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Tuning your Guitar

David Raleigh Arnold

The Automatic Chromatic Tuner

Nothing beats an automatic chromatic tuner for tuning. They cost very little more than guitar tuners, there is less to go wrong, and they are more useful. If someone offers you a guitar tuner, take it and use it with gratitude, but do not buy a guitar tuner. Buy an automatic chromatic tuner.

  • It hears more accurately than you do.
  • It can be used under noisy conditions.
  • You can tune anything with it, including your piano.
  • It can be calibrated.
  • It frees the working musician from having to tune to another instrument which may not itself be in tune.
  • When you are used to it, it saves a lot of time over the years.

Nevertheless, beginners should learn to tune by comparison.

Comparison Tuning for Beginners

The best way to start is by comparing pitches on different strings.

If you do not have a means to tune to an “a”:

Trust that your ⑥ string is tuned to an “e” and:

Place any finger 4mm behind the 5th fret of the ⑥ string and tune the ⑤ string to the same pitch.

  • Do not allow both strings to sound at once until a final check. Otherwise, you cannot compare their pitches.
  • If you can’t tell which is higher or lower, sing both notes. It is impossible to be wrong if you can sing them.
  • Keep playing the string you are tuning. It is a must:
    1. to make sure that you are turning the right key.
    2. to make sure that you are turning it the right way.
    3. to hear how much you need to turn it.

Get the ⑤ string at the 5th fret and tune the ④ string in the same manner. Keep going.

5th fret ④ → open ③

4th fret ③ → open ②

5th fret ② → open ①

If you do have a means to tune to an “a”:

Tune the ⑤ string from your 'a' and proceed from there similarly:

5th fret ⑤ → open ④

5th fret ④ → open ③

4th fret ③ → open ②

5th fret ② → open ①

Open ⑤ → 5th fret ⑥, or get the “e” from the ① string and tune the ⑥ to a much lower “e”, or use the “e” at the second fret of the ④ string and use that to tune the ⑥ to the octave below.

Why Practice Tuning by Comparison?

  • The ear has to become used to the sound of an instrument, because no instrument, not even a flute, gives a pitch that is really true. Fretted instruments are out of tune in a unique way. Below every fretted note there is another much weaker pitch that is a hair lower. That is because most of the vibration is according to the distance from the fret to the bridge, but the string also vibrates sideways according to the slightly longer distance from the finger to the bridge. No wonder beginners can have a problem with tuning at first.
  • Obviously, you might not have a tuner handy. There are more accurate and sophisticated ways to tune without one, but it is sensible to master the method already described first, to better accustom yourself to the instrument.

Tuning with Harmonics

Tuning with harmonics is a quick method of tuning a guitar which might have its frets set imperfectly or which has strings which are less than good. It’s only advantage is speed. To get a harmonic, touch the string very lightly directly over the fret indicated, not behind it, play the string with the right hand at a point two to three inches away from the bridge, and very quickly remove the left hand finger from the string.

  • Starting with the ⑤ string, play the harmonic at the 7th fret and tune the open ① string, and the 5th fret of the ⑥ string from it.
  • Play the harmonic at the 7th fret of the ⑥ string and tune the open ② string from that.
  • Play the harmonic at the 5th fret of the ⑤ string and tune the harmonic at the 7th fret of the ④ string from that.
  • Play the harmonic at the 4th fret of the ④ string and tune the harmonic at the 7th fret of the ③ string to that, or tune the open ③ from the fretted note at the fifth fret of the ④ as before.

Better Comparison Method

There is nothing new about this method which is similar to a tuning method described in Vahdah O. Bickford’s book. It is the best method for tuning by comparison, especially with old strings, because you greatly reduce the systematic error caused by bad frets or strings. Start with the open ③ string.

  • Tune the open ② string from the 4th fret of the ③ string.
  • Tune the ① string at its 3rd fret from the open ③ string. The octave harmonic may help.
  • Tune the ⑤ from the 2nd fret of the ③ string. The octave harmonic may help, but you are less likely to need to use it because tuning the lower note of an octave from the upper is easier than vice versa.
  • Tune the 3rd fret of the ⑥ string from the open ③ string, using the octave harmonic if necessary.
  • Tune the open ④ string from the 3rd fret of the ② string.

The Kitchen Sink

  • There are guitar pitch pipes which give each string’s pitch, but they are an octave high. Otherwise, they would have to be very large. Just using the “a” is an option. For holding in the mouth for hands-free operation, it is better to use a harmonica. It works just as well and you can play a tune on it. In all cases, let a lot of air leak when you blow to avoid flattening the notes.
  • A tuning fork is much more consistent, but not necessarily more accurate, depending on its calibration when it was made.
  • A computer can give perfectly accurate pitches.
  • The United States uses alternating current at 60 cps. When something electric or electronic hums at that frequency, it is approximately a “b”.


Please do not worry if some of these methods depend on skills which you do not have yet. Tuning improves with practice just like everything else. ☺

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©2010 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com