If you want to know how to tune a guitar to itself, it helps to have a basic idea of what a string does and how it produces a tone.
Strings vibrate and produce a frequency that we perceive as sound.
Different frequencies mean different pitches (and vice versa).
The colored lines represent different frequencies. One glance and you know they won’t sound the same because their shapes are different.
Tuning is nothing more than matching frequencies so that all of them agree.
There are 2 different ways to tune a guitar without the aid of a tuner or tuning fork.
The first way is to fret a note on one string and match the next open string to that pitch.
We don’t have any reference for concert pitch, so let’s assume our Low E string is in tune. Here’s the entire process:
*assume your Low E is in tune
*play the 5th fret on the Low E and tune your open A (5th string) to match that pitch.
(Imagine the lower blue line represents your Low E string/5th fret and the upper pink line represents your open A (5th) string. The pink/A line is wavier-meaning that it is HIGHER in pitch. Our goal is to get the 2 lines even, so we need to slow down or LOWER the pitch of the A (5th) string until it matches the same vibrations as our Low E (6th) string. Remember to turn the tuning machine for the A string!!! Low E is our reference. It’s much easier to match these 2 sounds when they ring simultaneously. Some players will play the 2 notes and reach over with their PICKING hand and turn the tuner. This way they can hear both notes at the same time and make adjustments to the A if needed. After you have matched the tones, your LOW E and A (5th) strings are now in tune with each other).
*Now play the A string/5th fret and tune your open D (4th) string to match it.
*Play the D string/5th fret and tune your open G (3rd) string to match it.
**Here’s a twist– Play G string/4th fret and tune your open B (2nd) string to match it.
*Finally play B string/5th fret and tune open High E (1st) to match it.
Now strum a chord and hope for the best.
*If it still sounds bad, repeat the steps.
The second way is to tune with HARMONICS– progressively matching the new strings pitch to the previous.
Many guitarists think that this is easier to hear than the first way, but remember that if a guitar’s intonation is off-the harmonics will be off as well. We’ll use Low E again as our reference pitch.
*play the LOW E string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your A string’s 7th fret harmonic to it.
*play the A string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your D string’s 7th fret harmonic to it.
*play the D string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your G string’s 7th fret harmonic to it.
**ANOTHER TWIST- play the G string’s 4th fret harmonic and tune your B string’s 5th fret harmonic to it.
*play theB string’s 5th fret harmonic and tune your High E string’s 7th fret harmonic to it.
I lied…there are actually 3 ways to tune without a tuner or tuning fork handy. As your ear gets more practice listening to the differences between 2 tones, you’ll find that you start recognizing how different tones harmonize.
Try this simple ear training exercise. MAKE SURE YOUR GUITAR IS PROPERLY TUNED FIRST!
Play your open D and open G strings together. Can you hear how the two tones work well together- even though they are different pitches (remember the frequency/wavelength idea we talked about at the beginning of the article?) These 2 pitches sound nice together because they compliment each other. Now try lowering/flattening just your G string about a quarter turn. Our nice harmony just went out the window! The vibrations sound really harsh in comparison. Now play your open D and open G strings together again. While they ring out, try to SLOWLY raise/sharpen the pitch of the G string until it compliments the D. If you tune slowly, you will hear the frequencies start to merge together like a picture coming into focus.
Start listening to how different open strings compliment one another and eventually you can tune all of your strings without fretting anything!!!
*A note on tuning with distortion:
Only tune with distortion if you are using the last two methods.
Distortion adds sustain to the two notes and clarifies/ accentuates the harmonics we are using to tune.