Tuning the guitar is predicament for all players, particularly beginners. The difficulty is partially because a definition of “in tune” varies depending on the situation. The music theory document discusses how a chord can be perfectly in tune with the overtone series mathematically, but as soon as the key changes, the new chords are out of tune. Modern music uses an equally tempered scale, which is a compromise meant to allow for easy key changes. Unfortunately, this compromise means that every chord is slightly out of tune compared to the overtone series.
The physical makeup of the guitar also comes into play. Usually guitars are set up so the 12th fret is in tune. All the rest of the fretted notes may be slightly out of tune because of the nature of the string and frets. Since the frets are all parallel, and the different thicknesses of the string detune the string in differing ways, fretted notes may be slightly out of tune with each other. Unfortunately, these tuning issues occur most noticeably near the nut (where the strings end near the tuning machines). Since beginners tend to start with the open forms near the nut, tuning issues are a problem.
A beginner should use an electronic tuner when learning to play. The other methods of tuning rely on a certain amount of expertise to tune strings relative to each other. Even beginners with a good ear for pitch get bogged down trying to keep six strings in tune. Use a digital tuner to train the ear and slowly develop the skills to hear the proper tuning relationships.
Also, a tuner works in a loud environment. If another band is on stage, going onto the stage tuned is more professional than making the audience listen to the tuning process. Tuners allow tuning without actually hearing the pitches. Some psychoacoustic phenomena also change the perceived pitch at different volume levels. Louder sounds tend to sound flatter to the brain. A tuner does not have these issues.
Standard tuning is
with the lowest strings (lowest in pitch, the thickest strings) from left to right.
Tips for using tuners
1. Buy a chromatic tuner with all 12 notes. Some older tuners just have the six standard pitches. Buy one that has more flexibility to be able to use the techniques listed below. The most convenient are the kind that clip onto the guitar near the tuning machines. Clip one on and just leave it there so it is convenient. Smart phones have tuning apps that will do in a pinch, but often the microphone in the phone is inadequate, particularly on low notes.
2. Tune every time you play. Never just pick up the guitar and start playing. Tuning is a learned skill, and developing the ear is a process. Players who get used to playing out of tune will not notice when they are off in an important situation.
3. Allow the guitar to adjust to the room temperature. Warmer environments cause the wood to expand. Leave the case open a crack for extreme changes so the guitar warms up or cools slowly.
4. Stretch the strings. When strings are new they need a lot of stretching, but even broken-in strings need stretching every time. Some people boil new strings before stringing to pre-stretch.
5. Tune up to the note. Start below the pitch and tune up rather than starting above and tuning down. Tuning down can trap some tension above the nut which gets released on bends. If you tune too high by mistake, tune down below the note, re-stretch the string, and start over.
6. Tune in multiple passes. By the time the all six strings are in tune, the neck tension may have changed so that the first string tuned is now out of tune. Keep tuning until the strings are all in tune on multiple passes.
Tune more than one place on the string. After
all the open strings are in tune, go back and check one of the notes up the
neck. Any tuner has a degree of error built in. Even though the green light
came on, one note might be slightly flat (but still in the acceptable range for
the tuner), and one might be slightly sharp. Individually these notes might
sound OK, but together they may clash. Check the following notes
On the e string check third fret g
On the b string check third fret d
On the g string check second fret a
On the d string check second fret e
On the a string check third fret c
On the e string check third fret g
On many guitars, the fretted note may be a bit sharp relative to the open note because of the reasons mentioned in the introduction. The most common occurrence of this problem is on the second-string d which tends to pull sharp making D chords sound out of tune. For this reason, many guitar players tune the b string slightly flat to compensate. Using an adjustable bridge might also help.
8. Play lightly. Many intonation problems are not the hardware, but the player. Pressing too hard on the strings can pull them out of tune. Playing near the fret as lightly as possible helps.
Retune often. The guitar will go out of tune
with playing, particularly if a tremolo bar or other bending effects are
An expert player should be able to tune without a tuner. Even an intermediate player needs to be able to tune on the fly, noticing which string has gone out of tune and adjusting without the hassle of referring back to the machine. Each manual tuning method has advantages and disadvantages.
The traditional method of teaching tuning relies on the fifth fret note on each string being the same pitch as the note above it, with the exception on the 3rd string fourth fret having the pitch of the second string. So, to tune the A string, fret the 6th string on the fifth fret and tune until the notes are the same. Two slightly out of tune notes together produce a beat pattern, kind of a chorus sound. Tune until this beat pattern gets slower and slower and eventually disappears. Then continue up, the fifth fret on the A string is the d on the fourth string, fifth fret on the D string is the g of the third string, the fourth fret on the G string is the b of the second string, and the fifth fret of the B string is e of the first string.
Fifth fret tuning is easy but not effective. One problem is that since the pitches are relative to each other, if the first string tuned was off, then the whole guitar is off. As long as the guitar is in tune with itself, for solo playing this might not be an issue. But consistently playing a guitar out of tune might eventually hamper the payers pitch perception.
A more serious problem is that since the tunings chain back on each other, tuning issues tend to compound. If the first tuning is a bit sharp, then the next is a bit sharp from that and so on, by the time the last string gets tuned, the final string might be way off.
Another problem is the intonation issues mentioned above. If the fifth fret is not in tune with the open string, this difference gets put into the string above. Since the thick sixth string trends to pull sharp up the neck on many guitars, this tuning method often leads to unsatisfying results.
On the E string, the fifth fret harmonic is the same e as the seventh fret harmonic on the A string. Comparing the two notes is a quick check for tuning. The pattern continues for the other strings, with the exception again on the 3rd-2nd string combination. To tune the second string using harmonics, play the sixth string on the seventh fret and tune the open second string to the resulting b, the same note.
Since the harmonics do not rely on fretted notes, intonation issues due to fretboard inconsistencies or finger pressure do not occur. Also, since the beat patterns of the higher frequency notes are more prominent, getting the notes in tune is a bit easier. The issue of chaining mistakes still occurs, but the harmonics have more checks to them. The upper e on the first string can tune against the fifth fret e on the sixth string as a check.
Unfortunately, while fifth fret harmonics are in tune with the fundamental, seventh frets harmonics are pure fifth, which are slightly sharp relative to the tempered fifth used in equal tuning of modern music. So, each string is lightly off, and this process chains up each time a note gets tuned.
The other issue with harmonic tuning is that beginners often have trouble finding the harmonics, particularly on the fifth fret. If the harmonics do not ring, the beat patterns will not appear and tuning will be difficult.
One way to avoid chaining tuning errors is to tune the octaves rather than string to string.
1. Get the sixth-string e in tune with the first-string e.
Tune the third-string open g to the third fret g
on the first string.
Use the 12th fret harmonic on the g string if hearing the octave is difficult.
Tune the fifth-string open a to the second fret
a on the third string.
Use the 12th fret harmonic on the a string if hearing the octave is difficult.
4. Tune the second-string open b to the second fret b on the fifth string.
Tune the fourth-string open d to the third fret
a on the second string.
Use the 12th fret harmonic on the d string if hearing the octave is difficult.
6. Check that the second fret e on the fourth string is in tune with the open e. If it is not, somewhere along the chain something was out of tune. Adjust the d string and work backwards through the progression.
Octave tuning is particularly effective on a 12-string guitar
Tuning to another player is great because even if you are both out of tune, at least it is consistent. Pianos tend to go out of tune less frequently, so tuning to a piano is an option. But remember since piano uses equal tuning, everything is equally slightly out of tune. Guitars sometimes sound better not tuning exactly to the piano. When playing with a piano, though, use equal tuning.