How to tune a guitar by ear

//How to tune a guitar by ear

How to tune a guitar by ear

There is one technique on the guitar that is more important to master than any other, that separates good players from great players, and without which will make a stunning performance fall flat.[1] We’re not talking about speed, or musical expression, or stage presence . . . rather, this all-important technique is tuning. The most technically impressive performance, or one that is full of emotion and expression, or, even better, one that pulls off both at once, will all be let down by a badly tuned guitar.

So we’re going to take a look at how to tune the guitar, from the basics up to more advanced tuning concepts. The first thing to know about tuning on the guitar is that it’s actually a somewhat complex matter and it’s also not something we can do perfectly. This guide will help walk you through how to make tuning an easy and painless process, but because of the very structure and nature of the instrument itself you cannot expect to ever get the guitar purely in tune. With that caveat aside, let’s dive in.

Important Info

Equal Temperament

The guitar is tuned with what is known as “equal temperament” (or to get more technical, “twelve-tone equal temperament”). Equal temperament divides pitches into twelve, mathematically equal semi-tones (or half-steps) and dates back to around the sixteenth century.[2] The modern baseline for the tuning of all twelve pitches in equal temperament is the pitch A at the frequency of 440Hz (typically your standard tuning fork is tuned to this frequency).

On the guitar these semitones are all fixed pitches, each semi-tone represented by one fret. This means as guitarists we cannot play any pitch frequencies between one semi-tone and another (as you are able to on fretless instruments) unless we actually bend a fretted plucked string. What this means practically is that, while some intervals (like octaves and unisons) will be perfectly in tune on a guitar tuned to equal temperament, other intervals (especially major and minor thirds) will be slightly out of tune (at least out of tune in terms of “pure temperament”). You can account for this of course by making those intervals sound perfectly in tune in one key (so that some chords sound glorious), but when changing keys other chords will sound . . . well, quite bad. So, fixed-pitch equal temperament is a compromise, but it allows us to play in any key relatively in tune. It’s a compromise we can at the very least expect, even if it’s not something some are also willing to accept. More on that below.

Tuning “by ear”

The first and most important thing to note about tuning is to use your ear: listen to the sound of pitches that are in tune and become accustomed to the sound of pitches that are even slightly out of tune. This comes with experience and, yes, practice. We’ll talk more about using an electronic tuner below, but even if you only use an electronic tuner to tune it’s important that you listen while you do so (especially because you may want to tune your guitar one day when you don’t have your tuner at hand!). Equally important for the art of listening, though, is patience. While we have all been in concert settings where the performer seemed to tune for what seemed hours on stage, testing our patience, we must not rush the process of tuning. So long as we have a solid method for tuning that doesn’t compound errors causing us to need to retune incessantly, it is okay to take your time. Your audience will be more thankful that you took your time to get the guitar properly in tune than they would be with a quick tuning that leaves your guitar inharmonious and unpleasant to listen to. Some of you reading this will no doubt be able to hear “pure” intervals (a few of you may perhaps even have perfect pitch) and the compromises of equal temperament we discussed above may really stand out to you like a sore thumb. My best advice for those in this camp is either to accept that there are compromises with the modern tuning of the guitar or to try out some other solutions we’ll discuss below.

Instrument Setup and Strings

It is important to note that a poorly set-up instrument will have a difficult time getting in tune. Any number of different elements of a poorly set-up instrument could contribute to intonation issues: the nut and saddle distance are not mathematically correct, the notches in the nut are not cut out correctly, the string break-angle at the saddle is not correct for all strings, etc. Be sure to have your guitar set up by a professional luthier and to have it checked up annually at the minimum (remember that the wood on your guitar is always changing and so setups will also be dynamic).

Bad strings can also give you intonation issues. Either manufacturing defects or very old or corroded strings can all contribute to not being able to get your guitar in tune. Change your strings often (at least every couple months) and if you have had consistent intonation problems with a particular string manufacturer, perhaps give another string brand a go.

Now let’s take a look at some actual methods for tuning our charming, fixed-pitch equally tempered instrument and which one’s best for you, but first a quick recap of the string names and numbers.

String names/numbers

If you are a beginner to the guitar you may still be learning the string names and numbers. For reference, here are all of the string names and numbers from lowest pitch to highest (from the thickest to the thinnest strings):

6th string: E
5th string: A
4th string: D
3rd string: G
2nd string: B
1st string: e

Methods for tuning the guitar

Using Reference Strings

If you use only one string as the source of your reference pitches then you will avoid compounding any errors that arise as you tune.

This makes for a more accurate tuning overall and allows for an easy and accurate method.

