Back in 2019, Dutch YouTube guitarist Paul Davids (the guy who recorded reverb in a nuclear power plant) produced a video in which he discussed his struggle trying to nail John Frusciante's Scar Tissue intro.
Davids has an expert ear and after some diligent listening and tuning experimentation, came to the conclusion that the secret behind playing the song was in lowering the tuning of the B-string by around 13-14 cents.
It resulted, he told viewers, “in something I wasn’t expecting... my guitar sounded way better – de-tuned!”
According to his tuner, Davids notes, his Scar Tissue tuning “should be super-out of tune. But when I'm playing these notes it sounds pretty good.” He then asks if this is what Frusciante did – and, furthermore, if he did it intentionally.
It’s taken three years for Davids to get the answers but, finally, he has them. Recently, the song’s producer, Rick Rubin, raised the clip with Frusciante in an interview on his podcast, Broken Record.
“I remember seeing a a YouTube video,” says Rubin, referring to Davids’ post [around 24.35]. “Where... he's saying you detuned one string slightly and that's the only way to play the song – that anyone who plays the song plays it wrong because the secret is detuning. Is that possible?”
“It wasn't done consciously – I just was out of tune,” responds Frusciante, with refreshing honesty. “It’s Scar Tissue that that’s about. My guitar tech told me about that.”
“I guess one of my strings was a little out of tune,” expands Frusciante. “But it sounded good, so nobody ever said [anything]. Like, you would have said if it hadn't sounded good.”
“I would have been the first one!” adds Rubin.
Rubin also comments that it’s a “fascinating video” – and he’s right.
As Davids explains in the original clip, the effect is down to the accidental creation of a more accurate major third interval between the F# and the D in the intro.
This is because most tuners operate on the principle of something called ‘the 12-tone equal temperment system’ (aka 12-TET) which essentially splits the difference between the notes in an octave. However, the true distance in cents between certain intervals can vary (up or down) quite a bit, depending on the note progression.
12-TET is therefore a handy method for ensuring you’ll be pretty much accurate on most things, but not the purest sound, when it comes to the math behind certain intervals.
Frusciante says he’s noted the phenomenon himself when playing along to old blues records.
“You have notes [cents] in between what the the normal 12 notes that we all use,” says the RHCP man. “And there's a lot of good expression in there by using these notes that are in between, if they're exactly in between in a precise kind of way. So I guess [on Scar Tissue] I was out of tune in a way that really worked, because that doesn't sound out of tune to me!”
Davids has since responded saying the conversation and the fact the clip was seen by Rubin and Frusciante “blew his mind”.
So there you have it: Paul Davids was right. Frusciante is again proven to be a genius, albeit somewhat unintentionally. And all guitar tuners are lying to you...