by Gerald Klickstein
Every guitarist aims to tune as quickly and accurately as possible. Nevertheless, most students and many professionals have significant difficulty tuning by ear. There are two fundamental reasons why: 1) conventional methods are difficult to use accurately; 2) few materials have been available for learning and mastering precise tuning skills.
To correct this problem, I began formulating a new tuning system in 1983. My work culminated in 1996 when Mel Bay Publications released my book Tuning the Guitar by Ear. In this article, I’ll summarize the contents of the book and explain how any guitarist can learn to tune with ease.
Tuning involves three skills: 1) playing clearly; 2) listening astutely; 3) adjusting strings precisely. To play clearly, we should sound the strings with a vivid, sustaining tone, damping unplayed strings to prevent sympathetic vibrations. Listening astutely involves hearing the pulsating sounds called beats. Beats occur when two sustaining pitches differ slightly. Listening for beats is the easiest and most precise way to tune. The third skill, adjusting strings precisely, encompasses having sensitive control of each tuning knob.
For a guitarist to tune quickly and accurately, he or she must know exactly how to play, listen and adjust.
The 5th-Fret Method
Although it works perfectly in theory, the 5th-fret approach seldom produces swift, accurate results. This is partly due to errors being compounded as we tune from string to string. It’s also because the 5th-fret method doesn’t allow us to easily listen for beats while adjusting strings; so instead, we listen for changes in pitch. Accuracy suffers because it’s tricky to recognize minute differences in pitch.
A Better Way to Tune
The 5th-fret method is easy to play, but like other conventional methods, makes listening and adjusting difficult. A better tuning strategy is to facilitate listening and adjusting, rather than playing. Accordingly, I designed my tuning system to simplify both listening for beats and the adjusting of pitch. It’s also designed to prevent the compounding of errors. It’s a bit more difficult to play than some other tuning systems because it involves playing harmonics and damping unplayed strings with the right-hand fingers. However, by greatly simplifying listening and adjusting, this trade-off enables you to tune with utmost speed and accuracy.
My approach integrates “tuning” and “testing.” “Tuning” is the act of adjusting a string’s pitch. “Testing” evaluates tuning accuracy. To listen for beats while “tuning,” the left hand must be free to turn the knobs. Consequently, I use only harmonics and open strings for “tuning” and employ fretted pitches for “testing.” Compound errors are avoided by “testing” each string against a single reference string. This combination of “tuning” and “testing” yields optimum speed and accuracy.
To begin, the 5th-fret harmonic of the fifth string is tuned to the A-440 from an electronic metronome. We sound the A-440 and the harmonic, damping the unplayed strings with the right-hand fingers. We lower the fifth string to where beating is clearly heard, then raise it to beatless. When beatless against the A-440, the string is in tune. The fifth string then becomes the reference for testing the other strings.
Next, the fourth string is tuned and tested. We sound the 5th-fret harmonic of the fifth string and the 7th-fret harmonic of the fourth string, damping the unplayed strings. The fourth string is lowered, then raised slightly sharp of beatless to beat at a rate indicated in the instructions by a metronome marking (if you tune the two harmonics identically, the 4th string will play flat – see FAQ below for more info). We then test the 4th string by playing the 12th-fret harmonic of the fifth string and the 7th-fret note (not harmonic) of the fourth string, damping the unplayed strings. If the fourth string is in tune, this test will be beatless. The remaining strings are tuned in a similar manner and each is tested against the fifth string. Finally, all strings are evaluated with test chords. Guitarists who master this method tune accurately in about one minute.
Guitars are tuned in equal temperament where the twelve half steps that make up an octave are equally sized. As a result, all keys sound equally in tune. This equality is achieved through compromise, i.e., some intervals are more in tune than others. For example, octaves and unisons are perfectly in tune and sound beatless. Major thirds are quite sharp and beat noticeably. That’s why when we play an E-major chord in open position, the G# on the third string sounds sharp–it is sharp and it’s supposed to be. If we lower the third string to make the G# less sharp, the third string will sound flat for other intervals.
