EADGBE by ear: a fresh, flexible approach

 


Quick summary of my Ultimate Tuning Guide article for Guitar World (Jan 2020), running through how to combine the best of four key methods – fret-matching, melodic phrases, chordal checks, and natural harmonics – while also warming up the ears, hands, and mind. Aimed to save time and effort! Feedback: george@ragajunglism.org


 

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What’s so special about tuning? Why all the fuss?

 

Tuning lies at the heart of broader guitaristic mastery. But how many of us really feel we do it as well as we should? We all fall into lazy habits, allowing the compulsion to jam right now to override our better judgement. This results in much undesired dissonance, both literal and cognitive – the imperfections nag away at us, interrupting our flow, sapping our focus, and disbalancing the music.

 

Yes, electronic tuners are great, but we shouldn’t have to rely on gadgets to save us when it comes to something so basic. In any case, tuning is a fascinating area of enquiry, connecting together many aspects of musical perception and providing consistent spark to the creative imagination. Gaining ear confidence will filter through to our whole sound while deepening our appreciation for music in general.

 

We can utilise tuning time to foster broader musical improvement too – since the process will always be part of our playing routines, I figured we may as well also use it to enhance areas such as ear strength, cognitive focus, fretboard awareness, and manual dexterity. 

 

The ‘impatient meditation’ is named for its attempt to minimise lost jamming time and maximise tonal accuracy through some efficient, calming focus. Tuning can serve as a ritualistic act of mental, musical, and manual preparation – or maybe just a quick space to chill out a bit and make sure you don’t sound wrong (I’m kind of in both camps here). Either way, it’s a lot more than just winding some pegs….

 


What is the ‘impatient meditation’?

 

This isn’t an exact tuning method – it’s a way of approaching tuning. We run through a few concise ideas, tabbed below, which, when understood together, should allow us to find an optimal balance between the quirks of any guitar and the demands of the music at hand. It is suitable for players of all levels – even Hendrix struggled with his tuning sometimes.

 

We’re probably…impatient, so here’s the tl:dr version (tabs below):

  • Get an overview: Slowly strum through the open strings and 12fr natural harmonics, taking a deep breath and focusing in on the sound to get a rough idea of where things are at.
  • 5str fret-matching: Get your A as ‘in’ as is required, and tune the open strings to notes along it (2fr/5fr/7fr/10fr). Then, tune a selection of fretted As on the other strings back to the open A.
  • Quick checks: Sample from three other methods to shore things up – melodic fret-matches, natural harmonics, and chordal checks. Try out key passages from your own music too.
  • Musical focus: Strum the 12fr harmonics, and take another deep breath. Relax your mind, acknowledging any nerves, and then calmly orient your full attention towards the music at hand.

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All I’ve really done here is sample the best of a few existing methods, combining their strongest elements with some minor additions and adaptations. So it isn’t really my creation; at least no more than I could say invented my own style of cuisine yesterday by throwing together the tastiest things I found in the fridge with a dash of seasoning. I’ve also incorporated a fair bit of feedback from students, friends, and the wider musical world (thanks Reddit). 

 

If you familiarise yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of each individual step, you will quickly build an intuition for when and how to deploy them. The idea is to get to know them a bit, then ‘narrow down’, honing in on the most concisely useful phrase combinations for your guitar and incorporating them into your playing routines.

 

Or, for that matter, for any other guitar. A pristine, top-end Strat will be a different beast to the rickety nylon-string you found behind your friend’s couch – using a tuner won’t help you compensate for the latter’s intonation issues, and besides, some songs on the former would sound better if left a little deliberately messy. We should know how to bring the best out of any axe we come across.

 

We can orient our tuning routines towards broader self-preparation too, calming our minds, stretching our hands, and focusing our energies towards the music that lies ahead. The whole process is also a fantastic way to build up some core conceptual knowledge around the physics of string vibration and the nature of aural perception. 

 

It can be hard to avoid the plethora of tuning-based nonsense found on the internet. Sitting down to learn things properly will permanently give us both a broader and finer control over our music, while also making everyone around us sound better.

 

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Ingredients of the ‘impatient meditation’

 

This is more about the ‘how’ than the ‘why’. We’ll go into the musical and technical detail later, unpicking what is really going on. And I can’t stress enough – this is an approach to tuning rather than an exact method. Learn from it, pick out what you like, and stay flexible.