There are two different ways you could approach this method:

1. You could use one string to play the various pitches of the open strings then match the pitch at unison or octave.

2. You could simply use one open string and then find those same notes on each string at the unison or octave.

The greatest benefit of this approach is having a consistent reference pitch. It can be more challenging to tune strings using octaves rather than unison but with a little practice you will get it in no time!

Pros:

  • Using one string helps consistency
  • Some strings use unisons to tune
  • Tuning mistakes do not accumulate

Cons:

  • You need to lift your left hand to tune
  • Some strings require using octaves to tune

5th- & 7th-Frets Harmonics

One very popular method for tuning on the guitar is to play the 5th fret harmonic on one string and to try and match the 7th fret harmonic of the adjacent higher string. Here’s how the method actually works:
1. Tune the harmonic at the fifth fret of the sixth string to a tuner, tuning fork, or another in-tune instrument such as a piano.
2. Now play the in-tune harmonic at the fifth fret of the sixth string and let it ring while playing the harmonic at the seventh fret of the fifth string. Adjust the tuning peg of the fifth string until it matches the ringing sixth-string harmonic.
3. Then play the harmonic at the fifth fret of the fifth string and let it ring while playing the harmonic at the seventh fret of the fourth string. Adjust the tuning peg of the fourth string until it matches the ringing fifth-string harmonic.
4. Then play the harmonic at the fifth fret of the fourth string and let it ring while playing the harmonic at the seventh fret of the third string. Adjust the tuning peg of the third string until it matches the ringing fourth-string harmonic.
5. Then play the harmonic at the seventh fret of the sixth string and let it ring while playing the open second string (no harmonic, just the open B). Adjust the tuning peg of the second string until it matches the ringing sixth-string harmonic.
6. Then play the harmonic at the fifth fret of the sixth string and let it ring while playing the open first string (again, no harmonic, just the open E). Adjust the tuning peg of the first string until it matches the ringing sixth-string harmonic.
Because of the limitations of equal temperament this particular method of tuning is not very reliable for two reasons. First of all, any slight error in tuning will accumulate since you are not tuning from one reference point, but from four to five. Secondly, using the harmonics at 5th and 7th frets method will mean that some intervals are perfectly in tune while others are quite out of tune. There are physics and maths reasons for this we won’t get into, but this method will always leave some chords quite out of tune.

Pros:

  • Harmonics will ring over one another making adjustments easier
  • Tuning at the octaves is usually accurate (5th and 12th frets)

Cons:

  • Harmonics at the 7th fret will be different pitches to the fretted note at the same fret
  • Depending on the instrument the octaves at the 12th and 5th frets may also be inaccurate
  • Tuning mistakes can accumulate with this method

5th- and 4th-Frets Method (open strings / fretted unisons)

Another tried-and-true method for tuning the guitar is to play one fretted note and match the ringing adjacent open string to that fretted note. Here’s how that works:

1. First tune the sixth-string open E to a tuner, tuning fork, or another instrument already in tune.
2. Play the A on the fifth fret of the sixth string. Now match the open fifth-string A to that pitch.
3. Play the D on the fifth fret of the fifth string. Now match the open fourth-string D to that pitch.
4. Play G on the fifth fret of the fourth string. Now match the open third-string G to that pitch.
5. Play the B on the fourth fret of the third string. Now match the open second-string B to that pitch.
6. Play the E on the fifth fret of the second string. Now match the open first-string E to that pitch.

Tuning by unisons will give solid results in that it works well with equal temperament (it doesn’t leave some intervals more in tune than others). This is also a long-standing method for tuning the guitar and is even recommended by Ferdinando Carulli in his early nineteenth-century method (Op. 241: pp. 8-9 of the UE Greman Krempl edition). However, just like the above 5th- and 7th-frets harmonics method, any slight errors from one string to the next will accumulate because this method does not use one reference pitch but instead uses five separate reference pitches. Moreover, using fretted notes will exacerbate any inherent intonation issues with the strings or setup issues such as with the nut and saddle of your guitar and so errors are more prevalent.

Pros:

  • Unison notes are accurate and easy to hear
  • Easy system to memorize

Cons:

  • Any mistakes made will accumulate and affect other strings
  • Left hand needs to lift in order to turn the tuning peg

Harmonics at 5th and 12th frets with fretted unisons

A somewhat more reliable method is to use harmonics at the 5th and 12th frets and to match those with fretted unison notes. While this method still has the drawback of using fretted notes, it only uses one reference pitch — plus, unlike 7th fret harmonics, octaves and unisons are all pure intervals on fixed-pitch equal temperament instruments and so tuning accuracy will be greater with this method. Let’s take a look:

1. Tune the sixth-string open E to a tuner, tuning fork, or another instrument already in tune.
2. Play the twelfth-fret harmonic on the sixth string and let it ring while playing the seventh-fret E on the fifth string. Adjust the fifth string until the two pitches match.
3. Play the twelfth-fret harmonic on the sixth string and let it ring while playing the second-fret E on the fourth string. Adjust the fourth string until the two pitches match.
4. Play the fifth-fret harmonic on the sixth string and let it ring while playing the ninth-fret E on the third string. Adjust the third string until the two pitches match.
5. Play the fifth-fret harmonic on the sixth string and let it ring while playing the fifth-fret E on the second string. Adjust the second string until the two pitches match.
6. Play the fifth-fret harmonic on the sixth string and let it ring while playing the open first-string E. Adjust the first string until the two pitches match.

