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Tuning the Guitar Without a Digital Tuner

Tuning the Guitar Without a Digital Tuner

After my post last season on the subject, "My Tortured Relationship With the Digital Tuner" generated so much response, I thought I'd write about how I tune the guitar and see if it synchs with other guitarist's methods. It's odd, but generally accepted, that everyone uses a different "method," though it's a stretch to call what many people do a method. My "personal" method emphasizes octaves and fifths. It goes more or less as follows:

GENERAL, ALL-PURPOSE TUNING
For starters, we will assume the fifth string is in tune (use a tuning fork or any handy A440). 

Tune the third string to the fifth by playing a on the 2nd fret, 3rd string. Cross check by comparing c, 3rd fret, 5th string, to open g, for the perfect fifth. 

Tune the second string to the fifth by comparing it to b on the 2nd fret, 5th string. Now tune the 4th string to the second by playing d on the 3rd fret, 2nd string. Cross-check your 4th string against your 2nd by comparing e, 2nd fret, 4th string to your open b for a perfect fifth. Cross-check again your open 4th string against the 5th string, 5th fret. 

Tune your 1st string to your 4th by playing e on the 2nd fret, 4th string. Cross-check your 1st string by comparing open g to the 3rd fret, 1st string, and comparing 3rd string, 2nd fret a to 1st string open, for the perfect fifth. 

Tune your 6th string to your 4th by comparing to 4th string, 2nd fret, and/or your open 1st string. Cross-check by comparing open 6th string e to b on 5th string, for the perfect fifth, and g on the 6th string to 3rd string open. This should get you into the ballpark. 

Now, play an "open" e chord, that is, one with no 3rd. Finger it with b on the 3rd string. Make corrections as necessary. 

Play an "open" a chord (with e on the 2nd string), and correct as necessary. 

Play additional "open" chords as desired or needed. Each one can reveal a slight adjustment that might be made. 

I also like to run a series of first-position octaves and fifths to scout for tuning flaws.

ON-STAGE TUNING
When on stage, it is important to tune quickly. The entire sequence described above might well be done backstage, but on stage, much much less will do. First, it is necessary to be clear about what strings are going out of tune. When I perform, I generally use newer basses than trebles. The trebles don't sound compromised after a few days or even weeks, and will be stable on stage, giving a reference point for basses which may go flat if new. Further, if you are changing to a scordatura tuning such as 6=D on stage, you need to be aware of the string's new tendencies. 

My routine, therefore, will be to correct whatever has gone out of tune based on what I could discern while playing, then play a suitable "open" chord to verify they are all agreeing. If a specific interval is highly exposed in the upcoming piece, I'll usually verify it is in tune, especially if one of the notes is on an upper fret (such as e on the 3rd string, 9th fret, compared to open e, as in the Bach Prelude, BWV 1006a.)

The common error of adjusting the string that is still IN tune to match the one that has slipped can be avoided if you are aware of the state of your stings-- are they brand new, have they just been re-tuned, etc.). In other words, use some logic: which is most likely to have slipped?

By avoiding tuning chords with thirds, you can avoid the tendency to lower the string with the third, as, in equal temperament, the third of a triad is always painfully sharp. 

HARMONICS
I like to use harmonics when tuning also, but in certain limited ways. I NEVER compare the 5th fret harmonic to the 7th fret harmonic on the next string, as the 7th fret harmonic is not a tempered note and guarantees you'll end up out of tune. I like comparing the 6th string, 5th fret harmonic to the open 1st string, and sometimes the 5th string, 5th fret harmonic to the 1st string, 5th fret. I'll sometimes refer to 12th fret harmonics, but find it's not really necessary. I never use artificial harmonics in tuning as some do, finding it too fussy. For a detailed examination of harmonics on the guitar see my earlier post "Harmonics."

SCORDATURA
When lowering a bass string, say, 6th = D, then a couple of things need to be kept in mind. The metal windings have a particularly keen "memory" of their previous degree of tension and will try to return to their original state. Therefore, when tuning down, the string will go sharp; when tuning higher, the string will go flat. The easiest way to defeat this tendency is to go past the desired pitch and then return, effectively confusing the string and causing it to settle more readily.

My routine for moving the 6th string from e to d is to turn the tuner (silently) eight full turns down, then five full turns back up. This puts the string pretty close to d, and from there I can check it against the open 4th string. I do not yank violently on the strings as so many people like to do, as it seems to wear out the strings too quickly and is unnecessary (and looks distracting and gauche on stage). It is sensible to learn such routines for your guitar and practice them so that these tuning moments can be handled with maximum confidence and reliability, and as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.

IDIOSYNCRASIES
Every guitar (ok, most guitars) have geometric flaws which make tuning a unique challenge. Some go sharper in the treble, the higher up the neck you play; some seem perfectly in tune except the open string which is flat; others go flat or sharp in isolated spots. You need to understand your instrument's idiosyncrasies and keep them in mind when tuning. Sometimes rather large compromises need to be made for a single piece, then adjusted for the following piece, given the particular exposed intervals that are featured. Above all, tuning is a process, not a fixed point in space you must always try and reach. Your instrument needs to be tuned and fine-tuned repeatedly during practice and performance both.

PERFECT FIFTHS
Regarding perfect fifths--it is true that they are not as "in tune" as unisons and octaves, given that a tempered fifth is large by a factor of 2 cents, but when using them by themselves, they are very helpful. In other words, cross-checking octaves with fifths is good, while tuning the entire guitar using 5th-to-7th fret harmonics is bad, since it multiplies this small deviation and renders the instrument out of tune. Further, recall the glorious sound of orchestral strings while tuning. They tune their (open string) fifths, by ear. And have done so for centuries.

GENERAL
By using a constant series of cross-checks for each string being tuned, and balancing the aural cues of perfect fifths as well as octaves and unisons, the instrument ends up very well tuned. In the end, we need to be able to tune the instrument to itself. When you start with A440, whether getting the pitch from a tuning fork, a digital tuner, or another source, then tuning the guitar to itself from that note produces an instrument that is in tune. What seems essential to me in the broadest sense, is that we use our ears. The digital tuner will help us get the instrument close to being in tune but invites a strange disconnect between the tuning process and listening, as we tend to favor the visual cues offered by the device. Tuning, and playing in tune (there is a difference) rely on listening, carefully, all the time. If we are playing music and are not listening carefully, then, well, that is truly another subject...

Happy tuning!


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