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Precise Guitar Tuning by Ear

Updated on October 26, 2016

Tune Precisely by Ear Without a Meter!

Welcome to the guitar-tuning tutorial that picks-up where others leave-off. Using video enhancement, this course teaches an additional skill: hearing the string one is tuning slide into tune with the pitch-reference string. You’ll be able to tune your guitar more accurately, because you will be able to hear the tuning happen.

The course is divided into three parts:

  • Learning what to listen for when you tune;
  • Learning a tuning method that allows you to easily use the first skill when tuning your guitar;
  • Learning to apply the tuning method in a new way: tuning many guitars, so a group of guitarists can play together, in tune.

There is, however, a prerequisite. If you are reading this course, you should already know the basics of tuning a guitar by ear (i.e., fretting the lower string on the fifth or fourth fret to match the pitch of the higher open string, playing both of them, etc.)

What to Listen for When Tuning—Hearing the “Beats” Slow and Stop

When musicians tune any instrument, they listen for a specific event: they listen for the “beats” to slow and stop. By “beats”, I don’t mean the beat to which one can dance or clap. I mean the oscillations of two sound waves that are close in frequency, but not quite the same. The two tones pulse in volume as the two sound waves converge and diverge. The following video gives an easy-to-hear example of the beats slowing and stopping as one bass guitar string slides into tune with another:

As you read what follows, remember this idea: two pitches are in tune when the beats slow and stop. Everything below is based on this concept.

Freeing the Left Hand So You Can Hear the Strings Slide into Tune

The tuning method I’m going to show you solves a big problem with tuning a guitar by ear: the test, stop, and adjust method. This is how most guitarists are taught to tune: by fretting the lower string (the “pitch-reference” note or string) with the left hand, playing the pitch-reference and the open string, and then removing the left hand from the fingerboard to turn the peg (which stops the pitch-reference string from sounding). This method doesn’t work well, and guitarists who rely on it almost never get their guitars truly in tune. Here’s a video example of the problem:

Problems with How We Were Taught to Tune

Guitarists using this method can’t hear the out-of-tune string slide into tune with the pitch-reference string. Orchestral string players (violin, viola, cello, string bass) don’t tune this way. They are taught to play two strings with their bow, listen to the interval of two strings (a perfect fifth), and to bring one string in tune with another, with the left hand on the tuning peg—all while the right hand bows the two strings. My method is similar. I’m not going to show you how to tune by interval, but I am going to show you how to free your left hand so that its only job is to turn the tuning peg. This will allow you to tune precisely by hearing one string slide into tune with another—again, by listening for the beats to slow and stop.

A Better Way to Tune

With my tuning method, the left hand always stays on the tuning pegs. Fretting and plucking the strings becomes the sole responsibility of the right hand. Here’s how to do it:

  • With your right hand, grasp the neck of the guitar with the thumb, third (ring), and fourth (little) fingers, near the fifth fret, as shown in the image below:

  • Next, hammer the lower string with the first (index) finger of your right hand (on the fifth or fourth fret, as appropriate), and pluck the open string with the second (middle) finger. Then, with your free left hand, tune the string to pitch. The following video shows the entire procedure:

A Better Way to Tune

Remember not to bend the hammered string with your right-hand index finger as you tune. Doing so pulls the pitch-reference string sharp. Also, when tuning electric guitars this way, pressing too hard on the hammered string will make the string go sharp, which will affect the tuning.

This tuning method takes practice. I can almost guarantee it will feel awkward at first. Stay with it; you’ll master it fairly quickly. You will soon see the rewards: your guitar will be better in tune than it has been, because you will be listening to the tuning as it happens.

That’s it! The next section of this tutorial takes this idea even farther to allow many guitars to be tuned with one another. The secret is changing the order in which the strings are tuned.

Tuning from the Inside Out

The Problem

Here’s the scene: You’re camping, at a backyard barbecue, or you’re at some other get-together. The time comes for you and your friends to break out the guitars. First, however, you need to tune, and no one remembered to bring an electronic tuner! One of you tunes from the low strings to the high strings, E-A-D-G-B-E (6-5-4-3-2-1 or mi-la-re-sol-ti-mi, for those of you who use the fixed “do” system), and then plucks the low E as the pitch to which the other guitarists then tune. The other guitarists tune, and then none of you are in tune with each other. Why is this?

It’s because, as the higher strings are brought into tune, the added tension on the neck of the guitar bows the neck slightly more than it was. This increase in the bow causes the lower strings that have been tuned to go flat. That much is intuitive, but here’s what’s not: the flattening of the tuned strings is worse when you tune lowest to highest. You and your friends are almost guaranteed not to be in tune with each other if you all tune low to high. This effect can be lessened by having everyone re-tune several times, but who wants to do that?

The Solution

Try this method of tuning instead. Tune the 4th or D string to pitch first. Then, tune the 3rd or G string as you would normally (hammer the D string at the fifth fret with your index finger, and then pluck the open G with your middle finger while tuning it to pitch with your left hand).

Now comes the interesting part. Because you’re tuning from the inside strings out, the next string to tune with be the 5th or A string. Because you’ve already tuned the D, you are now going to tune the fingered A string to the open D string. The second half of the video below has an example:

Tuning from the Inside Out

Learning to tune the fingered string to the open string is a matter of habit breaking. It may take a few tries and a few mistaken turns on the pegs before it becomes second nature. Don’t give up.

Once the A string is at pitch, tune the 2nd or B string as you would normally (finger the 3rd or G string at the fourth fret and tune the open B). Now you have a choice: you can tune the low 6th or E string as you did the 5th or A string and then tune the 1st or high E string, or you can tune the high E first and then the low E. I have had better luck doing the latter. The lighter gauges of the top[1] two strings may balance the much heavier gauge of the bottom E string. Experiment and see what works best for your guitar.

Once your guitar is in tune, play the D or 4th string, rather than the E or 6th string, for your friends to tune their guitars. Have them repeat the same process.

Tuning the inside strings first (4 and 3 or D and G) and then working your way out will better balance the load of the strings on the neck of the guitar, lessening the effect of flattening the tuned strings as the others are brought to pitch. Give it a try! You may find that you and your friends are playing in tune a lot faster.

Have fun, and thanks for checking out this tutorial! If you found it informative, give it a like and share it with your guitarist friends.

[1]When I say “top” or “bottom”, I’m referring to the strings’ pitch, not their distance from the ground.

© 2015 Trevor Croft

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