Even after almost a quarter century of playing guitar, you can learn some new stuff along the way. If you keep looking, there’s always something new to learn on the guitar.
Recently I learned about a tuning technique I’d never thought of before.
One of the big problems with the guitar is that it’s not a perfectly tuned instrument. Really, no instrument is, because equal tempered tuning is just a little bit off in a lot of places. On the guitar, the B string in particular can be a nasty bugger to get right. This technique of standard guitar tuning really seems to nail it pretty well.
I first tried it on an old beater guitar (with terrible intonation) that I keep next to my desk for plunking on when I should be doing something more productive. And I’ll tell ya, that’s the best that guitar has sounded in ages. And of course, on my main guitar it tuned up even better.
But wait, you say… Doesn’t an electronic guitar tuner do the job just fine? They do ok, but not great. I find that most tuners will get you in the ballpark of “in tune”, but there’s too much leeway for them to be really effective. With a little practice your ear will be much more accurate than a tuner.
I suggest tuning up with the tuner, then fine tuning your guitar by ear to really get it sounding good.
If you’ve not tuned your guitar by ear before, let me explain what you should be listening for. When you’re trying to match two notes, listen for the waver (or beating) to go away. When two notes are in tune the graph of the two sound waves match and look like one wave (Line A).
When the notes don’t match, the two waves criss-cross each other causing constructive and destructive interference. Wave A plus Wave B equals that crazy mess in Wave C. In simple terms that makes the volume of the note go up and down like messing with the volume knob on a stereo.
Listen to these three audio examples. The first is two notes out of tune and you’ll hear the beats like a fast waver in the sound. The second example has the notes closer together, but not yet in tune. You’ll notice the beats are still there, but slower. The third example has the two notes in tune and you’ll hear that there are no longer any beats. I’ve also included the waveforms so you can see visually what “out of tune” and “in tune” sound like.
Next, we’ll be using natural harmonics for this system, so let’s make sure you know how to play those.
Go to the 12th fret of any of your strings. Touch the string right over the 12th fret, not behind it like normal. Do not press down on the string like you would for a fretted note. Just touch the string. Now pluck that string and you’ll get a bell-like tone out of it. That’s called a natural harmonic. There are other frets on the neck you can get those: 5th, 7th, 9th, 19th, 24th. We’ll just be using the 12th fret for our tuning system here.
Ok, here we go…
First, tune your 1st string (high E) with a tuner, piano, other guitar, pitch pipe, whatever. You need to get your first note from another source unless you have perfect pitch. And if you do have perfect pitch you probably don’t need this article in the first place. Most of us don’t, so don’t sweat that.
– Play the 12th fret harmonic of your 2nd string. Compare that to the regular fretted B at the 7th fret of your 1st string. Those notes should match. Tune the 2nd string with the harmonic ringing to match the 1st string B. Again, listen for those beats. As you’re tuning they should slow down and then disappear. If they get faster, you’ve gone too far or in the wrong direction. Slower means you’re getting warmer. Faster means you’re getting colder.
You’ll probably have to turn the tuning peg with your right hand while holding down the first string fretted note with your left. A bit awkward at first, but you’ll figure out the angle that works for you. It’s easiest to tune while both notes are ringing, so do your best on this one.
– Next, play the 12th fret harmonic of the 3rd string and match that to the G on your first string, 3rd fret. Same deal, listen for those beats to go away.
– Play the 12th fret harmonic of the 4th string and match that to the D on your 2nd string, 3rd fret.
– Play the 12th fret harmonic of the 5th string and match that to the A on your 3rd string, 2nd fret.
– Play the 12th fret harmonic of the 6th string and match that to the E on your 4th string, 2nd fret.
At this point your guitar should be pretty well in tune. To check it out, play a E5 chord (see left) at the 7th fret and combine it with the open 1st, 2nd, and 6th strings. If that doesn’t sound in tune, it may need a little more tweaking.
Just like anything else on guitar, tuning takes some practice. But in this case you’re training your ears rather than your fingers. As your critical listening skills get better you’ll be able to tune up in a flash.
There are other tuning techniques of course, including the 5th fret to open string system and the 5th fret harmonic to the 7th fret harmonic system, but I really have found this system to eliminate a lot of the problems associated with standard tuning a guitar.
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