The effectiveness of this tuning system depends not only on the guitarist who uses it, but also on the guitar itself. If an instrument is not properly set up, it will be impossible to tune with any method. Because setup flaws are common, my book Tuning the Guitar by Ear begins with guitar fitness guidelines. These include directions for replacing strings, maintaining tuning gears, controlling humidity levels and more. A simple test is included to check for accurate intonation. Most setup flaws are easily repaired, so if you’re uncertain whether your guitar plays in tune, have it evaluated by a technician.
Rapid, accurate tuning requires reliable tuning habits. Tuning the Guitar by Ear is a comprehensive resource for guitarists to master precise tuning skills. Procedures are shown in easy-to-read graphic notation (no music-reading skills are needed) and the language is concise. In addition to standard tuning, the book includes instructions for three alternate tunings, guidelines for tuning on stage, tuning methods for beginners and more.
Q: How long does it take to learn this tuning method?
A: Anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. Tuning the Guitar by Ear includes preparatory exercises to facilitate learning. The initial exercises address playing harmonics and damping unplayed strings. Additional ones develop listening and adjusting skills. String-by-string tuning and testing instructions follow.
Q: Why use an electronic metronome as the source of the A-440?
A: It has proven to be the most practical source. A tuning fork may be used instead, but is awkward by comparison.
Q: Why aren’t the harmonics at the 5th fret of the fifth string and 7th fret of the fourth string tuned identically (i.e., beatless)?
A: A harmonic is produced without fretting a string so it isn’t subject to the equal tempering of a fretted pitch. A 5th-fret harmonic sounds identical to its equivalent fretted pitch. A 7th-fret harmonic sounds slightly sharp of its equivalent fretted pitch. The two harmonics in question form a unison where one pitch is identical to a fretted pitch and the other is not. A s a result, the pitches differ slightly when the strings are accurately tuned.
Q: Why can’t I just play the test and skip the harmonics (i.e., use only octaves or unisons to tune)?
A: Again, “tuning” involves adjusting a string’s pitch; “testing” evaluates accuracy. Let’s say you hear that a fretted octave is out of tune; for example, the 4th string second fret is out of tune against the 6th string open (that’s “testing”). Now, what will you listen for while tuning the 4th string (it won’t sustain when the left hand leaves the fingerboard to turn the tuning knob)? Merely playing a test will reduce the speed and accuracy of your tuning because you won’t be able to listen for beats while adjusting an out-of-tune string. When a string tests out of tune, playing the harmonics enables you to listen for beats while altering the string’s pitch. This facilitates listening and adjusting, thereby maximizing speed and accuracy; the trade-off is that the playing becomes more detailed.
Q: Why not just play the harmonics and skip the test?
A: Testing increases accuracy. However, excessive testing reduces tuning speed. My approach strikes a balance between speed and accuracy, thereby achieving both.
Q: Can I alter a string’s tuning to favor a particular key?
A: Typically not. Since guitars are fretted in equal temperament, they can only be tuned in equal temperament. To favor a particular key we would have to change temperament, which would involve moving frets! Nonetheless, guitarists sometimes make subtle tuning alterations to compensate for setup flaws.
Q: Are other instruments tuned by listening for beats?
A: Pianos and all stringed instruments are tuned this way.
Q: Isn’t it difficult to tune by listening for beats?
A: Anyone (even tone-deaf people) can easily hear beats and recognize beat rates. In my experience, the only individuals who have difficulty hearing beats are those experienced guitarists who are in the habit of ignoring beats.
Q: What’s the best way for beginners to tune?
A: By using an electronic tuner. Contrary to what we might assume, using a tuner helps beginners develop the skills needed for accurate tuning by ear. This is because an electronic tuner equips students to tune accurately without the aid of a teacher. As a result, they consistently play in tune and learn the sound of an in-tune guitar. They also develop precise control of the tuning knobs and become confident with tuning. Furthermore, by delaying tuning by ear until they’re technically prepared, they avoid the frustrations of beginners who struggle with tuning.
Q: Is using an electronic tuner as accurate as tuning by ear?
A: For experienced guitarists, tuning by ear usually is more accurate because the ear is more sensitive than current tuner technology. For beginners, using a tuner achieves greater accuracy than can typically be achieved by ear.
Q: What if I have additional questions?
A: Send them to me via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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