Pros:

  • Harmonics will ring over one another making adjustments easier
  • Tuning at the octaves is usually accurate (5th and 12th frets)

Cons:

  • Depending on the instrument the octaves at the 12th and 5th frets may also be inaccurate
  • Tuning mistakes can accumulate with this method

Electronic tuner

 

Finally, if none of the above work for you: it really is okay to use a tuner. In fact, using an electronic tuner is likely to be one of the most accurate methods of tuning for equal temperament. While twenty years ago electronic tuners weren’t known for being terribly accurate, their accuracy has vastly improved. Many concert guitarists also use tuners that attach discreetly to the headstock or even inside the soundhole of the guitar so they are not a distraction or eye-sore for a particularly sensitive or persnickety audience.

Using a tuner is rather straightforward, though the interface will be somewhat different between tuners:

1. Play an open string, say, the first string E: if the pitch is close to being in tune you’ll see the correct letter name in the middle, “E.” If it reads “D#” or “D” then it’s quite flat and you’ll need to raise the pitch. If, on the other hand, it reads “F” or “F#” then it’s quite sharp and you’ll need to lower the pitch. This is usually represented on the tuner by lines that show you how far out of tune to the left (flat) or to the right (sharp) of in tune (E) the pitch is.
2. In order to get the pitch in tune, simply tune the pitch toward the pitch name: if it’s flat then you’ll see lines to the left/flat side of the E (but no lines on the right/sharp side of the E) and you will need to turn the tuning peg to raise the pitch until you see an equal amount of lines on both sides of E.
3. The same procedure goes, but in reverse, if you see lines on the right/sharp side of the E but no lines on the left/flat side: turn the tuning peg this time to lower the pitch until you see an equal number of lines on both sides of E.

Most tuners will also use colors to indicate “out of tune” (usually red) and “in tune” (usually blue or green).

How to use a tuning fork

Tuning forks usually come tuned to one of two frequencies for the guitar: A=440Hz (the standard) or E=329.6Hz. The A tone is the equivalent of the following notes on the guitar: first string, fifth fret; second string, tenth fret; fourth string, seventh-fret harmonic; fifth string, fifth-fret harmonic. The E tone is the equivalent of the following notes: open E first string; second string fifth fret; third string, ninth fret; fifth string, seventh fret harmonic; sixth string, twelfth-fret harmonic.

To use the tuning fork, hold the fork at the base (and not by either one of the two prongs as the fork will not vibrate if you’re holding the prongs), strike the fork lightly against your knee or another soft but firm surface, and then hold the base of the fork against the bridge of the guitar or lightly against the top. This will produce a resonating tone while you hold the fork on the guitar until it dies away. Tune accordingly to match the pitches from one of the above string/fret locations to the tone of the fork.

Advanced Tuning Tips

Scordatura

In Italian scordare means to “mistune” and so refers to any non-standard tuning. We use several non-standard tunings on the guitar that appear with quite a bit of frequency: Drop-D is the most popular, where you lower the tuning of the sixth, E string to a D. This is used to give a lower resonance on the bottom string and especially with pieces in the key of either D Major or D minor. The famous Bach Chaconne uses this tuning in most transcriptions to D minor. A similar tuning is to lower both the sixth-string E to D as well as the fifth-string A to G. You’ll hear this often with pieces in the key of G minor or G Major, such as Albeniz’s Sevilla. Because of the close approximation of the tuning of the guitar to the renaissance lute and related instruments, another very popular tuning is to tune the third string from G down to F#. Often paired with a capo on the second or third fret (again to approximate as closely as possible the tuning of the lute), you’ll see this scordatura in many Renaissance pieces.

Here’s a video demonstrating how best to tune your guitar to Drop-D and back up to standard tuning. These tips apply to all of the above scordatura as well. (If you are in Renaissance tuning and have a capo on the guitar, do know that you can tune when the capo is attached to the guitar just as you would without a capo . . . simply treat the capo as a new nut position.)

