GUITAR 101: Tuning by Ear, Part 1

Written by October 27th, 2008 at 9:08 am

Paul Zollo

Paul Zollo

Believe it or don’t, until electronic tuners became available in the ‘70s, people used to tune their guitars by ear. Not everybody was that good at it. You even used to hear “out-of-tuneness” on hit records. You might not like the music that’s being recorded now, but at least it’s in tune.

The ability to tune by ear is an important skill that many people completely overlook, especially since tuners are so accurate and compact now. Yet anything that involves close listening is a good thing. In my opinion, there isn’t enough listening like this going on. Music is about sounds, so you must learn to listen, and tuning your guitar by ear is a big part of this process.

I heartily recommend that every guitarist own a chromatic tuner and use it, even though these tuners have limitations. Don’t assume that your guitar is in perfect tune just because your open strings match the little lights and needles. What your tuner is telling you is that one particular note is vibrating at a certain frequency. When you play a chord, the combination of those frequencies may not sound so great. Your open G chord may sound great, but your open E chord might suck. If the intonation on your guitar isn’t accurate, all your chords will not sound right as you move around the neck. So the first thing you need to do is have your guitar’s intonation checked and adjusted by someone who knows how to do it.

For the purpose of this article, we’re going to stick to standard tuning, but the same principles apply to any tuning.

There are several ways to tune by ear, but there are three methods that are the most common: (1) The fifth fret method, (2) the octaves method and (3) the harmonics method. No matter which way you do it, you need to start with something that gives you an accurate reference pitch, such as a piano, electronic tuner, pitch pipe or tuning fork. I recommend an electronic tuner, until you have developed the skill of hearing pitches accurately. If your ear is not able to match the reference pitch, you’re screwed. So with a tuner, you’re pretty safe. Remember that this is a learning process. You’re training your ear to hear pitches accurately, so it takes time. Find a quiet place, if possible. Turn off the ceiling fan.

Let’s start with the simplest method, the fifth fret method. Most of you are familiar with this one.
Match your low E (sixth) string (the big one) to your electronic tuner. Now fret that E string on the 5th fret. That note is an A. (Exactly 110 cycles per second, to be exact.) Your 5th string open should sound just like that note. Turn your 5th string’s tuning key back and forth making the pitch get a little higher (sharper) and lower (flatter) and listen closely to it. Make sure you’re turning the right one. When both strings are vibrating, you should be trying to hear a beat, oscillation, or “wobble.” (I stole the word “wobble” from Mark Hanson, a great guitar teacher) The more out of tune you are, the faster the “wobble.” As the frequencies get closer to each other, the wobble slows down. When it goes away and you hear one smooth sound, then you’re in tune. Remember if the intonation on your guitar is not adjusted correctly, none of this will work correctly.

Now that your A string is in tune, fret that string on the 5th fret. That should produce a D note, which is the exact pitch of the open D (4th) string. Now turn your D string’s tuning key, listening for the wobble again. I suggest purposely lowering the pitch of the string you’re tuning until you can hear the wobble get faster. Then slowly turn it so that it gets sharper (higher in pitch) listening to the wobble slow down and disappear.
It’s always better to tune up to the correct pitch, so there’s no slack in the string at the tuning peg.
OK, fret the D string at the 5th fret. By the way, there’s usually a position marker (dot) at the 5th fret, which makes it easier to find. The 5th fret of the D string produces a G note, which is the same pitch as your open G (3rd) string. Now lower the G string’s pitch ‘til you’re sure you can hear the wobble, then slowly raise it ‘til wobbles slow down and stop. Now that one’s in tune.

Now repeat the process, except for one thing. This string is different. On the G (3rd ) string, you fret the 4th fret, NOT the 5th to get the pitch of the next open string (B)! Dang! Why? Because the interval between the open G string and the open B (2nd) string is a third, not a 4th like all the other strings. I talked about this in an earlier column.

Then you’re back to the 5th fret on the B string, which matches the open E (1st) string. Next time, tuning with harmonics and octaves.

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