A lot of discussion can be had over whether the guitar should be tuned by ear or with the help of an electronic device. In times of desperate need, when all your digital tuners have died slow deaths, all you have to rely on are your hands and your ears! Fortunately you can tune your guitar perfectly with just these.
Why You Should Tune Your Guitar By Ear
(instead of relying on an electronic tuner)
Okay, so you’ve got one of the thousand-and-one phone apps that can pick up your guitar sound, analyse the frequencies and tell you how you should turn your tuning pegs. You can find electronic tuner boxes all around any guitar shop. Maybe there’s even one built into your acoustic guitar.
So why am I encouraging you to practice tuning by ear?
It’s because it lays the foundation of pitch ear training. If you can understand the pitch relationships between notes and become sensitive to details of tuning just by consistently tuning your guitar every day, you’ll have built a solid foundation of pitch skills.
After a month’s practice, you’ll be able to strum once and instantly tell whether the guitar is in tune or not, and a little after that you will even be able to tell straight-off which string sounds different than it should. So tuning by ear lays the basic foundation for understanding notes just by listening. Some guitarists even use it as the basis for developing perfect pitch.
Step By Step Instructions For Tuning A Guitar By Ear
Here is the standard way of tuning your guitar by ear.
Prepare: Check Your Ears
First, check if you’re tone deaf! If your ears cannot distinguish pitches you have no hope of tuning your guitar by ear… Fortunately the chances are slim, especially if you enjoy music enough to play guitar in the first place.
Prepare: Check Your Pegs
Then, if you haven’t tuned your guitar before, take a moment to familiarise yourself with your tuning pegs. Depending on whether your pegs are all on one side (electric style) or three on each side (acoustic style) and whether the guitar has been strung in the normal way, the directionality of each peg might vary.
You want to find out: does turning the peg clockwise make the string tighter (and its pitch higher) or looser (and its pitch lower)?
Once you get familiar with this setup on your guitar it will become instinctive and you won’t need to think about it again. Now that you know which way to turn each peg to make that string go higher or lower, you are ready to begin. Lowest string first…
1. Low E string
Listen to any example of a “correct” E note as your reference pitch. For example you can use a recording of a standard E note like the one below and play it in your speakers, or use a pitch pipe. Listen, and play the E string of your guitar.
If you use a guitar sound, pitch pipe or other simple “tone” it is comparatively easy to tune by ear. If you have to use another instrument such as a nearby piano, you might find the difference in timbre makes it harder to compare the notes’ pitches.
Now, after playing the reference E note, you let the sixth string of your guitar ring and if you find the two sound perfectly the same then your sixth string is in tune. More likely you will hear a slight clash (discord) which means your guitar string is slightly out of tune. As you practice tuning and do pitch ear training you’ll find you can directly hear whether your guitar string is too high or too low. At first it might take a bit of experimentation.
Slowly rotate the tuning peg of your sixth string, gradually adjusting in one direction to see if the two notes come into agreement. If they don’t, and you hear that the pitches are becoming further apart, simply reverse your direction and adjust pitch until the two notes match.
Note: The tension of the string shouldn’t become too high (i.e. tight) or too low (i.e. loose). This means you are trying to tune the string into a higher octave where the note would match but the string would become unplayably loose or so tight it might snap!
2. Fifth string: A
Once the E string is in tune you can put your reference note aside – from here you can tune the other strings based on your (now nicely-tuned) sixth string.
On the E string, playing the 5th fret should produce the same note as the open A string. So, place your finger on the 5th fret and play both the E string and the A string one by one. If the A string sounds higher, rotate its tuning peg to lower its pitch. If it sounds lower, rotate it the other way. Until and unless you feel that the notes sound exactly the same when played in unison, you should adjust the tuning pegs accordingly.
3. Fourth string: D
The note on the 5th fret of the A string you just tuned will be same as the open note of the D string you’ll tune next. Play the two strings in unison, by placing your finger of 5th fret of the fifth string and ringing the open note of the fourth string. Listen for whether the two notes are the same, in close discord, or have a noticeable gap in pitch. Adjust your tuning pegs until you hear they are perfectly tuned.
4. Third string: G
Timbre problems may arise when you try to tune your third string (which represents the G note) to the fourth string. This is because on both acoustic and electric guitars there is typically a change in string type: either from nylon to steel or from single strings to wound strings. This affects the timbre of the note and can make it harder to directly compare pitches. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of this soon enough!
Now you should be getting the hang of the process as you tune your third string, which should be a G note. On the 5th fret of your fourth string is a G, so you can use this to tune your third string’s open note. Once again, listen to it and check if they sound similar. If not, turn the tuning pegs for higher or lower pitch until they match.
5. Second string: B
Nearly finished… Place your finger on the 4th fret of the third string, which will produce a B, the same as the open note of your second string. Or at least, it will be once you tune up that second string! Adjust your B string, until the two notes sound alike.
Note: It’s the 4th fret we use this time, not the 5th!
6. First string: E
Finally the last one, your high E string. You can tune this in two ways:
- Since your low E string is already tuned, you can tune your high E by referring to this one. However note that they are actually two octave apart, so you may find this gap makes it difficult to compare the two pitches.
- If you are new to tuning you might want to avoid that and instead continue with the method we have been using: place your finger on the 5th fret of the second (B) string and that should play you an E which exactly matches your open first string. Again, rotate counter-clockwise for higher pitch and clockwise for lower pitch.
Finish up the tuning process by checking each of those note pairs in turn, from your low E and A string on up. Check the low E against your source note again. If any don’t sound quite correct, adjust the peg to make them match BUT make sure you follow the low-to-high sequence again. This means that if the pair of notes don’t match, adjust the tuning of the higher string to match the lower one. This way your tuning is always rooted on your low E string. If you have access to a reference note for the high E string you can also check that one directly.
Finally, strum a few chords and play a riff or two. Does anything sound strange or wrong with the tuning? If so, listen carefully and try to identify which string is to blame. Then return to your note pair comparisons to make the required fix.
The first few times you tune a guitar by ear it can be frustrating. Sometimes you just can’t track down that strange-sounding string! Ask a friend to help, or use that trusty digital tuner for a final tweak.
Practice tuning by ear each time you play, and you’ll quickly find yourself able to tune your guitar easily and quickly without any assistance. Plus, your sensitivity to pitch will improve considerably, making you a better musician all-round.
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