Sunday, 25 July 2010

it all comes round again

The ubiquity of the "clip-on tuner" seems to suggest that these modern, small digital tuners have taken the music world by storm.  As I'm probably not really very musical, I find guitar tuners very necessary - I apologise unreservedly to those with perfect pitch.

I remember spending hours as a teenager trying to tune my early guitars to be able to play the few chords I'd learnt.  I was told that old telephones gave a perfect G tone - but we didn't have a phone at home until I was about 20.  Tuning forks were another aid - as were those ridiculous plastic pitch pipes (red on top and white underneath, I seem to recall).  All to no avail.  I'm sure it was this fundamental lack of ability to tune a guitar properly that held me back. Derek Brimstone (Cockney folk singer and ragtime picker extraordinaire) used to tell a joke whilst tuning: "it was in tune when I bought it".  That was me.  Until the advent of the modern electronic tuner in the 1980s, that is.  The gizmo in the photo is a very recent one.  It can tune your instrument merely by clipping it on to your instrument and it works through the vibration of the wood.  It will also play a tone (a digital plastic pitch pipe) and works as an electronic metronome too. All incredibly cheap. Marvellous.

Whilst at Cropredy last year, I was rather taken aback by the amount of musicians on stage that used these cute little gizmos.  Even Richard Thompson was using one - a person for whom tuning on-the-fly never seemed a problem. It seems to be a little invention that has quietly embedded itself into every musician's essential gigbag. I was told that at the Suffolk Songwriters Club - a regular meeting place of acoustic songwriters in Ipswich - there are only about two people who don't use one.  This is an interesting turnabout.  Years ago nobody would own up to not being able to tune their guitar.  Well, except me, of course.  Now it seems that everyone uses one!

Take a look at this:

It's a very rough drawing of a wonderful invention from the mid-to-late 1970s.  During my quest to tune my guitar, I bought one of these from an advert in the back of the Melody Maker ("MM" as we called it).  It was a small device that clamped on the the headstock of your guitar (using the wingnut) - it had a thin piece of plastic to try to stop wrecking your pride and joy.  This was connected to a little plastic box that held some vibrating right-angled pieces of metal - presumably on some sort of spring.  Now, only the fifth one, the A er, vibrator worked on the one I had, but it did work and for a while in the late 1970s, I was able to tune my guitar.  As the other "vibrators" (words fail me - what would you call them?) didn't work I had to tune via harmonics.  Oh yes - as long as one string was in tune, I could tune the others.  Perhaps I wasn't that crap after all.

I gave mine to a friend years ago (if you've still got it, I'd love it back just to prove to people that it existed - you know who you are).  I'm sure that when it first came out people laughed: "that'll never catch on!" Look at it now.  I wonder who invented it and if they're railing at the four winds like Crazy Man Michael - "I coulda been a contender!"

What goes around comes around indeed.

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