 

Four steps may seem like overkill (let’s be honest, you’re probably wondering if you can be bothered to internalise them all). But the combination is designed to foster efficient, intuitive understanding, which will always save you time in the long run. And using all four in full isn’t the best eventual approach anyway – once you’ve tried everything on the menu, you’ll know how to narrow your choices down next time.

 

I think you’ll be surprised at how fast you can speed things up without sacrificing on accuracy. Selecting and running through the right checks can become second-nature, and, unless things are a complete mess, tuning may only require a few seconds. It just tends to be taught badly (or barely taught at all).

 

Get an overview: First, play the open strings and the 12fr harmonics in slow sequence, getting a rough feel for where things are at. Consider the music at hand, and also what imperfections the guitar itself may have. Take a deep breath, and really zoom in on the texture of the sound. (Unless it really sounds awful…in which case just get on with the next steps).

 

Concert or relative? Decide whether you want to tune to exact concert pitch or not. If you do, match your A string to an external reference tone (right-click here to download the mp3 below). If you don’t, just make sure the A sounds and feels about right, and fits with any other instruments in the room. 

 

 


Fret-matching: As a first run, we roughly ‘fret-match’ the other five open strings to notes on the A, and then flip things round, matching the open A to fretted tones across the other strings. Pick evenly, and if you’re going through an amp, use a clean, mid-boosted tone. While you can of course just check all the As against the reference tone, we should seek to develop the ear too.

 

Always use the ‘under-tug-up’ method – i.e. go lower than the target, tug the string around to remove slack, then raise the pitch. Pull it in all directions, first near the bridge, then the nut, and finally over the 12fr. Be firm, but avoid sudden movements – for stability try ‘anchoring’ your index finger to the fretboard and pulling the string around with the flesh of the middle finger.

 

If you have a whammy bar, be sure to shake out any string-stick (if it’s a persistent issue then see Jonathan Kemp’s video on tremolo resetting). Ensure the A and D strings sound particularly happy with each other, and, as with the other exercises, try things ‘muted’ as well, silencing the strings between each pair. Ideally, mute all strings you aren’t tuning at that moment.

 

(n.b. if you’re matching to music that’s already playing, then try to locate a resonant root note on a middle string, tune it extra-carefully, and then match roots on the other strings to it as best you can – not easy, but getting better at this will doubtless ease many jams to come):

 

IM Fretmatching Astr

 

+ Minimises error compounding (they don’t carry over between strings)

+ Quick to run through, and gives strong, clear volumes

+ Gives you an concise overview of the guitar’s intonation quirks

– Misleading if reference string is corroded, damaged, set too high, etc

 


Quick checks: Now, we use a mix of different ‘quick checks’ to shore everything up. We can sample from several methods, including melodic fret-matching, natural harmonics, and octave-heavy chord shapes, some of which also work as hand stretches. Find which combinations suit your guitar best.

 


Melodic check phrases – like an enhanced ‘5th fret matching’

 

IM Melodic Phrases

 

+ More interlinked than the ‘classic’ fret-matching approach

+ Avoids the familiar ‘tuning cliche’ with quasi-melodic movements

+ Opens up your general awareness of when open strings can be used

– Somewhat harder to play than the classic fretmatch method

– Phrases may never settle with each other on badly-intoned guitars


 

Natural harmonics checks – avoiding the deviant 7th fret

 

IM Harmonics Good

 

+ Even, N.H. resonances bring out overtone detail clearly

+ We avoid the 7fr harmonic, which is actually slightly sharp

+ ‘Sweeps’ at the end are great when you know the right sound

– Quieter, more complex: takes your ear a while to ‘zoom in’

– Can fail to highlight nuanced intonation issues

 


Octave-heavy check chords – beyond just open Emaj

 

IM ChordsNEWdone

 

+ Places the frequencies in a more musical context

+ Can add in key chords from your upcoming pieces

+ Usual major shapes aren’t ideal due to temperament issues

+ Increases your familiarity with high neck positions

+ Some of the shapes function as hand stretches too (e.g. 07×950)

– Complex for the ears, which can mislead us in many ways

– Can get chaotic on guitars with shaky intonation

 

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Other immediate considerations

 

Necessary imperfection: Notice how each check method produces subtly different results? e.g. high-fretted notes may sound sharp, or the G and B strings might never quite seem to settle with each other across different chords. This is to be expected – no instrument can ever be tuned perfectly. As we will see, factors like inharmonicity, build flaw, and temperament deviancy mean that there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ tuning.

