It’s All Relative: 5 Great Out-of-Tune Recordings

Have you noticed that some of the greatest performances ever recorded are out of tune? To be fair, I don’t mean the instruments are out of tune with each other, though there are a few great records like that as well. What I’m talking about are recordings of instruments that aren’t tuned to concert pitch: A 440Hz, nor tuned down a half step, like those from Jimi Hendrix, U2 and many other great artists.

There are many frequencies that fall between A 440Hz and the half step down, which technically speaking is G#/Ab 415.30Hz. As you can deduce, there are 25 other tunings one can play between A and Ab, that is, 439Hz, 438, 437, etc. And believe me, this makes a difference! Your ear is such a marvel of engineering that it actually can hear the difference between 440Hz and 439Hz.

Two instruments playing out of tune by a few hertz is noticeable, but not typically objectionable. But as the discrepancy grows, you’re officially out of tune. But what if all the instruments playing are tuned to the same “mystery note,” say 428Hz?

If you consider the millions of songs that have been recorded, and you understand that 99% percent of them are played at the same concert pitch, then something as simple as playing out of tune can actually give a record a unique sound. And here’s proof:

Five Classic Out-of-Tune Recordings

1. The Complete Recordings, Robert Johnson

You can take your pick from this essential album. There are so many songs in so many odd tunings (altered and not-to-pitch) that this record could keep you busy for years just trying to find the keys. While it would be easy to assume Johnson is out of tune because the guitar tuner hadn’t been invented yet, the songs also may be out of tune because some tracks were altered slightly, sped up or slowed down, during the conversion of the original 78s to LPs to CDs.

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2. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” The Beatles

Not only is this song out of tune, it was recorded out of tune in two different keys at two different tempos. John Lennon liked the first part of one (key of A) and the second part of the other (key of C). George Martin sped up part one and slowed down part two. They don’t actually match up, but it’s close enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll. The edit can be heard on the final version at the 1:00 minute mark, prior to the words “going to” in the second chorus.

3. “Heartbreaker,” Led Zeppelin

I know what you’re thinking. This song isn’t out of tune; that glorious open A string in the opening riff is spot on A 440! And I would agree with you. But fast-forward to 2:02-2:48 and hear that not only is the guitar tone different, it’s slightly sharp! When discussing the song in “Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page,” Page said, “That whole section was recorded in a different studio and was sort of slotted in the middle.” Interviewer Brad Tolinski responded: “I’ve actually noticed that the tuning of the guitar was slightly higher.” To which Page replied, “The pitch is off as well? I didn’t know that!” [laughs]

4. Highway to Hell, AC/DC

Highway to Hell has ten songs on it, played in four different keys, and only two of those songs have the instruments tuned to concert pitch. Three of the others are tuned down a half step and the remaining five are all slightly out of tune. This means half of Highway to Hell is played in keys that don’t exist! How cool is that? It also means instead of having four songs in the key of A – in transcription books “Highway to Hell,” “Shot Down In Flames,” “If You Want Blood (You Got I),” and “Night Prowler” are all notated in the key of A – we actually hear A, Ab, and two songs slightly flat of A. This subtle, but notable, variation in pitch gives each song a distinctive character.

5. “867-5309 / Jenny,” Tommy Tutone

Besides being a masterpiece of pop songwriting, from the clever lyrics to the instantly recognizable guitar hook, this one-hit wonder also has the distinction of falling somewhere between the keys F#m and Gm. Inexplicably there is a “re-recorded” version (details on the history of this recording are hazy) that also is sharp! Tune your guitar slightly sharp, play out of F#m, and let that high E-string ring open throughout the hook.


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