I remember hearing an interview about the recording of Nirvana's "Something in the Way"; apparently Kurt played the acoustic part it once on an out of tune 12-string guitar, and then refused to do it again... they had a nightmare trying to record the other parts as a result.

It made me wonder, is deliberately making your guitar (or other instrument) out of tune a recognised / commonly used technique? If so, what does it add?

To clarify, I mean out of tune with itself rather than using some relative tuning.

  • 2
    it can also be a necessity - if the producer cranks the tempo of a piano track and the resulting pitch is in between keys (layla piano coda), session guitarists will need to be out of tune so that they're in tune relative to the recorded track. if they weren't playing slide they would have needed to alter their tuning; however, with slide they could hit whatever pitch they desired (chromatic note or not). Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:32
  • 4
    'Out of tune' to me means that the strings are not in tune with each other. If they are in with each other, but are all slightly different from the tuning of another instrument, the two are 'out of tune' with each other... Thus, 3 guitars could be 'out of tune' compared to concert pitch, but still in tune with each other - and still sound fine.
    – Tim
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 15:55
  • 3
    It should be clarified if it's out of tune or detune. Detuned guitars are very common, deliberately out of tune, not so much. Commented May 14, 2015 at 17:36
  • Clarified, I mean the latter not just tuning against a different reference pitch
    – Mr. Boy
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 8:08

2 Answers 2


Anything that achieves the sound you're after is a valid technique!

That said, a guitar (for example) out of tune with itself will usually sound a bit unpleasant to most ears.

However ...

If you listen to Led Zep's Black Dog, the guitars are played twice, panned left and right, and just a touch out of tune with each other. I don't know whether this is deliberate or not, but it helps give the track a massive guitar sound.

[Edit] Regarding the amount of out-of-tuneness: It seems to vary a bit throughout the song and could even just be because Mr Page was fretting the strings a bit harder, so bending them a little, on one of the takes. So a very small amount - way less than even a quarter of a semitone.

Hendrix's Hear My Train A-Comin is played on a 12-string which is v slightly out of tune with itself, and sounds fine.

One thing about a 12 string specifically though: the strings are in pairs, either two of the same pitch (higher strings) or two one octave apart for lower strings.

If it's perfectly in tune, then all is well. If you have the pairs very slightly out of tune, you get a chorus effect which can be quite pleasant. If you go too far, it's just plain out of tune.

But then if you wanted something that's deliberately out of tune, then that's fine too!

EDIT: By "Very slightly" out of tune I mean barely perceptibly when played individually, but noticeable when played together, so again way less than a semitone. The chorus effect seems to come from the strings ringing and phasing constructievely/destructively as their waves mingle (I'm guessing that's the case). It's a bit less noticeable with the strings that are an octave apart but still there.

I doubt it's useful as a way of getting chorus though, unless you're VERY careful and are using an instrument with paired strings (12 string guitar, mandolin etc - thanks for mentioning this @AJFaraday). ON the other hand it's probably partly a natural variation in pitch per string which gives 12-strings their big sound, even if they're as in-tune as you can muster.

  • 1
    Love to know how MUCH out of tune is good, like chorus, but at which point it is simply 'out of tune'.
    – Tim
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 17:46
  • Perhaps to be clear about tuning as 'chorus', it won't work if you play a guitar and detune it. However, if a guitar is recorded, then slightly detuned and then the same part is recorded again, this may get that slightly thicker sound. Although you'll also get a chorus type sound if you record a second track of the guitar tuned in exactly the same way. Or if you use the same track twice (playing back at the same time) but delay one very slightly. Please do not try to detune your guitar to get a chorus-like sound live.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 8:24
  • @AJFaraday "Although you'll also get a chorus type sound if you record a second track of the guitar tuned in exactly the same way. Or if you use the same track twice (playing back at the same time) but delay one very slightly. " <- that's not my experience. In those situations you just a geta fuller sound, not with any chorus effect. However I do take your point, I'll edit my answer thanks Commented May 15, 2015 at 8:30
  • @Tim good point ta- will edit acordingly Commented May 15, 2015 at 8:31
  • I didn't mean to criticise, particularly. I just felt the context had perhaps been lost.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 8:43

It's not commonly used, but it's not unheard of. For instance, Simon and Garfunkels song Cecelia has a detuned guitar in it's percussive introduction.

In the art world it's sometimes done in a more regimented way to produce microtonal music, which is more like intentionally tuning to a precise pitch between the notes you'd find on a keyboard.

It can also be used if you just want something to sound unpleasant, or unsettling, as a 'random' sound or because you happen to like the sound it makes (for instance, I've heard some free-jazz people deliberately tune their strings right down until no note is produced, but they work with the rattling sounds strings make in that state.

Playing a guitar that's out of tune through negligence is not an entirely uncommon thing, but it's not really a conscious decision, more a newbie mistake.

I've also heard some pieces where people produce a pitch-bend by turning tuning pegs, although this is usually left in a close approximation to it's initial tuning.

  • 2
    Also Robert Smith used more detuned guitars than chorus pedals to get his sound. Commented May 14, 2015 at 13:34
  • Nick Harper is known for the tuning peg pitch-bend technique; I can't find a great example of this (I've seen a show where a large proportion of the song used the technique to slide between various open tunings as he sang over the top, and given his ability, it did still sound amazing rather than gimmicky) but this video has some of it at around 28s in: youtube.com/watch?v=IH6TqeeM5ZY Commented May 14, 2015 at 16:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.