 

And in any case, lots of guitar music can sound better with a little mess and crunch, ranging from Delta blues and 12-string folk to free improv and plenty of classic Hendrix. Lap slide players use all variety of microtonal tweaks, and Tommy Emmanuel sometimes likes to lower his G string very slightly – a trick also used by his blues forebears. Above all it’s about finding a sound that works for you (…and the audience).

 

Adding emotive context: Take another deep breath, and briefly call to mind the sentiments you want to get across with the music. Think about the most important passages in your first piece. Strum through each chord or phrase slowly and evenly, considering their immediate effects on you. Are undesired frequencies dampening the emotional power? If so, try to isolate and correct them.

 

The best way to ‘balance the imperfections’ is to focus on the physical locations of the music. e.g. If you’re mainly playing low down the neck, make sure tuning here takes precedence over hyper-accuracy in higher positions. You may have to find compromises, especially on stiff-action guitars. Keep adjusting until you’re happy – the audience will ultimately be grateful for it.

 

Gathering yourself: Once you’re satisfied with your sound, take a third and final deep breath, and rake firmly upwards through the 12fr natural harmonics. Take both your hands away from the strings, and empty your mind for a few seconds as you exhale. Make sure your posture is relaxing you.

 

Again, try out different meditative methods to see what works – you can hum a chord tone, silently count to eight, or ‘pulse’ your whole body in time to the rhythm of your first piece. (Never forget one of the key lessons from guitar history: people don’t care how weird you look as long as you sound good.)

 


What else should be on our minds?

 

The uniqueness of each individual situation means there are always countless interlocking considerations. Each guitar is different, with varying imperfections to be investigated, taxonomised, and balanced, and each performance brings disparate musical, physical, and social demands. In the end, all aspects of musical perception are interconnected.

 

There are less immediate factors too, ranging from healthy guitar setup and effective restringing to building skill at retuning ‘on the fly’. I’ll leave it up to you to adapt all this to non-standard tunings – it’s an ideal opportunity for some intuitive conceptual exploration, pushing your mind ‘up a level’ as you get into the processes of modification and recombination.

 

And it’s vitally important that we place all this in the context of wider musical learning. For one thing, we must strengthen our ears over time, as this will drastically speed things up (this applies to pretty much everything else in music too). We should also learn some of the science, visualising how strings vibrate and seeing the fractional distribution of natural harmonics along them.

 

HarmonicSeries

‘Duude, the harmonic series is like, so psychedelic…’


 

As mentioned, the ‘impatient meditation’ was (hastily) named for its attempt to focus your musical mind while ensuring efficient, optimal tonal accuracy. Tuning up really can become a reliable way of bringing harmony to your mind as well as to your guitar, but let’s be honest: it would be kind of strange to feel no impatience at all while preparing to jam (apologies to any enlightened Buddhist monks reading this).

 

I hope some fresh approaches will intensify your sound and broaden your expressive power, while familiarising your mind with a few new concepts as well. I want all guitarists to sound as good as they can, and tuning is central to this – many thanks to Guitar World for such an open-minded commission. Try it on for size, and let me know what you think, how it can be improved, etc.

 

HendrixHelsinki

‘Is it my ears? Is my hair blocking the sound?’ – ‘No Jimi it’s obviously your whammy-bar aggression…’

 

 

 

 

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Step 1: Overview

First, get a rough idea of where things are. Slowly go through the open strings in sequence, and then the 12fr natural harmonics, taking a deep breath and focusing in on the sound textures. What sounds off-colour? Where is the dissonance? What physical quirks might the guitar have?

 

IM Overview

 

Quickly move your ear ‘through the spectrum’, sweeping your focus from the lowest bass right through to the highest overtones. Also, think about what you actually need to tune to. Does the guitar need to fit with other instruments, or just be ‘in with itself’?

