For too many people who play guitar these days, guitar tuning mostly handled by a trusty tuner app, a tuning online site or an electronic tuner.
People often start using these tools from the moment they first begin to play guitar. Unfortunately, this deprives them of the opportunity to develop their ear along with their chops from the get-go.
Tuning guitar by ear is frustrating for beginners, no two ways about it. Using a tuner app definitely makes things a lot faster and easier. To be honest, if they had tools like that when I first started playing guitar, I would have jumped on them myself. But I’m glad they weren’t around.
Old man voice, “When I was a yungin’, I had to walk five miles a day to tune my guitar. Wasn’t nothin’ helping me with my guitar tuning!”
Yes, a tuner app is an amazing thing, an incredible, feat of technology. However, as a dedicated guitar player, using one sells yourself short. I’ll explain why. First we need to understand how other instruments get tuned.
A tuner app will only get you so far on violin
Sure, one can tune the open strings of a violin with an online tuning tool or mobile app. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many violinist do that. But unlike playing guitar, you need a good ear to hit notes correctly.
Guitars have frets. Frets tell you where to put your fingers. With a violin your ears tell you where to put your finger. No frets on a violin neck!
A similar situation exists with woodwind instruments as well. For instance, a saxophone gets it’s sound from blowing on a reed and fingering a set of keys in various combinations. This allows the air going through what is basically a long brass pipe to be shortened or elongated to produce higher and lower notes. The shorter the length of pipe, the higher the sound. The longer it is, the lower the sound becomes.
Now it seems that it would be similar to a guitar in that the keys decide what the note is going to be like the frets do when you play guitar. But here’s why it ain’t so.
If a saxophone player were to simply blow into the sax and hit the proper key combinations to get the notes, she would sound out of tune. That’s where embouchure comes in. How the player adjusts their mouth position and flow of air at any given moment is what really keeps the instrument in tune. Interestingly, keeping a aoprano sax in tune is much more difficult than an alto or tenor saxophone (perhaps because of the smaller– size I’m not a sax expert and don’t really know).
Now that’s not to say a woodwind player wouldn’t use a tuner app to help get their instrument into A440 tuning (sax players do so by adjusting their mouthpiece in or out of the neck), but after that it’s all about their ear.
The difference between a guitar player adept at guitar tuning by ear and one who isn’t is the difference between a fair musician and a really good one
Musicians’ real instrument is their ear, the guitar itself is just a tool to get the music out. A wonderful, gloriously cool tool, but a tool none the less. So naturally it’s imperative that a guitar player be able to tune up by ear. A good ear means good music.
Guitar Tuning by Ear: How to Get Good At It
So what’s the best way to go about tuning your guitar by ear should you decide to swear off your favorite tuning app for awhile? There are basically four methods:
Using the fifth fret
Hitting the fifth fret on the low E string will give you the same sound as hitting the open A string under it. Picking the A string on the fifth fret will give you the same tone as the open D string below it. Same with the D and B strings. Because of the way a guitar is tuned (in standard tuning), on the G string you need to use the fourth fret to get the same sound of the B string below it.
Hitting a fifth fret harmonic on a string will give you the same sound as the 7th fret harmonic below it. Again, for the G string it changes and there are a couple ways to do that but most people just use the method above for the G string.
Knowing the sound of all the open strings
Every day before you play guitar, play each open string in succession for a bit while listening to the sound it makes. Do you hear a melody there? In time you will and then you will be able to tune to it.
Tuning to a chord
Take a grip like an open E chord or a C chord and tune your guitar to it. It’s simple. Except since your left hand is occupied you’ll have to reach over with your right hand to do it. It looks cool when you do it on stage to tweak your tuning
The Bottom Line
If as a guitar player, you’re willing to let a tuner app (or other device) do the job your ears were meant to do, perhaps you should just let playing guitar be left up to a machine as well. Okay, that’s a little harsh. Sorry. But in all seriousness, as a musician you’re really doing yourself a disservice by not developing your ear enough so you can tune the the instrument you love.
And just for the record, we guitar players are not alone with this problem. It’s even worse for keyboard players! After all, they don’t even need to turn a tuning peg to get their instrument in tune. They just flick the switch to “on” or sit down at the bench and go.
Many times when I’ve gone to play guitar with a keyboard player that I’ve found that it was difficult for them to follow me with their ear. Particularly when we’re improvising.
So when you go to play guitar, don’t open up the tuner app for a few weeks and see what happens. When you take the time to get the hang of guitar tuning by ear, you’ll hear a pleasant difference in how you hear all the music you make.
Best of luck and Rock On!
by Jonathan Schlackman