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Musical Instruments that can be tuned to alternative tunings

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#1 Tom M Culhane

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Posted 03 September 2019 - 06:24 PM

This thread is about some things I've discovered for people that want to play music in other than "modern tuning".


My threads 17 Tone Just Intonation Guitar and Removeable Fingerboards deal with the ancient just intonation tunings I have recovered and what a pain it is to find instruments that can play them. The frets on modern guitars are set to equal temperament tuning and have to be ripped out to change this. (I still haven't got my wide neck just intonation guitar worked out.) I talked with a music store owner and they told me you have to pay over five digits to get a keyboard that can be tuned each note individually. I bought a digital piano several years back and it won't let you tune the notes as you please so I had to use software to override it. I have given up using digital music so I am now only interested in analog instruments.


One thing I found is the old school analog "combo organs" of the 60s and 70s, such as the Doors used, such as the Vox Continental, a lot of them were tunable. You could set the 12 pitches as you like for the far right octave and all the other octaves would automatically be tuned accordingly, all pure 2 to 1 octaves. I'm trying to find out if any had double keyboards where you can tune them separately. That would allow me to play the ancient 24 tone just intonation tuning that I believe was used on double register harpsichords and organs.


Last year I bought a piano tuning hammer and kit from Howard Piano industries after watching their youtube vid on how to tune a piano and had a go at the old piano here. For me there's definitely a learning curve I need to get past. Pianos are very very poorly designed as far as tuning goes. For such an expensive instrument I'm sure they could use a system where you turn the pins with a ratchet and click things into place just how you like. I'm going to retry it sometime but it was not easy for me. Side note: The owner of a music store once told me if the metal tuning pins on your piano wear out the wood they sit in, the piano is only good for firewood. But I found online people saying you can breath life back into an old piano with loose pins buy using CA glue (superglue). If it's an upright you set it on its back and drop the glue around the pins and let it dry. They cause the wood around the pin to swell and this tightens the hold. Pianos of course can be tuned to alternative tunings, if you can do it yourself or afford to pay someone. I had to talk to four different tuners to find one that would do the ancient just intonation tuning I use. That was a couple years ago. I remember later that day, alone in the house, I let out a howl sitting at the computer here, and was startled by a sound coming from the piano. The 200 plus strings were so in synch with each other that they picked up the sound and the thing was humming, loud. It was awesome.


Ok so old school analog combo organs and pianos can be tuned as you like. Of course fretless instruments can be used to play alternative tunings as well. The amazing instrument the viola da gamba (the real precursor of the modern electric guitar) has movable frets. And there are references in Renaissance times to using 'testini", a fretlet of gut string glued to the fingerboard, to get precise notes on the viola da gamba. But I think there was an earlier way that used triangular beads the gut string frets went thru, with a bit of wax under the bead, to create raised areas on the frets for precise notes. Sitars have movable frets...


So I'm pushing on with my ancient just intonation analog musical project. There's one loose end. I work with the four just tunings I have recovered, 12 17 19 and 24 tone. I think it's possible in the ancient world they each corresponded with a particular season. So you would retune your viola da gamba (or whatever you called it then) with each change of season. But I'm not sure about this. Pushing on.

#2 Tom M Culhane

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Posted 05 September 2019 - 08:22 PM

Just an update here: the combo organs that have double keyboards, looks like they still use the 12 separate tone generators of their single keyboard counterparts (not 24), which means you can tune them for alternative 12 tone tuning but not for 24 tone. At least that's what I found looking at Vox literature. Drag


I talked to a man who refurbishes combo organs and he said they are "iconic" so are expensive. He wants 2500 dollars for a refurbished Vox Continental. Buying one that is not refurbished, I would think would be a money pit with those 50 year old parts. So maybe I have to learn about transistors and capacitors...


Some people say the Hammond organs are what displaced the combo organs of the 60s and 70s. It looks like you can't tune a Hammond organ. Others say it was the emergence of the Moog synthesizers that pushed out the combos. I still haven't found out if there are any analog synthesizers that are tunable to 12 or more notes. There are some cool vids on youtube of these old time organs and synths.