 

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Step 2: String Matching

Get your 5str A as ‘in’ as you need to (i.e. concert pitch or not), and tune the open strings to notes along it. Then, tune a selection of fretted As on the other strings back to the open 5str. Always use the ‘under-tug-up’ method – i.e. tune lower than the target, tug the string around slowly but firmly to remove slack, then raise the pitch.

 

IM Fretmatching Astr

 

+ Minimises error compounding (they don’t carry over between strings)

+ Quick to run through, and gives strong, clear volumes

+ Gives you an concise overview of the guitar’s intonation quirks

 

– Misleading if reference string is corroded, damaged, set too high, etc

 

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Step 3: Quick Checks

Next, we sample from three other methods to shore things up – melodic fret-matches, natural harmonics, and chordal checks. Find your own balance of them, and test out key passages from the music too. Stay flexible and let you ears ‘zoom in’:

 


—Check method: melodic phrases

 

IM Melodic Phrases

 

+ More interlinked than the ‘classic’ fret-matching approach

+ Avoids the familiar ‘tuning cliche’ with quasi-melodic movements

+ Opens up your general awareness of when open strings can be used

 

– Somewhat harder to play than the classic fretmatch method

– Phrases may never settle with each other on badly-intoned guitars

 


—Check method: natural harmonics

 

IM Harmonics Good

 

+ Even, N.H. resonances bring out overtone detail clearly

+ We avoid the 7fr harmonic, which is actually slightly sharp

+ ‘Sweeps’ at the end are great when you know the right sound

 

– Quieter, more complex: takes your ear a while to ‘zoom in’

– Can fail to highlight nuanced intonation issues

 


—Check method: chord shapes

 

IM ChordsNEWdone

 

+ Places the frequencies in a more musical context

+ Can add in key chords from your upcoming pieces

+ Usual major shapes aren’t ideal due to temperament issues

+ Increases your familiarity with high neck positions

+ Some of the shapes function as hand stretches too (e.g. 07×950)

 

– Complex for the ears, which can mislead in many ways

– Can get very chaotic on guitars with shaky intonation

 

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Step 4: Musical Focus

Notice how each method can produce subtly different results? This is inevitable – as explained in the full article, no instrument can ever be tuned perfectly. Anyway, things can often sound better with a little microtonal ‘spice’. So now, we check our tuning against the music at hand (absolutely vital on guitars with shaky intonation), and focus.

 

—Slowly strum the 12fr harmonics, and take another deep breath. Relax, acknowledge any nerves, and then calmly orient your full attention towards the music. Call to mind your first piece, and the sentiments you want to get across with it.

 

—Try out some of its chords and phrases. Are undesired frequencies dampening the emotional effects? Focus on the music’s physical locations, and keep adjusting until you’re happy – everyone will ultimately be grateful for it.

 

—Pause for a moment once you’re satisfied, and rake the 12fr harmonics again. Take both your hands away from the strings, and empty your mind as best you can for a few seconds. Try out different meditative methods – slow breathing, silently counting a rhythm, visualising, etc…

 

Now, you should be ready to play. And next time around, focus on the most effective phrases, cooking up your own flexible ‘tuning recipe’.

 

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Full explanation and detail here (the ‘how’ and ‘why’). I hope these ideas will intensify your sound – gaining finer control over this area is one of the few ways to instantly sound better. Many thanks to Guitar World for such an open-minded commission. Try it on for size, let me know how it can be improved, etc.

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Method 1 – Electronic tuners

 

Why not just use an electronic tuner all the time? Surely the machines are more perceptive than us mortal humans? Well in some ways, they are – but we should be wary of relying on fallible technology rather than training our own intuitions.

 

Pros: Good electronic tuners can quantify pitch with a very high level of accuracy. Their quartz-crystal detection method can be cheaply mass-produced, meaning that even quite basic ones claim accuracy to the cent level – just 1/100th of a semitone.

 

Plug-in tuners can be very handy in noisy rooms, isolated from sonic distraction (top tip: set your guitar to a loud, mid-boosted tone). And recent ‘polytuners‘, though expensive, overcome the stop-start slowness of most gadget-based methods by displaying all string pitches at once.

