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Guitar Lesson Four


Tuning MIDI


This lesson is divided into six parts:



The nature of the guitar is such that, it requires frequent tuning. To this end, we will, in the next few lessons, explore not only the process of tuning itself, but also, the historic and scientific basis for the pitches that are currently accepted as "in tune".

The easiest and probably the more reliable meathod of tuning for the beginner is to use an electronic tuner. These gadgets take a lot of the "guess-work" out of tuning, but they are really only the first step to insuring a properly tuned instrument. The next step is to learn to tune your guitar "by ear".

At first, the process of tuning by ear can seem like an impossible undertaking. But, with a bit of practice and a lot of attention paid to detail, tuning by ear will become an indespesable tool for "fine-tuning" your instrument.

First, let's look at a graphic representation of a sound wave:



The distance from one PEAK to the next is called a CYCLE. The number of cycles per second determines the PITCH (how high or low) of the sound. The term used to denote cycles per second is HERTZ or Hz. (Remember: The educated guitarist "does it 'till it Hertz")

Now, if we look at two sound waves that are out of tune with each other, it would look like this:



The sections marked A are where the two waves are IN PHASE whereas, the section marked B is OUT OF PHASE. When two waves are in phase, they reinforce each other, which causes an increase in VOLUME (how loud or soft), and when they are out of phase, the two waves try to cancel each other out, which causes a decrease in volume.

This alternating between in and out of phase causes an audible pulsating effect called a BEAT. The farther out of tune the two waves are, the faster the beat.

Listen to this example:


Notice the pulsating effect that sounds like a "wha-wha-wha" as the two strings ring together.

Now listen to this example:


Notice that the BEAT is quite a bit slower. This is because the two strings are closer in pitch than in the previous example.

Now, listen to two strings that are perfectly in tune:


Notice that the BEAT has completely disappeared.

Here is an example of two strings that are out of tune, slowly being brought to perfect tune:


In order to achieve great success with tuning by ear, you must become very familiar with the BEAT. Here, there is simply no substitute for "hands-on" experience. So, let's get started.


General Tips

There are many different methods for tuning the guitar. We will cover the specifics of a few of the better methods in a moment, but first, let's look at some general guidlines that apply to any tuning method.


Reference pitch: All methods of tuning, except for the use of an electronic tuner, require that you have a reference pitch to tune at least one string to. There are many ways to get a reference pitch, such as:

  • Electronic tuner - Use the tuner to tune one string, and then, tune the rest of the strings by ear.

  • Another instrument - This could be a piano, keyboard, another guitar or any other instrument that playes pitches. You will, most probably, encounter this as you get out and play with other musicians.

  • Your own instrument - You can assume that at least one of the strings on your guitar is in tune, and tune the rest of the strings from there. Very rarely (unless you drop your guitar on the floor) will all of the strings on your guitar be out of tune at once. If you play a few familiar chords, you can usually determine that most of the strings are in tune and one or two are out. Once you determine which strings need to be tuned, you can tune them off of the strings that are in tune.

  • Tuning fork or pitchpipes - Tuning forks provide an extremely accurate reference whereas pitchpipes are practically worthless. You get what you pay for.

  • Off the record - When it comes to trying to play along with a recording, you will have to isolate a reference pitch from the recording itself. Often, it's easier to listen to the bass guitar to find a reference.

  • Misc. - I've heard of all manner of references being used, including the dial tone on the telephone. One guy that I read about in a magazine even tuned his guitar to the 60 cycle hum caused by electricity. (It has been determined by "those on high" that the A above middle C shall, henceforth, vibrate at none other than 440 Hz. 60 Hz, therefore, yields a pitch that is, roughly, halfway between B and Bb.)


Slowly, Slowly, Slowly: It's important to go slowly and really listen for the beat. Let the strings ring together, and when you hear the beat, slowly bring the out of tune string to pitch. If you go too fast, you'll invariably over-shoot your destination and have to start all over again. I can't stress this point enough. A lot of people will check the pitch of the two string, reach over and tweak the tuner, then check the pitches again. This is like playing darts while wearing a blindfold. You have to allow the two strings to ring together, and LISTEN to the beat WHILE you SLOWLY turn the tuning machine. The whole trick to tuning by ear is to hear the beat slow down and finally stop. Otherwise, you'll be trying to guess whether you're in tune or not.

Allow the strings to ring together WHILE you tune: This is an extension of the last point. In order to accomplish this feat, you'll need to get in the habit of using your picking hand to turn the tuners and not your fretboard hand.

Always tune UP to a pitch: Due to the mechanical nature of the tuning machine itself, if you tune down to a pitch, there will be a micro-amount of slack left between the gears of the tuner. This slack will work itself out as you play, and you'll soon find yourself out of tune again. It can be difficult enough to keep your guitar in tune without adding to the problem. Also, the ear has an easier time hearing a pitch that is slightly low than it does one that is slightly high. It's a good idea to intentionally tune the string low and then bring it UP to pitch. Didn't you ever wonder why it's called tuning up?

60 cycle hum: As I mentioned above, electricity hums away at 60Hz, which is between B and Bb. This means, that everything from lighting fixtures to your computer screen and even your guitar amp is buzzing at this frequency while you are trying to tune. There's really nothing you can do but attempt to minimize the effects of this situation. For example, if you have an electric fan running, you may have to shut it off, or if you're sitting in front of your computer, turn the monitor off while you tune etc...

Other stuff: Even if you are carefull to follow all of these guidelines, You may still find it impossible to get your guitar to play in tune. There are a few contributing factors:

  • Dead strings - Strings don't last forever. Over time, they begin to lose their ability to vibrate true. If you can't get your guitar to tune up properly, and it's been a while since you changed your strings, It is most probably time to do so.

