Interview:In Perfect Harmony - Buzz Feiten and the Buzz Feiten Tuning System
by Adam St. James
I have been struggling for years with the tuning of my guitars. Have you? I can set the intonation, or I can have an expert guitar tech set the intonation - it doesn't matter - and still, there are places on the neck, or certain chord or interval shapes, that just will not play in tune, even though the guitar is in tune. This has been driving me nuts my whole life. Unfortunately, (or maybe it is fortunate) it isn't my hearing, and it isn't that anything is wrong with my guitars. Imperfect tuning was built into all guitars right from the start.
But Buzz Feiten has fixed all that, finally, once and for all. The Buzz Feiten Tuning System, launched in the early '90s, has put an end to our frustrations and struggles. Top pros such as Steve Vai, Robben Ford, and Dimebag Darrell swear by the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. Guitar manufacturers such as Washburn, Tom Anderson, and Suhr (among others) are now including the Buzz Feiten Tuning System on their guitars right out of the factory. You should definitely check out BuzzFeiten.com to learn more about this incredible - and very affordable - guitar upgrade, and to find an authorized retro-fitter near you.
Before we get into the interview though, a little background on Buzz: He's an incredible player, who I've personally seen just tearing it up on stage with Gregg Allman and Friends. In his teens he replaced the legendary Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Later he played, toured, or recorded with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan to George Benson, Kenny Loggins to Chaka Khan. He's known for his fleet-fingered jazz fusion work, and his impressive improvisational skills.
In this Guitar.com interview, Buzz tells us about his musical projects, and explains the fantastic tuning system that may just save us all from the mental ward. And make sure to watch the accompanying video interview to check out examples of how perfectly a guitar plays with the Buzz Feiten Tuning System.
Guitar.com: How are you Buzz? You're here at the NAMM show demonstrating your wonderful tuning system, and you've got some CD projects to talk about. Why don't we talk about all those things.
Guitar.com: What do you have going on CD-wise right now?
Feiten: Well, over the last five years I've been producing a number of projects: some of my own, some for some other people. The thing that I'm currently working on is a project with an artist named Aleks Sever, a young, very talented female singer/songwriter. She's going to be a name to watch for. She's a pop type artist, which is certainly a new territory for me. I've done my own projects, which are sort of in the guitar player niche. But this is something different for me for sure. And it's been a real challenge, and it's great, wonderful music. It's very interesting, yet very commercial. I'm very excited about it because it's a new area for me. It's been a challenge to me to sort of step up to the plate and produce an artist with that kind of potential.
I've also got a number of my own projects that are available at BuzzFeiten.com. I've got an acoustic guitar duet project with a steel string acoustic guitar player named Richie Peikoff that I orchestrated. There's a band called the Whirlies which I put together with a singer named Todd Taylor. It's a sort of greasy Southern rock type project, but all original material. That's a really fun record. And there's a Whirlies live CD too. There's the original Full Moon that's available from Dreamsville Records. And there's a new Full Moon album as well, with Brandon Fields, Gary Mallaber, Freddie Beckmeier - the original bass player - and Jai Winding, a great B3 player. So those are all the things I've been working on the past four or five years. I'm really proud of them. I want them to represent me out in the world, and I'm very happy with the way they all came out. So that's BuzzFeiten.com and you can find out about all that.
Guitar.com: Are you out on the road at all these days?
Feiten: No. I don't tour anymore. I've just been too busy. Between the producing and the tuning system, it's just not possible. I think that's sort of a natural transition for me. I've always done it. I've always produced, and it's much more satisfying for me than being on the road. Although I have to say, I've had some incredibly good fortune to be on the road with some great players. My last road tour was with Dave Weckl. And that was really a lot of fun. We had a great time, and I got a bunch of my songs on his Synergy album, and I played on that record too. That would be another record that I recommend that people get if they want to hear my playing. It's Synergy by Dave Weckl.
