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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Part of RJ’s ‘World of Tuning‘
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. Even Hendrix struggled with it sometimes.
Yes, electronic tuners are great, but developing the ear is the only way to really balance our guitar’s quirks with the demands of the music. This quick, ‘combinational’ approach is essentially my ‘highlight reel’ of the most useful bits from existing techniques. It’s an approach to tuning rather than a prescriptive method. Let me know what you think!
There’s nothing wrong with using an EADGBE sample as a ‘first run’ before fine-tuning with the methods below. The quality of these online can vary wildly – so here’s a pitch-precise one made from Guitar Pro’s sample library (60+ more on my Menu of Altered Tunings):
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?
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’?
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.
+ 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
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
+ 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
+ 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
+ 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
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’.
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.
- Tuning in the news: ‘Woman watching man tune guitar loses libido and will to live‘ (Daily Mash, Oct 2018)
George Howlett is a South London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla drums, and santoor (Himalayan dulcimer), and write about topics loosely related to jazz, rhythm, and global improvised music. Currently I’m a musicologist for Darbar, write ‘Beyond the Repertoire‘ lessons for Guitar World, and release music as Rāga Junglism. See the site for more – or email email@example.com
raga – ‘that which colours the mind’