  • String guage - For the most part, the heavier the string, the more accurately it will play. At the very least, I strongly recommend that you use no lighter than a .010 through .046 set on electric and a .012 through .053 set on acoustic. Any lighter and you will find it difficult to get the G-string to ring true.

  • Intonation - The part of the BRIDGE that the strings rest on is called the SADDLE. Most electric guitars have an individual saddle for each string (acoustic guitars, generally do not) that needs to be adjusted to compensate for the amount of pressure you use to hold down the strings when you play. If these saddles are not properly adjusted, you will find that, as you play higher up the neck, your guitar sounds increasingly out of tune. This adjustment is very simple to make and requires only that you have a screwdriver and an electronic tuner. (If you don't have a tuner, any guitar shop will, generally, be glad to make the adjustment for a small fee.) The process is as follows:

    • Using an electronic tuner, tune the string via the HARMONIC at the 12th fret. (To play a harmonic, lightly touch the string directly over the fret. Don't push the string down, just touch it. If you are touching the string directly over the fret as you pick it, you'll get a bell-like chime called a HARMONIC.) Make sure to tune the harmonic as accurately as possible, or any adjustment you make will not be correct. Once you have the harmonic in tune, play the fretted note at the 12th fret, and compare it's pitch (using the tuner) to the pitch of the harmonic. If the fretted note and the harmonic are exactly the same pitch, no adjustment needs to be made to that string. If the fretted note is higher than the harmonic, it means that the length of the string is too short, and the saddle needs to be moved toward the bridge end of the guitar to make the string longer. If, on the other hand, the fretted note is lower in pitch than the harmonic, it means that the string is too long, and the saddle needs to be moved closer to the neck to shorten the length. Make only small adjustments to the saddle at first, then re-tune the harmonic and check the fretted note to see if you need to make more adjustment. In time, you will develop a "feel" for how far you need to move the saddle to make the proper adjustment. Follw the same process for each string.

    It's a good idea to make this adjustment when you first put on fresh strings, as new strings will be the most accurate for pitch. Now, if you can't move the saddles far enough, you will probably have to turn your guitar over to a competent repair person and let them see what they can do.

  • Too much left hand pressure - How hard you push the strings to the fingerboard, as well as, whether you have a tendency to push or pull on the strings as you fret them, will have a huge impact on your ability to play in tune. I've seen guitars that have been played so hard that the strings have worn notches in the frets and grooves in the fingerboard. It's very important, not only for intonation, but also for speed and fluidity, that you endeavor to keep the left hand loose and relaxed. It actually takes very little pressure to hold the strings down, but requires proper left hand developement. This is accomplished by following the guidelines I have laid out in lesson one regarding left hand position and finger placement.



Tuning Methods

5th fret: This is the most common "by-ear" meathod of tuning, due to the fact that it is the only method that utilizes the UNISON (two notes of the exact same pitch ringing together). Let's assume that your low E-string is in tune. Now, play the A note at the 5th fret of the E-string, and use that note to tune the A-string itself. The rest of the strings, except when tuning the B-string, are exactly the same. The 5th fret of the A tunes the D, the 5th fret of the D tunes the G, The 4th fret of the G tunes the B and the 5th fret of the B tunes the high E.

Octave: Tune the low E-string. Now tune the E at the 7th fret of the A-string to the open E-string. Then, tune the 7th fret of the D-string to the open A, the 7th fret of the G to the open D, The 8th fret of the B to the open G, and the 7th fret of the high E to the open B. I use this one to double check my tuning.

Harmonics (good): Tune the high E. Now tune the harmonic at the 12th fret of the B to the 7th fret of the high E, the 12th fret harmonic of the G to the 3rd fret of the high E, the 12th fret harmonic of the D to the 3rd fret of the B, the 12th fret harmonic of the A to the 2nd fret of the G, and the 12th fret harmonic of the low E to the 2nd fret of the D. This is the meathod I use to tune an acoustic guitar.

Harmonics (bad): You will inevitably run into a lot of people who use this one, so I'm going to lay it out for you, even though, it will leave your guitar out of tune. In the next lesson, I will provide you with a short discourse on harmonic overtones which will explain why this method is bad. So, why does everyone use this method? In a word, it's easy. Of all the tuning methods that I have ever seen, this one makes it the easiest to hear the beat. I suppose you could say that guitar players tend to be very lazy, so many of them choose ease over accuracy.

Here goes: Tune your low E. Then tune the harmonic at the 7th fret of the A to the harmonic at the 5th fret of the E. Tune the 7th fret harmonic of the D to the 5th fret harmonic of the A, and the 7th fret harmonic of the G to the 5th fret harmonic of the D. To tune the B, you have to use one of the other meathods like the 5th fret or octave. Once the B is in tune, tune the 7th fret harmonic of the high E to the 5th fret harmonic of the B.

Power chords: Power chords are second only to unisons and octaves for being the most "in tune" thing that you can play on the guitar. Start by tuning your low E. Then play some power chords using the E and A-strings up and down the neck, and tune the A-string so that it sounds right. Thats all there is to this one. Play power chords on all other pairs of strings, and just remember which string is in tune and which needs to be adjusted. Also, remember that the B-string is tuned a fret lower than the other strings. So, when you play a power chord using the G and B-strings, the notes have to be 3 frets apart instead of 2.

One final point: You don't have to start with one method and stick to that method only. I tend to "mix and match" from all the above methods (and a few more) on any given pair of strings, in order to really "nail" accurate tuning.


This lesson is divided into six parts:

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