Guitar.com: I saw you a couple years ago playing guitar with Gregg Allman on one of his Gregg Allman and Friends tours.
Feiten: Yeah, yeah. I did a tour with Gregg Allman.
Guitar.com: For our younger visitors, who else have you played with or toured with, or been associated with?
Feiten: I don't know if your younger visitors would recognize these names, but I've worked with Stevie Wonder, I've worked with a keyboard player named Neil Larsen with whom I did a bunch of projects, including Full Moon. I've worked with Rickie Lee Jones, Al Jarreau, Olivia Newton-John, Kenny Loggins, the Brecker Brothers, Chaka Khan. There's been a whole bunch of different people that I've had the good fortune to play with and record with and tour with over the years.
Guitar.com: You've done a lot of studio work with these performers, and at times you've made a living as a studio musician, correct?
Feiten: Yes, that's how I made my living for a very long time.
Guitar.com: From a career standpoint, how would you recommend that people get into that line of work - or is there even still work out there for real guitar players?
Feiten: Well, if I'm gonna be honest, I'd have to say that you've got to have a little bit more skills now than just being a guitarist. Yeah, sure, it is possible to become a session guitarist, but there are fewer sessions and they are much more self-contained. So what I would recommend to a guitar player is that you definitely learn some production, learn theory. Aside from the guitar part of it, it's definitely to your benefit and important to get the big picture, not just the guitar part of it. To try to wrap your mind around the big picture as far as arranging, and as far as producing because it's going that direction.
Things are becoming much more self-contained, much more project-oriented. And a lot of the big companies are going to one guy to deliver, versus getting a whole studio band together. Record companies, and movie studios - for movie soundtracks - they'd rather call one guy, and then he delivers the goods. That's kind of the way it's going. It's less expensive for them, but it requires more from the player. It means, for instance, that now I have to know about Pro Tools. I have to know about arranging. I have to know about all the different instruments. And I enjoy doing that, so it's sort of a natural segue for me.
Guitar.com: Do you have a full home studio?
Feiten: Yeah, I do.
Guitar.com: A Pro Tools setup?
Feiten: No. I use ADATs, and I interface with Pro Tools guys. Because of the way I like my work flow, working in Pro Tools - there's a big learning curve with that. I've found that it's better if I focus on the stuff I'm good at, and work with guys that are good at other things. For instance, I'll do all the organic things: basses, guitars, vocals, any real percussion. And I do work with some loops.
And then when I need Pro Tools editing capabilities, or if I need some Pro Tools functions, I'll interface with a Pro Tools guy and figure out a way to go back and forth. That's better for me, because I'm just hitting play and record. I'm not dealing with the technological workload. I'd rather deal with the musical workload and focus more on that.
Guitar.com: Let's talk about the tuning system, the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. Your very special tuning system has been critically acclaimed for many years, with many top pros using it on their guitars. And I believe you have a new relationship with D'Addario and Planet Waves?
Feiten: Absolutely, and it's a real natural relationship because, from the beginning when my partner Greg Back and I developed the tuning system, we noticed that not only did D'Addario strings sound good - and I've used them for many years. But aside from that, from a technical standpoint, those strings are absolutely the most consistent pitch-wise. I personally like the way they sound and feel. They sound rich and full, even in the lighter gauges. In some cases - on nylon string guitars - we won't do a tuning system installation unless they use D'Addario strings, because none of the other nylon strings are consistent enough pitch performance-wise. From string set to string set, they have to fall into a certain range as far as pitch performance. And so for nylon string guitars, we insist on D'Addario strings.
Guitar.com: And show us... [Editor's note: please see the Buzz Feiten video, from where this interview transcript originates.]... this is your main guitar?
Feiten: Yes. This is a John Carruthers, [Editor's note: Feiten shows guitar he is holding.] a builder in Venice, California. And this guitar was sort of an accident. It was sort of a spare guitar that became the A guitar because it just sounded better. This is one of the guitars I play, but this is sort of my main electric.
