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I'm very sensitive to out-of-tune notes which make my skin crawl and may ruin my enjoyment of otherwise perfectly fine gigs. At first I thought something was wrong with my ears, since other people hardly ever seemed to notice this. Until I started making music myself with other people and I've stopped rehearsals many times because someone's instrument was very slightly out of tune. Which always turned out to be correct, even though the other band members didn't hear it.

Anyway, one thing I noticed is that more often than not it concerns the B-string on a guitar. (Not talking about a specific guitar here, just in general, on all guitars.) I was wondering whether this could be true?

Is the B-string on a guitar more easily out of tune? Or maybe it's just my ear which is more sensitive in that range? (Or maybe it's just confirmation bias? I.e. I don't remember the times when it's another string, but somehow always seem to remember when it's the B-string)

  • Are you asking about the B string essentially out of tune open, or fretted? That string is usually slightly longer than the others, shown by the saddle being further back. However, on badly intonated guitars, the string may be in tune open, but get worse the further up the neck it's played. – Tim Oct 14 '17 at 7:13
  • Fretted. So basically, it's due to badly intonated guitars? – Creynders Oct 14 '17 at 7:15
  • Are your G strings plain or wound? – Todd Wilcox Oct 14 '17 at 7:19
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    Do you notice it generally, when particular chord shapes are played, or only in solos? Any guitars, electric, acoustic, classical? – Tim Oct 14 '17 at 7:32
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    @Tim IME the thickest plain string seems to be the one that is most often out of tune or poorly intonated compared to the others. The plain G string on Gibson guitars is infamous for that. If he had said his G strings were wound I would have suggested that it's the G string making the B string look bad. – Todd Wilcox Oct 14 '17 at 16:20
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No, I don't think this can be said in general, especially not on electric guitar. On classical guitar, this is quite objectively the case for the G-string because it's a pretty thick monolithic nylon pillar at low tension, which can easily be pulled out of tune and has considerable inharmonicity. But for steel strings, this doesn't apply, except for very low strings – the low B string of a sevenstring guitar is definitely more prone to going out of tune, but I don't suppose that's what you're talking about here?

The reason I'd suspect why you perceive the b-string as going out of tune easier is the tuning system itself. The tones on guitars and keyboards are based on 12-edo temperament, which has in the 19th century been established as a decent approximation to the natural just intonation, which is what I would consider the definition of “properly in tune”. 12-edo works very well for fourths and fifths, so if you tune these with a (12-edo) electronic tuner, most pairs of strings will sound very well in tune since: E-A, A-d, d-g and b-e are all perfect fourths.

Not so the pair g-b: that's a major third, and the major thirds in 12-edo are actually quite significantly too wide. So in a sense, the b-string of a properly tuned guitar is always too sharp!

This isn't universal though, it depends on context. The b-string is too high in an open G-major chord, but not in an open E-major chord (here, it's the g♯ on the g-string that's too high). But the b-string is the only string where a major third occurs within a chord over a single fret, and many especially electric guitarists use such bar chords over a single fret quite a lot. Therefore, the b-string is perhaps where major thirds are most commonly voiced, leading to the impression of being most out of tune.

It doesn't help that both these bar chords and the other option (three fingers on the d-g-b strings on the same fret) tend to bend the b string up even further through pressure/space constraint, so the 3rd note is then even worse out of tune than it would be on a piano.

As a solution, you could try always tuning the b string a little flatter than the tuner suggests, about 10 ct. That's what many blues slide guitarists do, especially when tuning in open-G: then that all-in-one-fret chord is basically the only chord used. When not playing with a slide, this is unfortunately no good option because anything but major thirds that you play on the b-string would sound much to flat.

The only “proper solution” would be to get a guitar in 31-edo, which approximates fifths and thirds equally well. But such guitars are pretty intimidating... A Sword Guitars 31-edo model

Also, any keyboarder you want to play with would kill you.

  • I think you offer plausible explanations. Makes sense to me. Not sure why no other upvotes yet. – Rockin Cowboy Oct 16 '17 at 19:32
  • Yep, you scooped me. Especially if you tune your guitar in perfect fourths and thus get a Pythagorean major third between G and B, the B will sound out of tune because the major third G to B is way too sharp. See Tolgahan Çoğulu's great explanation here: youtube.com/watch?v=aSg2Db3jF_4 – Scott Wallace Oct 17 '17 at 12:37
  • Thank you for the answer, no doubt that's what I'm hearing! – Creynders Oct 17 '17 at 15:31
  • This answer pretty much covers it. I was thinking that often people tune intervals between strings by ear, or tune the guitar by playing a few chords and tweaking the strings, and both methods definitely lead to intonation issues with the B string in some contexts. Excellent point about the temperament system. I have seen much discussion online about "sweetened" tuning to refer to the process of tuning a guitar to play just-intonated chords in a particular key. – Darren Ringer Apr 13 '18 at 18:08
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This has bugged me for decades.

I tune with a tuner and the. Tweak a little by ear.

I also keep the nut lubricated with graphite from a leaded pencil and some lubricant designed for use on the nut of a guitar to help everything slide better.

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