Many guitarists are horrified at the thought of trying to tune their guitar without the use of an electronic tuner.
After all, they went pro for two reasons: to get hot dates and to hire a guitar tech.
But not only can tuning a guitar by ear improve playing, it can help on the occasion when a string goes out in midsong. With a little practice, it’s a great skill not just for tuning a guitar but for tuning ears.
Something to Tune to
First, find something to tune to — a piano, keyboard, pitchpipe, tuning fork, or even a harmonica.
For a standard tuning in E major, start with the A string and strike an A note below middle C on the keyboard, or blow an A note on the pitch pipe. With a diatonic harmonica in A major, blow into the 4th hole.
Pluck the open A string and listen closely for any “warble” in the tone while listening to both instruments at once. That warble is audible when the tuning is out and the note frequencies do not match up.
Tighten to “Righten”
Most strings, especially new ones, stretch and go flat. Tighten the A string tuner until the “warble” slows to a stop. Once close to the right pitch, there might be a much higher warble on the string’s harmonic, which is at double the open string’s frequency. When that high warble slows until it cannot be heard, the string is in tune for most practical purposes.
If using a tuning fork, guitarists can tune all strings to that A as follows:
the fifth fret of the low E to tune to open A
fifth fret of the A string to tune open D
fifth fret of D to tune open G
fourth fret of G to tune open B
fifth fret of B to tune the high E.
With a keyboard or pitch pipe, a guitarist can tune all strings to the other instrument’s natural notes.
When restringing, all the strings will stretch and pull the neck forward with increased tension, so retune all strings a few times as each string readjusts.
If the string tunes too sharp, stretch the string with a few bends at the second or third fret. Always tune upward, tightening the string. Loosening the string to tune assures that it will go flat fast.
Fine Tune With Harmonics
Once you get the hang of that technique, the next step is a fine-tuning technique using the guitar’s harmonics on the 7th and 12th frets.
Start by plucking the E string with one finger barely touching the string just over the 12th fret. Don’t press down hard, the string should not touch the fret. Listen for the string’s harmonic as a high-pitched E note. Use the same technique on the 7th fret of the A string and listen for an E note one octave higher. Listen for a trebly warble at that frequency that was inaudible when tuning the open strings. Try first taking it out of the E string by tightening the E string tuner slightly.
Find harmonics on the other strings like this:
the 12th fret of A and the 7th fret of D
the 12th fret of D and the 7th fret of G
the B harmonic is trickier, so for now, stick to tuning the open B as previously mentioned, to the fourth fret of G.
the pattern repeats between as before for the 12th fret of B and the 7th fret of high E.
Sound better now? One more point: if there’s no instrument to tune to in sight, try to find two or three strings that are close to tune or already in tune. In most guitars the A and D go least out of tune. Tune all the strings to those. At the very least, the guitar will be in tune with itself.
Once skilled at this, a guitarist might become the featured guitar tuner at every jam and hootenanny, and that’s one way to get invited back.
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