use specific chords. Most commonly, you can use sweetened tunings for specific keys.

But at the end of the day, no matter what you do, your guitar will sound off. This happens no matter how you tune it. As I already mentioned, the guitar is an imperfect instrument.

Eddie Van Halen and Sweet Tuning

One of the best-known users of sweetened tunings was Eddie Van Halen. He was one of the few rock players who noticed these issues. This was especially true on high-gain distortion settings.

Eddie even adjusted his tuning during live shows. He would tweak the strings in between the songs, tuning the B string slightly off.

How to Achieve Sweet Tuning?

The only way to achieve any of the sweetened tunings is to use a very precise tuner. The only devices that were precise enough for this were Peterson tuners.

Even to this day, their best tuners rely on the same old principles. They come with strobe lights and a disc with specific patterns. The disc rotates at a certain speed and the strobe lights flicker at the same frequency as the note that you’re playing. The string is in tune when the pattern on the disc looks as if it’s static. The accuracy of these tuners is 1/10th of a cent.

Here’s a video detailing how a Peterson strobe tuner works:

How Does A Strobe Tuner Work?

These days, most Peterson tuners come with the “Sweeteners” or “Sweetened Tuning” modes. This is probably the most precise way to achieve such a tuning.

“True Temperament” Guitars and Fretless Guitars

But if you’re really picky and want a guitar with a perfect fretboard, you have two options. You can try fretless or the so-called “true temperament” guitars.

A fretless guitar, as the name suggests, comes with no frets. This means that you can play all of the “in-between” notes. And, this also means that you can hit the perfect pitch of every note.

However, there are two issues with fretless guitars. The first is that you need to have a good sense of pitch. I touch on this concept in my guitar vs violin article, and how a violin’s lack of frets make it harder to learn than the guitar. Secondly, it’s extremely difficult to play chords on it in tune. This is because putting one finger let alone all of your fingers where they’re supposed to be is borderline impossible for some chords.

“True temperament” guitars have a completely different fretboard design. The fret wire on each fret is bent in a specific way. And each fret looks differently. As a result, every string and fret contact point is independent. This means that all of the notes are as precise as it gets.

You can check out what true temperament guitars look like in the video below. Take a closer look at the “wiggly”-looking frets.

[Guitar Vlog] I played a weird guitar - ft. Adam Neely

The issue, however, is that true temperament guitars are extremely expensive. And you can only get them through custom orders. Nonetheless, this is the best solution to an otherwise slightly imperfect fretboard design.  

Sweet Tuning: Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you understand what sweet tuning is and how you might use it for your own purposes.

But ultimately, most guitarists don’t worry too much about the slight intonation problems of a standard guitar.

So don’t let minor intonation issues prevent you from enjoying this wonderful instrument!

2 Responses

  1. Jeff Russell says:

    If you have a good ear and play guitar long enough, I believe that you learn to unconsciously slightly bend strings while playing chords to “make” the chords sound in tune.

    1. Hey Jeff,

      That’s interesting insight. Thanks for sharing!

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