Tuning a guitar can be a tricky and fraught exercise. This post is going to guide you through a few solid ways of tuning the guitar.
Tuning a guitar some days is akin to Gary Oldman‘s character, Zorg, in the Fifth Element explaining life: it is just “destruction, disorder and chaos”. And like Zorg, most guitarists today rely on gadgets to get the strings into tune. And yes those gadgets, such as the Snark tuner, get the job done really, really well. However that is all you are left with: strings that are in tune – not a guitar that is in tune.
Depending on how much you paid for said guitar is really how well it is going to be in tune. Any guitar below a £1000 is not really going to effectively be in tune, sorry! However that is not to say you can’t get it close. And as you progress learning and playing you will find that there is a certain knack to tuning each one of your guitars, you just need to find it. First a quick lesson on how to hear out of tune notes.
Training The Ear
Pick the open strings ( Low E & A). Drop the A string down slightly, put a finger on fret 5 of the Low E and play the fretted note and the open A together. You should hear two notes (A & A) which are out of tune. This method is generally the first one any guitarists is shown how to tune the guitar up. And it works only if you can hear the two notes being out. How does the work?
Well the two notes are really sound waves, which vibrate at the same frequency. If they don’t, and are even a little out. The one one wave will bang into the other wave creating this “wah wah” effect in your ear. How that works, is the hairs in your ear (yes you all have hairs) move with the sounds that enter the ear canal, as soon as two waves bang against each other, so do your hairs. The hairs translate the movement to sound and hey presto – you can hear. So your job is to focus on the “wah wah” sound and tune one string up to vibrate at the same frequency as the other. Thus creating harmony and balance and completing the circle of life.
Always tune up to a note; never down.
This is down to pure physics, as you press into strings that are tuned down they will slip even further out of tune; due to the nut holding them in place.
So with that in mind here are my top two methods and some tips to being in tune. (Be warned they all rely on your ear: not a gadget!)
Method 1: 4ths (and a 3rd)
This method of tuning the guitar relies on the open strings. All you do is get your fifth string (A) in tune with a gadget and then tune in the open strings to the interval of a fourth. Apart from between strings 3 & 2 which is an interval of a third. If you followed the example above you should now be able to hear the notes “banging” against each other in your ear. Just tune up from below until there is no clash. Fourths can be tricky at first to hear when out by are excellent practice.
Method 2: A = 440 (hz that is)
This method also uses a gadget to get the A string, which vibrates at 440 hertz, into tune. You then tune each string to it. First would be the octave above that A, which is the G string fret 2, then you tune the D and E strings by the method above, however this time you check with octaves on the A string as to how in tune each string is. Check the video below for a full walk through of this method.
The bottom line is as you progress learning the guitar you realize that some strings never stay in tune, the G string has and always will be problematic. You also discover there are certain intervals you are happier with on the guitar. So tuning becomes a personal affair. Don’t believe me? Check out this awesome video below by Martin Taylor as he explains his method for tuning and why he likes to sharpen his G string.