Guitar.com: And you have the Buzz Feiten Tuning System set up on this guitar, of course.
"Modifying your guitar for the Buzz Feiten Tuning System is non-invasive and reversible. It won't change the way your guitar looks, feels, or plays - except it will be in tune."
Guitar.com: Can you explain it to us? What makes the Buzz Feiten Tuning System different from a normal guitar setup?
Feiten: The quick and dirty version is that there are two parts to the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. First, we relocate the nut very slightly closer to the first fret, but to a very precise location - and we have mathematical formulas that determine that. We have a network of authorized retro-fitters in all the States and overseas too, that you can find on BuzzFeiten.com. We have more than 210 retro-fitters worldwide that are trained and authorized to install the Buzz Feiten Tuning System.
So the first part is the nut relocation. This (shows his guitar) happens to be a locking nut. It's possible to put the tuning system on a locking nut guitar or a standard nut guitar. On a standard nut, what we do is relocate the nut very slightly closer to the first fret because, when we first started to do our research we noticed that every guitar we picked up was a minimum of three cents sharp at the first fret. So if you play an open E string, the F at your first fret - on every guitar we picked up - measured three cents sharp. This was back in 1992 when we first started our research.
So we came to the conclusion that there is a flaw in the formulas in regards to nut placement. So we have these patented formulas that correct that nut placement so that now, if the open E is in tune, so is the first-fret F, and all the other frets all the way up the neck are in tune too.
Guitar.com: And this is for any brand of guitar?
Feiten: Yes. Any brand of guitar.
Guitar.com: Any scale length?
Feiten: Any scale length. Nylon string, steel string, acoustic, electric. Basses too. Jimmy Haslip and Stu Hamm are our bass endorsees. We've got some very well known and prestigious guys: Larry Carlton and Steve Vai, Michael Landau, Michael Thompson, Dean Parks. We've got many, many very well-known and incredible players who use this system, as well as some big-name touring groups also use it now. It really takes a lot of the problems that you encounter - especially in the studio and in demanding environments - it takes a lot of those problems out of the loop.
For instance, listen to these intervals. [Editor's note: Feiten plays a series of triads and intervals, all over the neck, and they're all in perfect tune.] All those triads sound very pleasant to the ear. And I'm sure most Guitar.com visitors already know this, but that's just not possible on a guitar with standard intonation. You're not going to get all those thirds to sound in tune (plays guitar) in standard intonation.
Guitar.com: No, you sure won't. So what's the second half of the tuning system?
Feiten: Well, the first half of the system corrects sharpness at the first three frets. The second half of the tuning system has to do with the method you use to tune and intonate your guitar. The standard method says you tune your open string to zero (on your tuner), then intonate the 12th fret to zero by moving the bridge saddles back and forth.
We think that's the problem. We think that gives you a perfect barre A chord, but a terrible barre D chord. And I'm sure Guitar.com visitors are also familiar with that problem.
So we have these patented pitch offset formulas, for all the different types of instruments: for electric guitars, for nylon-string guitars, for steel-string guitars. And they correct those problems. They do that by using a very slight increase or decrease in pitch at both the open string and 12th fret, to sort of "temper," or stretch, your tuning.
That's the philosophy of it, and it's very close to the philosophy of piano tuning. Piano tuners, what those guys do, they kind of "borrow" pitch from the perfect intervals, the octaves, fourths, and fifths, in order to sweeten up the thirds, sixths, and tenths. And we do the same thing, we just use a different method to do it. We borrow pitch from the fourths, fifths, and octaves, in order to sweeten up those thirds.
Guitar.com: So, for example, you might tune the fifth very slightly flat, in order to make the third sound correct?
Feiten: Well, you have formulas that dictate all that. The good news is that we now have a tuner that's made by Korg, called the DT-7. The Korg DT-7 is very affordable, inexpensive LED tuner, that has the Buzz Feiten Tuning System built into it. So the user doesn't have to think about pitch offsets or tuning formulas, you just tune to the green light the way you normally do.
