Effectively tuning the guitar


Wittner Tuning Fork

In my last post, “Tuning the guitar using perfect fifth harmonics: a mistake,” I explained a common layman’s method of guitar tuning which, though very common, leaves the player with a poorly tuned instrument. In this article, I want to share a solid electronics-free tuning method in which players may put their full confidence, however great it may be.

This simple, intuitive method is an A-OK way to tune the guitar. In fact, you’ve probably already used it. Here, we simply tune the first string to a reference, then move down the line string-by-string until all strings are in tune.

Let’s start with an “E = 329.62 Hz” tuning fork. Yes, it’s very cool to have an A = 440 Hz tuning fork. That pitch is the international tuning standard. The Hz is at a pleasantly round number. However, I think the E tuning fork is better for guitarists since we have two open E strings at our disposal. Let’s begin.

First String tuning to reference tone

  1. Strike end of the E = 329.62 Hz tuning fork against the bony part of the knee.
  2. Place the ball of the tuning fork on the bridge. Try to find the “sweet spot” where the tone resonates well. You cannot touch the forked part, or the tone will cease.
  3. Pluck the open first string and tune it to the fork. Always tune from being flat and going up; never tune from being sharp and going down.

Second String

  1. Pluck the freshly tuned open first string (E).
  2. Tune the fifth fret of the second string (E) to the open first string (E).

Third String

  1. Pluck the freshly tuned open second string (B).
  2. Tune the fourth fret of the third string (B) to the open second string (B).

Fourth String

  1. Pluck the freshly tuned open third string (G).
  2. Tune the fifth fret of the fourth string (G) to the open third string (G).

Fifth String

  1. Pluck the freshly tuned open fourth string (D).
  2. Tune the fifth fret of the fifth string (D) to the open fourth string (D).

Sixth String

  1. Pluck the freshly tuned open fifth string (A).
  2. Tune the fifth fret of the sixth string (A) to the open fifth string (A).

Now we’ve tuned all strings. We can check our work by getting out the E tuning fork again and seeing if the harmonic at the fifth fret of the sixth string (E) matches the fork’s tone. (Insofar as using harmonics while tuning the guitar, we may use octave harmonics, i.e. the harmonics at the twelfth and fifth frets, but no others. Using others will lead to deviations from the equal temperament system.) You can kind of go back and forth starting from the first or sixth string until the guitar is in tune.

I sometimes wonder why the bogus method of using perfect fifth harmonics to tune the strings became so popular. The main reason might be because harmonics can be voiced with only momentary finger commitment, so after a quick touch to voice the harmonic, the left had is free to manipulate the tuning hardware. Another reason might be because the purity of the harmonic tones makes the warble between two slightly out-of-tune strings more salient and thus easier to smooth out. Also, maybe some think harmonics are kind of flashy and cool, and are so drawn to using them while tuning. Ultimately, though, it’s just not a good method.

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