 

Cons: To be a tuning master you need to be able to do it anytime, anyplace. You will gain great confidence from knowing you can rely on your own ears. An electronic tuner should be part of your setup, but what happens when there isn’t one around? Or when you need to match with non-concert pitch instruments or recordings (i.e. most of the world’s music)? 

 

Technological solutions always tend to be more fallible than we think too – tuners get lost, dropped, or soaked with beer, and can jump around when the battery runs low. Some clip-on models struggle with interference. And smartphone apps vary in their utility (BitTuneVitalTuner, and GuitarTuna are well-regarded, with the latter seeming like the best free option).

 

Besides, the machines don’t know anything about the music you’re playing, or the imperfections of your guitar. Developing your ear is the only way to properly account for these variables. It’s definitely worth having a decent tuner in your gig bag or on your pedalboard – the Snark ST-2 is popular  – but we need more fluency ourselves too. Nowadays you could probably navigate Paris well enough with just a translation app on your phone, but if you’ll be going there a lot then why not improve your French too?

 

Mosquitos can precisely harmonise their wing beating rates during courtship rituals (“neither took the lead…the male’s second harmonic and the female’s third had a mutual frequency of about 1,200 Hz [roundabout a Strat’s highest possible bend]. They synchronised in this way for about 10 seconds”) – so us humans should be able to manage a guitar just fine with a bit of practice (much easier when you’re not flying too).

 

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Exercise: Tuning-focused ear training

 

We can train ourselves to have a strong ‘aural imprint’ of the desired tuning frequencies, lessening our reliance on tuners. Melodic context helps here – the aural memory of songs you already know well can give very accurate guesstimates, even if, like me, you don’t have perfect pitch. 

 

For example, calling to mind the first note of Charlie Parker’s Ornithology will reliably approximate a G if I need it. So once you’re in tune, shuffle up your 5-star playlist and learn which notes your favourite songs start on. And if you note down your vocal range then you can use its physical feel as a rough match too.

 

It’s also important to get a clear imprint of the right tones in isolation. The best habit here to keep your guitar in good tune, but you can turn directly to audio samples as well. Perhaps try building the EADGBE clip below into your everyday listening routines (see my Altered Tunings Database for sound samples of 60+ others).

 

Try singing or humming along to add another level of physical, vibratory familiarity. If this stretches your vocal range too much then you can switch up the octaves so the same notes ‘loop’ around a more comfortable area.

 

We can also learn to aurally ‘zoom in’ through improving our pitch differentiation skills. After all, hearing the difference between two tones in greater detail is perhaps the essential skill of tuning. Try things out ‘vertically/harmonically’, listening to two tones together and picking out the higher one, and ‘horizontally/melodically’, listening to one after the other. Jake Mandell’s Adaptive Pitch Test is a fun place to start.

 

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Exercise: Getting an overview of where things are at

 

Before we resort to anything too intricate, we should work out what is basically going on. Briefly strum the open strings, around an inch away from the bridge, aiming for clean strokes and even volumes.

 

Then, rake through the 12th fret natural harmonics, perhaps even closer to the bridge, this time going from low to high (n.b. natural harmonics are produced by gently placing your finger exactly over the fretwire in question, touching the string but not pressing it down):

 

IM Overview

 

Pause, take a slow breath, and focus on the sound texture. Are things roughly near standard tuning? Strum the open strings and the harmonics a few times, listening carefully to the effect of each new note.

 

What sounds off-colour? Where is the dissonance? This is probably the most difficult step of the whole process to truly master. Try to move your ear ‘through the spectrum’, consciously sweeping focus from the lowest bass frequencies right through to the highest overtones.

 

Also, think about what you actually need to tune to. If you’ll be playing alone, or in a setup with no other fixed-pitch sounds, then you can get away with just tuning the guitar ‘in with itself’ as long as it’s roughly OK.

 

But if you’re working with recordings or other melodic instruments then you have to make sure you’re ‘in with the room’, which will most likely entail being ‘in with concert pitch’ as well (i.e. the notes on a properly-tuned piano). 