There are other scordatura that are quite a bit more intricate, such as especially the C# minor tuning of Carlo Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba, but these are outliers among the repertoire. These kinds of tunings, because they cause such instability among nylon strings that want to return to their original tuning when you begin to change their tuning, require a lot of patience and you may need to continue to make adjustments until the strings settle into position (both when tuning to the scordatura and when tuning back to standard tuning). Take your time with these altered tunings.

Alternatives to the Equal-Temperament Compromise

If you’re not willing to accept the compromise of equal temperament, you may be interested in alternatives to that compromise. These sorts of alternatives have been prevalent since at least René Lacôte‘s time, who devised some models of guitars with moveable frets (harking back to the time when lutenists would position their own frets, which were made of gut tied around the neck), and so these are hardly new to the scene. I am only touching on two alternatives here: “true-temperament fretted” instruments and the late maestro Roland Dyens’s method of tuning the guitar to specific chords/arpeggios of the piece that you are about to play.

True Temperament Guitars

There are many luthiers who have begun making instruments with different fretting systems, including true temperament. For instance, the popular California luthier Kenny Hill makes true-temperament guitars and discusses his approach here.

Roland Dyens’s Tuning Method

The late maestro Roland Dyens believed that tuning should be musical. To that end, Dyens never approved of the “mechanical” approach of tuning using methods we’ve described above. In his collection 20 Lettres, Dyens has included a witty prefatory letter, a “Letter from the Teacher” in which he discusses his views on tuning with his usual charm and humor. The maestro believed that tuning should be a musical “prelude” to the piece you are about to play, and so he recommended tuning to block chords or arpeggios taken from the main chords of the harmony of a piece (tonic and dominant, “to which might be added the delicious 7th and 9th where necessary”). The tuning of these chords should match at the “top, middle, and bottom of the fingerboard.” To that end, this equally witty collection of musical letters includes arpeggios at the beginning of each piece with the instruction, “Use these notes to tune up.”

While Dyens doesn’t discuss the history or details of equal temperament and so forth on the guitar, his solution is one that makes a lot of sense within that system. The only potential downfall with this method is that chords that are clearly outside the main classical harmony of tonic and dominant (with some “delicious” 7th’s and 9th’s thrown in) will be quite out of tune. However, Dyens realizes this and isn’t stressed about that at all:

So let us stop thinking of tuning as some sort of punishment to be inflicted on others and on the guitarist, and try to turn this compulsory act into something voluntarily artistic, even mystic. The way to do this is to cross the barrier and free ourselves of the Utopian notion that guitar tuning has to be perfect . . . This method of searching out the best possible intonation could be defined as a “positive compromise,” always admitting in the end that the guitar can never be perfectly in tune.

– Dyens, 20 Lettres (Paris: H. Lemoine, 2001).

If you’re further interested in the “compromise” of equal temperament, I encourage you to check out Ross Duffin’s excellent book How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care).

Notes

[1] Okay, I realize that was a Dad-joke-level pun, and I do apologize, but it was low-hanging fruit.
[2] Cf. Francisco Salinas: “We judge this one thing must be observed by makers of viols, so that the placing of the frets may be made regular, namely that the octave must be divided into twelve equal parts equally proportional, which twelve will be the equal semitones,” De musica libri 8 (1577); and Vincenzo Galilei’s Dialogo della musica antica e moderna (1581) with its diagram on equal temperament. By the mid-nineteenth century keyboards were also being tuned to equal temperament. We won’t get into all of the history of Pythagorean tuning of the spheres, meantone, just intonation, the well-tempered system, and so forth here. Learn more about some of this history with lutenist Paul O’Dette here.

 

2018-12-08T13:23:22+00:003 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Benjamin Riley December 7, 2018 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    This is such an incredibly thorough, detailed, and user-friendly lesson on tuning! Huge props to Simon and Dave for this excellent article/lesson-will be rereading this many times!

    • Dave Belcher December 8, 2018 at 7:47 am - Reply

      Thanks for the nice comment, Benjamin! Glad you got a lot out of it.

      Peace,

      Dave B (CGC team)

  2. Peter December 15, 2018 at 9:57 am - Reply

    The thing is that, as I think is said, with True Temperament many chords sound pretty nasty. The whole basis of modern harmony is related to the fact that, when you pluck a string, there are many harmonics that occur naturally. I forget what the ratios are but the thirds and fifths are a significant proportion of the sound of a plucked string – which is why the basic chord is composed of these notes. And these notes are present because they represent common patterns of standing waves in a string, which are mathematically determined – whole string lengh, half string, third of a string length etc. If the string is fretted such that only the octaves are mathematically true then these common harmonies will be wrong.

    I’m afraid it’s just a weird idea to me. Still it does mean that if you play a tune in a different key it actually sounds different, not just higher or lower – which I would never notice anyway because I don’t have perfect pitch.

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