This entry by: Clayton 27 Oct 2016 12:35 am

Tuning guitar – old school method

So I use an app on my phone called Flipboard, which is essentially a news aggregation service which allows you to pick topics you’re interested in. One of the posts which was highly rated was “tuning your guitar by ear”.

I was shocked that this was even newsworthy, let alone getting a “high” rating – don’t all guitarists know how to do this?

But then I thought about it further – these days, when I go into a music shop to test drive a guitar (not to buy mind you – apparently I have enough guitars, despite the collection not including a Tele, 12 string acoustic, Les Paul, or Rickenbaker electric 12.  But I digress…), the first thing the shop staff do is clip on a headstock tuner to make sure the guitar is in tune. They don’t even attempt to strum a E chord beforehand, just clamp on the tuner and wait for the little green light to resolve.

With the risk of sounding like an old fart, while having a technological solution is pretty awesome, being able to tune a guitar properly by ear is a skill not to be lost. This comes down to four things in my view – accessibility of power, intonation, compounding errors, and physics.  I’ll talk about the first one (as the other three are inter-related).

Accessibility of power

This one is pretty obvious.  You’ve taken your guitar to a mates house for a bbq, and their two year old has decided to fiddle with your pegs without you noticing.  I’ll just plug in my trusty tuner, and… uh-oh, out of batteries.  If you know how to tune by ear, you can establish which strings the two year old has fiddled with and correct them.  If they’ve had a crack at all six, you’ll still be able to make you’re guitar in tune with itself, even if not strictly “in tune”.  As long as you’re in tune with yourself, you’ll sound okay.  If you’re playing with others though, you’ll sound terrible, but one of the others (who was smart enough to keep their instrument away from the two year old) should be able to provide you with one or more reference notes to tune to.  In any case, knowing how to tune by ear should be a basic skill taught to all new guitarists.

The basic method

Get your low E in tune.  Fret the low E on the fifth fret, and tune your A string to it.  Fret the A on the fifth and tune you D to it.  Fret your D on the fifth and tune your G to it.  Tune your G on the forth and tune your B to it.  Fret your B on the fifth and tune your high E to it.  Job done.

Intonation, compounding errors, and physics

I’ve put these together as they are all related.

Lets start with compounding errors.  While I consider myself to have a fairly good ear, if you’re a bit off, then your E to A tuning will be a little bit out.  Your A to D tuning will also be a little bit out, plus the amount your E to A tuning was out.  By the time you get to your B to E tuning, the whole guitar is basically a trainwreck.  Think about a ship off-course by 1 degree – the further you go, the further you are from your destination.

Next is intonation.  You can do a basic check on your intonation by fretting a string at the twelfth fret, then by hitting the harmonic on the twelfth fret (don’t press the string, just lightly touch it directly above the 12th fret and pluck the string).  If the fretted tone matches the harmonic tone, your intonation is good.  But if the fretted note is either sharp or flat of the harmonic (normally sharp), it indicates an intonation issue.  This comes down to the bridge and the action.  Bridge adjustment is an entire topic by itself, but if your action is poor, you’re more likely to have intonation issues – when you press the string down to the fret, it adds more tension to the string.  The higher your action, the more tension is added, resulting in intonation issue in tuning.

Next to the physics.  If you double the frequency, you go up an octave.  So take an standard tuning A, at 440Mhz.  The A an octave above will therefore be 880Mhz.  You also have the fifth note, which should be 1.5 the original frequency.  So for A 440, the fifth is E.  Which should have a frequency of 660.  So far so good.


So lets cycle through the fifths.  A-E, E-B, B-F#, F#-C#, C#-G#, G#-D#, D#-A#, A#-F, F-C, C-G, G-D, D-A.  Working on the 1.5 frequency method, the final A frequency should be 57,088.39Mhz.  But if you work through the “double the frequency” method, the final A should be 56,320Mhz.  That a gap of 768.39Mtz, which can make you guitar sound out of tune.

So it’s not an exact science.  Instruments which work on a “continuous” basis (think fretless string instruments like violin, viola, cello, etc) can generally get every note perfectly in tune, but discrete instruments (guitar, piano) can’t – they can try to get them as close as possible, but there is always a small difference.  This minor difference can result in your instrument sounding out of tune.

How I tune by ear

I don’t tune off the bottom E.  I tune off the fifth string, A.  A is the standard “tuning note” for orchestras, so it seems like a good thing to tune to.  It’s also the pitch of the most easily accessible tuning device, the tuning fork.  When I first started playing I used to tune to the low E off the piano.

These days, I use a tuning fork.  It’s an A fork, and looks like this.

Image result for tuning fork

Unlike a piano, this fits in your pocket.

You tap the end of the prongs against a hard surface (I normally use my kneecap, as it avoids damaging furniture), then put the end with the ball against your guitar.  It’s amazing on acoustics as it takes full advantage of the open body, but even on a solid body guitar you’ll be able to get the pitch.  This will help you get your A string in tune (if you struggle with octaves, hit the 12th fret harmonic on the A string just before you tap the tuning key as a comparison).

I then use the basic method to get everything as close as I can (tuning the low E to the A rather than the other way round), knowing that all the moving parts will be working against me.

Once I’ve got everything in tune using the basic method, I’ll re-tune the A string to the tuning fork.  The reason I do this is that by tuning the guitar, the tension on the neck changes – if the guitar was very out of tune to begin with, the change in tension can be significant.  I then re-tune the low E to the A.

Then I go rogue, by doing an octave G scale.

By that I mean that having tuned A to the fork, and E to the A, with the other strings being close to “in-tune” (except for tension), they are a reliable couple of strings.

From this point I do a scale.  I fret the bottom E on the third, and play the G sting open.  This will compensate to a degree for both intonation and compounding errors.  If there is a compounding error, I should be able to spot it as the two notes are an octave apart.  Given that my E string is now fretted on the third, it won’t give the same intonation difference as at the 12th, but it at least drops intonation into the equation.  Then I move to open A and 2nd fret G.  If fretted G and open G were okay, then the open A must be at fault.  So I tune my open A to the fretted G.

Then I move to the A string on the 2nd fret, and the open B string.  As I’ve already got the A string in tune with the G string, anything out of tune will relate to the B string.

Keep going note at a time through the G scale, adjusting the string that “must” be wrong.

Once open G and third fret High E match up, re-check your A using the tuning fork, and adjust every other string, aligning E with A then adjusting the other strings as necessary using the octave method.

As a final check, do a harmonic on the fifth fret on the low E string – it will be much quieter than the harmonic on the twelfth fret, but should match the open high E string.  Similarly the seventh fret harmonic on the low E should match the B, and should the seventh fret harmonic on the A stringshould match the high E.

After all these checks, if you still sound bad… um… maybe you’re just not cut out for guitar?

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