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How to tune your guitar by ear

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Save time, money and face with relative (manual) standard tuning

Although you can use an automatic tuning device to arrive at a perfect pitch, the ability to tune a guitar by ear is one that every player should have in his reserve. Chances are, you won't have an automatic tuner every time you need one, and you'll surprise yourself with all the time you actually save tuning manually once you develop your new skill. 

A variety of factors conspire to knock all guitars (especially the cheaper ones) out of tune, and in a live or recording setting you'll have to be able to adjust your tuning often and quickly. Even if you can't yet hear the difference between a solidly tuned guitar and one that's slightly off, assume that your audience can, and that that's all they can hear. Manually tuning will help to train your ear and over time, you'll eliminate the need for an automatic tuner entirely.

Here you'll learn how to manually, or "relatively" tune your six-string guitar to standard tuning   (E-A-D-G-B-E) without needing an amplifier. 

Unfortunately, the first step in tuning a guitar is the one where, until you've got a highly trained ear, you may need an outside source for -- at least for the first tuning of a playing session. Besides an automatic tuner, you can use any instrument that doesn't require tuning (keyboard, trumpet, etc.), another in-tune stringed instrument, or even a recorded song in the key you're looking for (Nirvana's "Come As You Are", for example, is in "E") to help tune your lowest (6th) string. From there, though, you'll tune the rest of your strings using only your ears. 

What you're listening for is an absence of warbling, the "womp womp womp" that's audible when you're close but not quite matching the note you're striving for. The warbling speeds up as you approach the note you're matching until it finally disappears. 

Tip: Your strings will stay in tune better when they've been stretched out. When you're tuning a string, twist the tuning peg well beyond the note you want, then down again, and find your note on the up-swing. If you're restringing your guitar with new strings, be sure to stretch each one out repeatedly before tuning them, pulling upward (away from the guitar) an inch or more on each string around the 12th fret as you twist the associated peg. Also, change out your strings one at a time to keep tension between the pegs, nut and bridge, which you don't want to have shift on you.

Once you've found your first note ("E") on the 6th string (the thickest, lowest-pitched one), you're ready to tune the rest by ear. There are two ways to do this, and I'll explain each.
  • Method 1: Put your finger and hold it just shy of 5th fret of the 6th string and strike it, closely followed by the unfretted (open) 5th string. Be sure that you're not bending the 6th string either way on the fret, as this changes pitch. With your free hand and both strings ringing, twist the tuning peg for the 5th string up or down until you hear the notes begin to match each other. When you don't hear any warbling, you're in tune, or close to it.           Repeat this to tune the 4th string, using the 5th string for reference, and the same for the 3rd string. For the 2nd string, put your finger on the 4th fret of the 3rd string. Go back to the 5th fret for the 1st string. Play an "E" chord to test your tuning. Does it sound right? If not, start from the beginning and listen more closely to each string. It could be that your intonation is off, or one or more of a variety of causes for your guitar's inability to tune are at play. But if your ear is untrained, you won't get to a satisfactory tuning without a lot of practice, so keep at it.
  • Method 2: This process is the same as the first except that you'll be using "harmonics" instead of pressing down on the frets to relative-tune. I use this method after using the first, because it produces more distinguishable sounds once your strings are approximately in tune. Put your finger on the 6th string directly over the 5th fret, but just barely touching the string, and strike it. You should hear the same note you would if you were pressing on the fret, but an octave higher and more dreamy-sounding. Instead of striking the open 5th string, put a free finger over the 7th fret of the 5th string the same way you've just done with the 6th string, and strike it. Match the sounds by twisting your 5th string tuning peg.                         Repeat this process for the other strings except the 2nd, or "B" string, for which you'll have to press down on the 4th fret of the 4th ("G") string and strike the open 2nd string as you did in Method 1. 
    Confirm It: If you have one, check your tuning with an electronic tuner. From lowest to highest, the strings should read E-A-D-G-B-E.

More Tips: 

  • The "G" String: This string is commonly the hardest to keep in tune. If you find this to be true in your playing, try using a nickel-wound "G" string, available at most stores selling music gear. Nickel-wound strings are less bend-friendly, but may be worth the compromise.
  • Old Strings: Once your strings get too old or worn by the elements, they begin to sound flat and stay in tune less and less. Change out your strings about once a month for light use and twice a month for moderate-to-heavy use (you'll sense your strings' threshold in due time).
  • Wetter climates: Store your guitar in a gig bag or hardshell case to keep your strings rust-free longer, and expect to need to replace strings often.
  • Higher Altitudes: Reach up and high-five the angels. Use your free hand for extended hammer-ons. 



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