Btw the tubescreamer pedal I use to get my analog vox amp to sound enriched (distorted), it was making all this static. Online I found all this bs for why pedals do this, then found a 3 minute Wampler pedal vid, he says it's almost always because of the AC adaptor. I pulled it out (had bought it from Guitar Center with the pedal), put in a 9 volt battery, and voila, no more static. Wampler sells AC adaptors he says are properly made and people in comments said they work. Nice to encounter someone once in a while who knows wtf they are talking about.

#3 jahloon



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Posted 10 September 2019 - 05:08 PM

From Tom M Culhane:


Update: The tuners on the vintage combo organs of the 60s and 70s are very fragile, per Bell Tone Synthworks, a company that refurbishes vintage organs and synths. They told me they get a lot in with broken tuners, and they are very difficult to fix, so change the tuning as little as possible. I think you need a plastic tool to tune them.

Note that not all vintage combo organs are tunable. The man with the vox continental for sale told me he also had a Yamaha YC-10, he didn’t refurbish it but it works. Online they say they were built like tanks, but certain things made me nervous so I contacted Yamaha and they promptly replied that the YC-10 is not tunable for individual notes, only an overall pitch bend still in equal temperament.

This leads into tunable analog synths. I contacted Tone Tweakers per advice from a pianist I know, and they said they have two completely analog new synths you can tune, the Monolouge (only can play one note at a time) and the Minilogue (polyphonic up to 4 notes with a firmware upgrade they could do). But they didn’t’ answer my request for info on how the “microtuning” works. Online I found it saying you can only tune 12 notes and only up to 49 cents off A440 equal temperament. I can’t fit my ancient 12 tone just intonation tuning on that as my A is at 432 and my F note ends up being over 60 cents off standard equal temperament. Why would they support microtuning that only changes notes by 50 cents?? Wacko.

Btw there’s a newer version of the Minilouge, looks like it’s not true pure analog. And there’s the DeepMind 12d that comes up as being another low priced analog synth but I found a website saying it’s actually an analog digital hybrid.

So this leads into the idea of using software or hardware to override the tuning of a synth to make it microtonal. Jeff aka Jahloon, creator of this forum and website, speaks very favorably of h-pi instrument’s Tuning Box, later called TBX1, and now TBX2, and has an article here on it. It is hardware designed to retune synths to anything you want. Aaron, creator of h-pi, had sold me the software I used with my PC to override the tuning on my digital piano to make it microtonal to make most of my youtube vids. For the money it was a very good deal. I had problems Aaron says were due to Microsoft updates, and I think he’s right. I will never buy Microsoft products again. I just contacted Aaron for advice and he told me he’s designed a new streamlined product, much simpler than the TBX2, for like 16 to 32 tunings I think he said, that will control one synth. But it won’t be out for a while.

Bell Tone Synthworks had also informed me of a product that I think may be similar to the Tuning Box, by Tubbutec in Germany, called utune. They have a dealer in California. Aaron is also based in Germany these days. Wonder why Germany attracts microtonalists?

Guitars: True Temperament is a company that sells and installs frets that are wavy. One of their dealers in the US last year gave me a price of I think it was $1100 or so to fret a bolt on guitar neck for me to the ancient 12 tone just tuning I use. I would have to send them the neck. But you can’t change the tuning if anything’s off. I don’t know if strings getting softer with age causing the tuning to change is also a factor in all this. Which leads to that Turkish guy with the adjustable microtonal guitar where each note can be tuned and retuned and fretlets added or taken away as needed. He gave me a price of 5000 euros a couple years ago for an electric version of his microtonal guitar. I contacted him a few weeks ago to see if he’d sell me a fretboard and fretlets set up with his system, or a complete bolt on neck, or just the fretlets. I mentioned microtonal guitarist Jon Catler sells bolt on necks with his FreeNote tuning system. Tolgahan told me he will be selling bolt on necks for electric and fretboards for classical in 6 months. Btw as far as wavy frets, long before True Temperament I believe there was Fret Wave that sold wavy frets. You can find images online, I think from the 70s. That concludes this update.

Play the blues guitar with your soul, but play the fretless guitar with your spirit.
Author of the book "Fretless Guitar The Definitive Guide"

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