 

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Method 2 – Fret-matching (variants on the ‘classic’ tuning technique)

 

Chances are, you first learned to tune by matching 5th fret low E string to the open A, then 5th fret A to the open D…and so on. Though far from ideal, I’m not going to be some overcritical hipster about it just because it’s popular – yes, it’s prone to inaccuracy, but should remain an essential part of our toolkit. It, of course, goes like this:

 

IM Classic Tuneup

 

Pros: Matching open strings with adjacent fretted tones is quick and straightforward, and tends to produce a strong sound, suitable for noisier settings. And many of the other methods are challenging for beginners – why learn to handle things like natural harmonic pairs before you can get your basic chords in tune? Ultimately, the strength of your ear determines how well you can use this approach.

 

Cons: When used in isolation, this method can end up like a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ (‘telephone’ in the U.S.), where the original message gets more and more distorted each time it is passed on. If we’re just a little out at each step, the high E can be a long way from the low one.

 

And if the guitar’s intonation is off, our own inaccuracies will be further exacerbated, likely drifting sharper and sharper with each step. Also, to make adjustments while hearing note pairs simultaneously you have to awkwardly reach over and turn the pegs with your non-fretting hand (admittedly, this is true for most of the other methods as well – do your best to practice things both ways round).

 

Exercise: Enhanced fret-matching phrases

 

Here, I’ve taken the best elements of the ‘classic’ fret-matching method, and reworked them to form one of the impatient meditation’s ‘quick checks’. This version is far more comprehensive, featuring several matches per string and counteracting the ‘Chinese whispers’ effect with wide interval jumps.

 

I’ve grouped the pattern into small, almost-melodic cells. Apart from sounding a bit fresher than tuning’s usual ‘cliché phrase’, this arrangement improves our general fretboard awareness, showing us which fretted positions can be switched for open strings in the rest of our playing (see my full Open String Awareness lesson for GW). Shuffle the whole thing up and find what works well for you:

 

IM Melodic Phrases

 

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Method 3: Tuning to a reference string

 

For me, the ‘reference string’ approach works best as a broad, first run of adjustments. Favoured by many elite classical guitarists, it is ideal for tuning well-intoned guitars, and can also be adapted to non-concert pitch easily. I usually base everything off the A string, although D works well too (apart from being among the most common notes in the repertoire, they allow for straightforward fret-matching).

 

Exercise: ‘5th string reference’ tuning 

 

First, tune your A to the audio clip below (right-click here to download it for your phone/laptop/etc). To get rid of any unevenness or tension, use the ‘under-tug-up’ method, going lower than the target tone, gently tugging the string around to remove slack, and finally raising the pitch.

 

 

Once the A is in, go through the following note pairs to sync up the other strings. First, we map the open string tones on the A, and then we do the inverse, going through a selection of As located elsewhere (you can also use the D string for this – sample here).

 

IM Fretmatching Astr

 

Pros: Having a central reference point minimises error-compounding – i.e. each string is matched back to a single main one, meaning that tuning mistakes will not ‘carry over’ to the next. Besides, the method is quick, easy to remember, and brings enough volume to cut through background noise.

 

Additionally, A is the dominant calibration pitch across Western music, so if there’s a tuning fork lying around then it’s probably in A440 (1str 5fr). There’s even a button on my amp that emits an A440, which I can compare directly with the natural harmonic on 5fr A string (another reason not to pay too much attention to the A432 fad).

 

Cons: On badly-intoned guitars, the fretted notes often come out sharper than their open string counterparts – effectively, the strings are ‘bending’ down to the fretboard (you may want to swap the 10fr A string to 5fr D string, or use more 2fr matches).

 

And the method is near-useless if the reference string itself is corroded or damaged. You can try using the D as well as the A, but (due to various factors we will cover later) these two are really the only effective choices.

 

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You might ask why we don’t just use an EADGBE audio sample to tune all six strings. Well, we can – I do this at home plenty. But I find it only brings high accuracy when the sample is coming through decent speakers. Laptops and phones are too tinny, with weak bass and poor treble clarity, and some portable devices are near-useless amidst the noise of a venue.

 

Besides, many of the EADGBE samples found online are shockingly inaccurate (you can download 60+ volume-boosted, frequency-checked one on my Altered Tunings Database). We should keep our phones and tuners handy, but I feel we should be able to do things ourselves whatever the situation.

 


Is it you? Or might it be the guitar’s fault?

