GUITAR 101: Tuning Your Guitar by Ear, Part 2
OK, we’re still on tuning by ear. Last week, we talked about the fifth-fret method. This week, we’ll talk about the octave method; then we’ll talk about the harmonics method. The most important thing to remember is that you still need a reference note to start with. You must be sure that the note you start with is perfectly in tune. The best way to assure that is with a chromatic tuner. Then turn off the tuner and proceed. Now you’re tuning by ear. Remember that you not only want your guitar to be in tune with itself, you also want to be in tune with all the other instruments that the other people are playing. That is why everyone tunes to standard pitch. If you just strum your guitar, it sounds good to you and you say “OK, I’m in tune let’s go,” you’re not quite getting the point.
To use the octave method let’s review what an octave is: An octave is the interval between two notes that have the same name. For instance, a C major scale goes from C to C. The notes are C (1), D (2), E (3), F(4), G (5), A (6), B (7), C (8). Notice that the word octave comes from the Latin word meaning VIII. Also from the emperor Octavius, who had eight arms, just like a you-know-what.
A440 is the note orchestras tune to (and everybody else in the U.S.A.) uses as a reference. That means on whatever instrument you’re playing, there’s an A note that vibrates at exactly 440 times per second. That would be the 5th fret of your little “e” (1st string) on your guitar. The A note below that (2nd fret G string) vibrates at exactly 220 times per second. The next A, descending in pitch, moves at 110 times (or cycles) per second. That’s your open A (5th) string. Cycles per second and hertz are the same thing. That’s very mathematical. Some countries did (maybe still do) use another reference, like A (439 hertz) or A (442 hertz.) I used to know why, but I forgot.
Here’s the way I like to do it: Take your open “little” E (1st string), match it to your electronic tuner, then (by ear) match it with the E at the 2nd fret of the 4th (D) string. That’s an E exactly one octave below the open E. It vibrates exactly half the speed of the open little E. Listen closely for those “wobbles” we talked about earlier. You can loosen the D string, press the second fret, lower the pitch until the wobbles become more distinct. Gradually raise the pitch until the wobbles slow down, then disappear. Again, be sure you’re in a quiet place with no fans going. A fan will make any note wobble all over the place.
Now, repeat the procedure as follows: Play the open D (4th string) and match it to the D at the 3rd fret of the B (2nd string). Now listen for wobbles again. Tune the B string, don’t retune the 4th string. Now, match the open B string to the B note on the 2nd fret of the 5th string. OK, now play the open A (5th string). We know/hope it’s in tune now ‘cause we just tuned it at the 2nd fret. Now match that open A (110 cycles per second) to the 2nd fret of the G string (220). Now, play the open G (3rd string) and match it to the 3rd fret of the low E (6th string).
OK, that’s all six strings. Remember, this is a learning process. You might not be able to hear the “wobbles,” but just do it a few times a day for a week and you’ll get lots better at it. If you can’t hear the wobbles at all, you can still learn hear the “right sound” of matching octaves with practice. They sound like the first two notes of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”