The other thing I want to say is that modifying your guitar for the Buzz Feiten Tuning System is non-invasive and reversible. It won't change the way your guitar looks, feels, or plays. We use a machined "shelf" nut that overhangs the fingerboard. Our authorized retrofitters have been trained in how to grind that nut back to exactly the right location. S you'll pick up your guitar and it will be exactly the way it was before, except it will be in tune - and you'll be able to play all those chords that I was just playing.
So that's what it is. It's a combination of nut relocation to take care of sharpness on the first three frets, and a tempering formula that adjusts the pitches on all the chords so that they now agree with each other. So you can see that everything starts to sound very pianistic. Everything starts to sound very pleasantly balanced as far as intonation.
It was funny: I was working with Dave Weckl for the past three years on tour, and an interviewer was asking him, 'Well since you've got this tuning guy in your band now, do you guys sit around and talk about intonation?' And Dave said, ?It's funny. The subject has never come up.' In three years of touring and two CDs, the subject of intonation never once came up. And that means that I did my job, because all of the voicings, and all the stuff I was playing with Jay Oliver, the keyboard player, we just never discussed it. We weren't worried about tuning. Tuning was not an issue. And that's the goal of the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. That's the reason it exists, so you don't notice your tuning. So that it just sounds good.
Guitar.com: Does the tuning system work in alternate tunings?
Feiten: Absolutely. Because it corrects the way each string behaves to itself, the guitar just sounds much more reliable and predictable as far as your intonation is concerned, in alternate tunings, drop tunings. We've done (Chapman) Stick type instruments, we do mandolins. We do bizarre tunings: Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew are two of our clients. We do Fripp tuning. And my partner Gregg is the expert on these alternate tunings. He is also much more expert in bass intonation than I am. He had much more to do with the bass tempering. And we worked very closely with, we consulted with, Stu Hamm when we did the bass tempering, because he does so much stuff above the 12th fret, great chord shapes and so on.
And Jimmy Haslip gave us probably our nicest professional quote. He said that it "changed his professional life" as far as bass is concerned. Larry Carlton said he's been playing guitar since he was six years old, and he's finally in tune.
Those kinds of statements mean a lot to me personally, and a lot to us as a company because that was the goal. The goal was to get the thing in tune finally, so that we could forget about it. So that you wouldn't have to screw around with your tuning anymore.
The reports from the studio are that it saves anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of your time in guitar tracking, because you're not tuning. I know from my personal experience that 30 percent of my guitar tracking time was spent tracking my guitar. So it makes your performance, both in terms of the studio and live, much more efficient. You can be concerned with the things you should be concerned with, like the music, what you want to play, the part, the effects you want to use - all those things that we should be thinking about when we're not thinking about tuning our guitar.
Guitar.com: And where do people go to learn more about the Buzz Feiten Tuning System?
Feiten: You can learn more about this at BuzzFeiten.com. You can find an authorized retro-fitter in your area. You can read about the tuning system, about exactly what it is. You can find out what other players have to say about it, what other manufacturers have to say about it.
Dan Erlewine, probably the world's most recognized expert on guitar setup, said, 'If you don't know how to install the Buzz Feiten Tuning System, you don't really know how to set up a guitar.' And that was a very, very nice quote from him.
And we've recently added a number of very prestigious manufacturer - one of whom I can't mention yet - to our list of authorized manufacturers (who install the Buzz Feiten Tuning System on their new guitars right out of the factory).
What we're trying to do is get the word out that this is available now. It's inexpensive. You can go to the website and find a retro-fitter in your area. Ask your local repair guy to get authorized. It's inexpensive, it's easy to do. We can ship them a training kit right away. So if there isn't an authorized retro-fitter in your area, ask your local repairman to contact us at the website.
Guitar.com: Cool. I need this! Thank you very much Buzz.
Feiten: You're welcome.
About the Author
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.