 

We’ve mentioned the word intonation a few times now. Consider the quirks and physical imperfections of whatever guitar you have in your hands. What condition is it in? Is it refusing to settle with itself across different checks? Unfamiliar guitars can be a particular test of tuning mettle, often left lying lonely and unloved for long periods, warping next to radiators or in damp cupboards.

 

Do there seem to be significant intonation issues? You can diagnose this by comparing 12fr to its overlying natural harmonic – if the fretted note is distractingly sharper, ask yourself whether you can avoid that part of the fretboard. In the longer term, the guitar (or string gauge) will need to be adjusted.

 

Issues may also arise from excess fretting finger pressure, particulary in awkward high-neck positions (effectively, they’re being slightly bent whenever they’re fretted at all). This is something to watch out for when checking tuning, and can also provide a small amount of conscious ‘on the fly’ control – you can bend slightly downwards on some guitars by pushing along the string in question while remaining behind the same fret (a bit like a ‘frozen’ vibrato motion).

 

The strings themselves may be old, corroded, or badly-fitted too. You can wipe them down with a cloth, and if you want to be super-prepared then keep a small pot of talcum powder in your bag, which minimises unwanted finger noise and allows you to slide and glide your way around pretty much any guitar at will (a fantastic trick I picked up from my sitar guru).

 

And even if you own a pristine, top-level axe you still need to ‘get to know it’ – every guitar has its idiosyncrasies (e.g. how much the whammy bar catches the strings, how the neck responds to different tunings and tensions).

 

Some Les Paul models are notorious for tuning problems (not the only thing Gibson has faced criticism for recently), mainly related to extra tension from the exaggerated ‘slant angle’ of the headstock (17° vs. 10° on some other electrics). Learn how to quickly ‘ask the right questions’ of any instrument you come across.

 

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Method 4 – Tuning with natural harmonics

 

Natural harmonics are pure, bell-like tones produced by lightly touching particular points along each string rather than fretting them. They offer many potential tuning advantages, but are rarely used correctly. The version you’ve seen probably goes something like this – while far from useless, there are better ways to do it:

 

IM Lazy Harmonics

 

Pros: The characteristically ‘pure’ resonance of natural harmonics allows us to hear frequency interactions in captivatingly fine detail (change the angle of your head to uncover some subtle architecture). For one thing, our ears are better at identifying pitch at higher registers, and 12fr harmonics are an octave up from their open strings.

 

When certain harmonics are combined, we can perceive a ‘beating’ effect – the subtle pulsing created by vibrations that are nearly in tune with each other. Known scientifically as a form of ‘heterodyning’, the phenomenon results from differing pressure gradients in the ears, created by the two waves arriving slightly out of sync with each other.

 

This leads to ‘phase cancellation‘, i.e. they each block out some of each other’s oscillation patterns, forming audible quasi-rhythmic sequences. As we tune the strings closer together, the beating slows down, until eventually we can’t pick it out at all. This process allows for superb levels of technology-free precision – hear it in action below as I slowly tune a mid-range harmonic pair in with each other:

 

 

Cons: Critically, not all natural harmonic positions actually produce the exact notes we want. You may have noticed in the full example above that the 9th-5th fret pair is a long way out – in fact, it’s one of the few ideas in this article I’d recommend never using.

 

And strictly speaking, each step in the first bar is inaccurate too. The second harmonic in each pair is actually sharp by around 0.02 cents (1/50th of a semitone) due to the discrepancy between the ‘pure’ intervals produced by the natural harmonics and the ‘tempered’ ones on the fretboard.

 

Almost all natural harmonics produce different notes to the ones found on the guitar. To observe this in action, play 4fr 6th string, and then try and sound the harmonic above it – you should notice that it’s actually located at around fret 3.8. Correspondingly, it is lower in pitch – the ‘pure major third’ is flatter than the fretted one by about 0.14 cents (1/7th of a semitone).

 

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What implications does all this have for guitar tuning?

 

The ‘standard’ natural harmonic tuning method we looked at above uses harmonic positions that subtly differ from the ones we actually want on the frets. While the octave harmonics on the 12fr and 5fr are in perfect correspondence with their equally-tempered equivalents, those found on 7fr are sharp by just under 1/50th of a semitone (around 0.02 cents).

