Harmonic Tuning

Weekly Newsletter #11

October 21, 2021

Today I want to tackle a subject that many guitarists often overlook: The importance of tuning by ear. 

“Why even bother? I have a tuner, it works fine.” 

Well, besides the fact that your tuner runs on a battery and can easily die when you need it most, believe it or not tuners aren’t the most accurate way of keeping your instrument at the correct pitch. 

Guitars and basses are especially prone to intonation problems resulting from a variety of circumstances: weather/humidity changes, bumping the instrument, poor maintenance etc. 

For those wondering, intonation is the process of making sure that every note on every fret is in tune. Depending on the guitar, it is achieved through some amount of maintenance. On most electric guitars it is achieved through the adjusting of the truss rod and saddles. 

Regardless of whether you play an electric, acoustic or classical, it’s unlikely your guitar will be perfectly intonated at any time. The small inconsistencies of the hand made frets, shifting wood of the neck, and many other factors make it probable that some part of your guitar will be less intonated than another. 

All of this gets immediately thrown out of the window when you use a tuner on open strings. 

Try this right now, tune your 6th string to E using your tuner. Try to get it as perfectly in tune as you can. Now, play the 1st fret on the 6th string (it’s the pitch of F) and check your tuner. If it’s a chromatic tuner, meaning it can register all 12 notes, then you’ll likely see that the F is out of tune to some degree. This is normal an not a huge concern, unless its way off. 

The problem really comes when you start factoring in all the notes on all the various frets and combining them. You can really end up with some wildly out of tune notes, depending on the level of intonation. 

For this reason it is better to tune all of the strings to one reference pitch. 

When you use a tuner you are actually tuning each string to a pre-programmed pitch in the tuner. Essentially meaning that any fretted note on one string will only be in tune with that string alone. Because each string is tuned to a pitch irrespective of the other strings, you end up with six separate in-tune strings, but possibly not an in-tune guitar. 

It’s very easy to see the flaw in this method. If you tune your guitar perfectly with the tuner using the open strings and then check that tuning using the method most people first learn when tuning by ear (fret the 5th fret and play the next higher string open) you’ll see that several of the fretted notes aren’t exactly in tune with the open string. 

In addition to the technical issues of not having a fully in-tune guitar, learning to tune by ear is like taking steroids for your ability to hear pitches. 

Any pro musician will be able to tell you when a note is out of tune in comparison with other notes being played. This comes from the ability to hear the wavering of one pitch to a reference pitch, and is the strategy best used when tuning by ear. 

In order to make sure our guitar is completely in tune with itself and all the notes are as close to intonated as possible, we must tune all the strings to one reference pitch as well. 

I consider A440 HZ to be the best choice for various reasons. But don’t take my word for it, listen to every orchestra that tunes before the performance. One of the players will play an A note and all the others will tune to that reference; the result being a perfectly intonated orchestra. 

Most metronomes have a pitch element built into them and you very easily can find a reference pitch for A440 online. 

The method I espouse is built on using a combination of harmonics and fretted notes to tune the strings to A440. 

Start by tuning your A string to the reference pitch of A440. If you can’t find a metronome or audible reference pitch, simply use your tuner to tune the A string. 

Then play the 5th fret harmonic of the low E string and the 7th fret harmonic of the A string. Make sure you get as crisp and loud of a harmonic as possible. What you are listening for when tuning by ear is the difference in the wavering of each pitch against each other. 

As the two notes get closer to being in perfect unison with each other, the wavering gets slower and slower as the wave forms begin to line up with each other. If they are out of tune, the wavering will be faster and shorter in depth. 

Learning how to hear this is not an immediate thing, so don’t expect to have these aural skills right away. You must work at being able to hear the wavering. 

For help on this topic and for a detailed example check out this video

It might not be clear whether the low E string is too low or too high compared to the in-tune A string. Simply begin by lowering or raising the low E string slightly. Does the wavering get faster and more extreme, or slower and less extreme? If it gets faster, then its obvious you should tune in the opposite direction. 

Also, you will have to repeatedly strike these harmonics as they will likely die quickly. A freshly struck harmonic is always best to tune with. 

Once the wavering of the low E and the A string are as close as you think you can get them its time to move on. Now play the 5th fret harmonic of the A string and the 7th fret harmonic of the D string, and repeat the aforementioned process. 

Once the wound strings are in tune with the A string it is time to get the unwound strings in tune as well. However because they are unwound it is more likely that the harmonic frequency will be slightly askew when played against the wound A string. It is for this reason that I prefer to play fretted notes on the unwound strings, making sure that they are correctly intonated. 

Start by playing the 12th fret harmonic on the A string and fretting the 2nd fret on the G string. Once again, it may not be clear which direction you have to tune. In order to decide whether the G string is too low or too high, I simply bend the G string a tiny bit to sharpen the note. If it improves the tuning against the A string harmonic then I know the G string is too flat and I should raise the pitch. You will have to keep striking the harmonic and fretting the note while you tune so that you can always have fresh notes to hear and gauge the tuning. 

When tuning the B string use the 7th fret harmonic on the A string and fret the 5th fret of the B string. You should once again slightly bend the string to check the direction in which you must tune. 

For the final string you can once again use the 7th fret of the A string but now simply tune the open E string to that harmonic (you can also use the 12th fret harmonic of the high E if you like). 

By tuning all the strings to one pitch you have ensured that whether playing chords, single notes or moving up and down the neck, all the strings will be correctly intonated and tuned to that reference pitch. The important part is that you get the initial tuning of the A string correct so that all the other strings end up in tune as well. 

As I mentioned, this is a skill, and a big one at that! Not only will it improve your ability to tune by ear and keep your instrument sounding its best, but it will massively improve your ear on its own. Your ability to hear pitches and register whether notes are in tune or not will be enhanced dramatically by learning to do this. This skill is incredibly helpful in many various applications. If you notice that a string is out of tune while playing, you are far more likely to know whether its sharp or flat and by how much. 

So keep at it and make sure you are really listening to the wavering and how the two pitches line up with each other. 

Be in tune with your guitar! 

Max Rich