How To Tune A Guitar By Ear

How To Tune A Guitar By Ear

The electronic guitar tuner is a wonderful invention; it saves time and prevents the frustration incurred in tuning by ear.  However, like a lot of technology, it also coaxes dependency.  You may find yourself in a situation where a tuner is not available or where you must tune your guitar to match another acoustic instrument, such as a piano.  In these instances, it can be downright embarrassing if you can’t tune your guitar by ear.  In order to spare yourself the humiliation, it is worthwhile to regularly practice tuning your guitar by ear.

There are a few methods to tune a guitar by ear, but using harmonics is the most efficient.  Isolating a string’s harmonics allows you take advantage of “beating,” the interference pattern produced by two slightly different pitches.  This discrepancy creates a cyclic variation in volume (a “warbling” sound) equal to the difference between the two pitches.  When the difference increases, the frequency of the beating increases, and the warbling becomes faster.  When the difference decreases, the frequency of the beating decreases, and the warbling becomes slower.  When the difference between pitches is eliminated, the beating disappears. We can therefore use beating to gauge the disparity between two strings when tuning.

Using Harmonics to Tune Your Guitar

Tuning by ear is a skill that should be practiced like any other guitar skill.  Hence, I recommend tuning your guitar at the beginning of each practice session using the following method.

1. Begin by tuning one string to a reference pitch. 

Most tuners will produce an A at 440 Hz as reference pitch.  This is equal to the harmonic produced at the fifth fret of the A string.  Get this in tune first before tuning the other strings.

2.  Tune the harmonic at the fifth fret of the High E string to the harmonic at the seventh fret of the A string.

Pluck the harmonics on each string and lower the E string until you begin to hear very fast beating.  Then smoothly tighten the E string until the beating disappears.  You should strike both harmonics again to double check that the beating has been eliminated, and make sure the fifth fret of the E string is in tune with the open A.  If you are struggling to eliminate the warble, I recommend just starting the process over rather than attempting to fine tune the E string.  It’s much easier to bring a noticeably flat string into tune than fine tune one that is close. 

3.  Tune the harmonic at the seventh fret of the D string to the harmonic at the fifth fret of the A string. 

Repeat the previous step with the A and D strings, this time adjusting the higher string to match the lower string.

4.  Tune the harmonic at the seventh fret of the G string to the harmonic at the fifth fret of the D string. 

5.  Tune the open B string to the harmonic at the seventh fret of the Low E.

This combination will not produce perceptible beating, but these should be the same pitch.  You could use the fourth fret of the G string as your comparison note for the B string, but I find it easier to tune using the purity of a harmonic. 

6.  Tune the harmonic at the seventh fret of the High E string to the harmonic at the fifth fret of the B string.

7.  Check the harmonic at the fifth fret of the Low E to the open E string.

If you have done everything correctly, these should be in tune. 

8.  Check your guitar’s tuning with an electronic tuner.

As I stated earlier, I highly recommend practicing tuning by ear on a daily basis.  That means beginning each practice session with this method.  To see how you did, check your guitar’s tuning with an electronic tuner.  The human aural system can only perceive a difference of about 5 cents, so if you are within that range on all six strings, consider your mission accomplished.  If not, repeating this process a few times is a good idea.

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