 

This may not sound like a lot, but tuning all the strings this way can lead to noticeable dissonance through the same ‘Chinese whispers’ effect as before (somewhat ironic given China’s history of 12tet innovation). So while tuning with natural harmonics is very precise, it is not completely accurate – that is, unless you stick to the octave harmonic positions at 12fr and 5fr.

 

(That being said, those with very finely-honed ears can instead learn to recognise the ‘desired beating rate’ of the deviant harmonic pairs, an exacting technique used mainly by professional piano tuners that can arguably bring unparallelled accuracy to the tuning of almost any instrument. Read more about this method in my bonus ‘tuning puzzle‘.)

 

The further into the ratios you go, the more the deviant intervals end up scattering in strange ways (we end up having to rename them, leading to such abstruse specimens as the ‘Ptolemaic hard half-step’, ‘Pythagorean schismatic sixth’, and ‘lesser undecimal neutral second’ – see Kyle Gann’s amazin list of over 700 here).

 

Exercise: ‘Beatless’ natural harmonic tunings

 

A few harmonic tuning techniques have been devised which sidestep these just intonation vs. equal temperament issues – notably, guitarist-luthier Kevin Ryan’s ‘tempered tuning’, and a (very similar) method found on an anonymous American Guild of Luthiers Info Sheet first circulated sometime in the pre-internet era.

 

They both aim for a ‘beatless’ correspondence between each note pair, which (on a flawless guitar) would result in flawless equal temperament across all the open strings. Always retune the accented note of each pair (>), which in some cases is played first:

 

IM KevinRyan

IM AGLSheet

 

But as we know, no guitar is flawless, and we often have to prioritise to the positional demands of the music when faced with their imperfections. So I’ve come up with a more balanced approach to natural harmonic tuning, featured as a ‘quick check’ in the impatient meditation.

 

Exercise: ‘Balanced’ natural harmonic sequence

 

It’s not ‘better’ than the ones above, but should act as a stronger bridge between the purity of the harmonics and the necessary inaccuracies of the fretted world, covering you a little more. Aim by default for ‘beatless’ correspondences, but adapt things to fit to your intonation quirks and the physical positions of the music:

 

IM Harmonics Good

 

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Method 5 – Chordal checks and deviant thirds

 

Running through some carefully-chosen chord shapes is one of my (and Tommy Emmanuel’s) favourite tuning methods. Highly flexible, it’s an excellent way to ‘get to know’ your guitar, but challenges the ear, and always needs to be tailored to the specifics of the situation.

 

Exercise: Octave-heavy ‘reference chords’

 

Here are a few check shapes I like to draw from. Listen to the Guitar Pro export below for a tidier version than my well-worn Strat, truss-adjusted for lower tunings, can manage right now. Although in the end this method is more about getting a guitar optimally ‘in with itself’, imperfections and all.

 

You can also use the most important passages in your setlist, considering their immediate effects on you as you go through. Test out each chord slowly, plucking with the same force you would do in performance, especially on the looser strings, to account for the possible effects of ‘inharmonicity’ (explained below – essentially, the fact that a string has to bend to vibrate at all, which can noticeably sharpen the lower strings particularly when playing hard).

 

IM ChordsNEWdone

 

Pros: Placing the frequencies in a practical, musical context allows us to work out if our songs will actually sound good. Without this method, you might only properly notice intonation issues when you start playing.

 

Additionally, you can use it to stretch your hands (e.g. 07×950), internalise new harmonic vocab (by paying close attention to which notes are in play), and increase your familiarity with high neck positions (which will open up your improv and composition). Try combining your favourite shapes, using their harmonic vacancy as a blank canvas for your own creativity (send me what you come up with!).

 

Cons: Chords are only interesting to us because they feature complex, cascading layers of harmonic tension. It takes a while for your ears to learn exactly what full shapes should sound like, so this method isn’t ideal for beginners. You also have to ‘know your guitar’ a bit.

 

I’ve generally stuck to chords made of octaves, fifths, and other simple intervals here, but have thrown in a few others too. And of course it’s best to use chords from your own piece as well. Don’t overstretch either – tendon problems are no fun (trust me…).

 

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George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them.

 


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Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here!

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