How to Tune a Guitar by Ear

Electronic tuners are cheap, accurate and readily available. Even people with a very good ear will probably be able to tune faster with a tuner than by ear.

You can even get pedal tuners, that you can step on to tune quickly and silently, before stepping on them again and being ready to play straight away, without having to plug or unplug any cables.

This is really useful when performing or rehearsing, where people might not particularly enjoy waiting around and listening to you tune.

Even when you are just sitting at home, tuning by ear can take a lot longer, and requires more effort, especially when you are new to playing music.

Why then would you want to learn how to tune a guitar by ear?

How to Tune a Guitar by Ear

Well, for a start, you don’t want to be caught helpless when your tuner suddenly breaks, runs out of batteries, or you just misplace it or forget to bring it with you.

Being able to tune your guitar without a tuner is a basic skill that other musicians will expect of you as a guitarist.

But the main reason you should tune a guitar by ear is precisely because it is hard, especially when you’re new to it.

By challenging your ear and making it do some work, you will improveand develop your ear for pitch.

This will help you not just with tuning your guitar, but will help you play more accurate bends, transcribe songs by ear quicker and more easily, improvise better and with more confidence, and more easily translate the melodies in your head into fingers on the fretboard.

Once you get good at tuning by ear, it will also often just tune up than it would be to have to get up, put the guitar down, find a cable or two and where you last put the tuner.

Does this mean you should not bother with electronic tuners? I don’t think so. Personally, I choose to use an electronic tuner whenever I’m playing a gig or rehearsing, just as a courtesy to the audience and the other musicians.

When I’m at home though, practicing, working on songs, or just goofing around, I will tune by ear. In fact I often leave my pedal tuner at the practice space along with my amplifier, and I don’t miss it.

Relative Tuning

Relative tuning means tuning each string of the guitar with reference to the other strings. It assumes that you know that at least one of your strings, usually the low string, is in tune already. If you are not going to be playing the guitar along with any other tuned instruments, or with any recordings, then this is not crucial.

To tune a guitar to standard tuning, first get the low E string tuned. Then fret the low E string at the fifth fret and play it. The note you are playing is an A. You want to tune the fifth string – the A string – to this note. If the pitch of the open A string is lower than the A played on the low E string, tune it up very gradually until it is sounding the same pitch. If the open A string is higher than the A played on the low E string, tune it so that it is slightly lower than the A played on the low E string, and then tune it up. It’s better to tune a string up from slightly below pitch, and then tune it up, than it is to tune it from above, because if you just tune down from above then the string can get a little bit “caught” at the nut, only to slip later as it’s played, causing the string to be slightly flat.

The fourth string then needs to be tuned the same way, this time to a D, which you can play at the fifth fret of the fifth string. You tune the third string to a G, which you can play at the fifth fret of the fourth string. The second string is tuned to a B, which is played at the fourth fret of the third string. The first string is then tuned to an E, which you can play at the fifth fret of the second string.

When you fret the strings, don’t press down any harder than you have to to sound a clean note. Pressing really hard will give you the wrong pitch.

You can check that it’s all in tune by playing a natural harmonic at the sixth string by touching it very lightly at the fifth fret and picking the string. Then play the first string open. If you have tuned the guitar right, the fifth fret harmonic on the sixth string and the open first string should sound the same pitch.

Tuning by reference

To get the sixth string tuned, you will need a reference note. If you are using standard tuning then that note will be E. In a band situation, and you have someone in the band with a fixed-tuning instrument, such as a keyboard, piano or organ, then ask that person to play you an E to tune to. Otherwise, ask the bass player to play you an E. If you are tuning to a piano or keyboard by yourself, then the E is the 12th white note to the left of middle C. Be careful because some pianos are not tuned to concert pitch! Otherwise, you can tune to another guitar that you know is already in tune, to a pitch pipe or tuning fork, or even to players on a CD.

Your guitar will not stay in tune forever – it’s normal for guitars to drift out of tune when they’ve been left lying around unplayed. When you have fresh strings on your guitar then they will take some time to stretch out, and will need to be tuned up periodically. Sometimes aggressive playing, with heavy picking, large bends or big whammy dives can also put your guitar out of tune. Some guitars will hold their tuning better than others.

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