To guitar players who have been playing a few months or more, there is nothing quite as irritating as listening to an out-of-tune guitar. While tuning is somewhat difficult to understand in the first few weeks of guitar playing (less so now with automatic tuners), guitarists in this modern age have many ways we can tune our guitars. While this article focuses on standard tuning (more on that in a minute), it can be applied to many of the tunings the kids are using these days. This a beginning primer featuring a little history, some physics, and has a roundup of the many options we have for keeping our guitar in tune with the rest of our musical world.
We Have to Start Somewhere
Standard Tuning refers to the traditional tuning of the guitar. The strings are tuned to the musical notes they represent. From the low (biggest) string, to the highest (smallest), these notes are E A D G B E. You can remember these letters by making an acronym. My favorite are these 2:
Elephants (easy to remember this is the biggest string)
Feel free to make up your own, but it is important to know the letter names of the strings for most of the methods of tuning here.
Tuning the Guitar to Itself
The method of tuning that a few decades of beginning guitarists used is tuning the guitar to itself. This will assure that all of your chords play in tune, and any solo guitar pieces will sound in tune as well. This method tunes to a standard, which is the open first (smallest) string. It relies on our own ear’s ability to match the pitch of one string to another. To do this, we have to know what to listen for. As a kid, this was the hardest part. It took me weeks to be able to listen to 2 pitches, and focus on which one is higher in pitch and which one was lower. Sound travels in wave forms, and a (very) simplified picture of how it travels over time is this:
Now, the higher the pitch, the peaks and valleys of this waveform are closer together. The lower the pitch, the more spread apart the waveform is. Two notes that are perfectly in tune are a perfect copy of one another. In fact, this could be mistaken for just one note. However, two notes that are not perfectly in tune don’t sync up perfectly. Here is another artistically dubious representation of this:
The dotted lines represent the fact that the peaks and valleys don’t sync up. What does all this physics nonsense have to do with tuning? Because all of this ‘syncing and not syncing’ stuff can be heard! When tuning the guitar to itself, you assume (more on this later) the first string (the small E) is in tune. You then find a fretted note on the second string (B) that is supposed to be the same pitch as the open first string. This note can be found on the 5th fret of the B string. You play the open first string, and while it is ringing, play the 5th fret on the B string. You will be tuning the 2nd string, and listening for the waveforms to get in sync. See, when 2 pitches are close, but not perfect, those 2 waveforms’ peaks and valleys hit against each other on the way to your ear. We call this beating, and you can hear it pretty well with some gain.
Do you hear the repeating oscillation as the notes sustained? Pretty nasty, huh? The idea is to sync up the waveforms from these 2 strings. Now you might not know if the string you are tuning (B) should go higher or lower, so it is good to detune it a bit and slowly come back to pitch while both strings ring. This way, you won’t keep tightening the string until it breaks. Now, this beating effect sounds almost like a fast tremolo, but it slows down as you get closer in pitch until the waveforms sync up:
Once you reach the right pitch, your 2nd string is in tune. Then you can move to the 3rd string. Remember, you are tuning the fretted note to the open string, so be careful about which tuner on the headstock you are turning. On the 3rd string (G), the 4th fret should be the same pitch as the open 2nd string (B). Repeat the procedure until the waveforms sync up, and move on to the next string. Here is a diagram to remember which frets we use for tuning:
According to the picture:
- The 5th fret on the B string should sound like the open first string.
- The 4th fret on the G string should equal the same pitch as the open B.
- The 5th fret on the D string should equal the same pitch as the open G.
- The 5th fret on the A string should equal the same pitch as the open D.
- The 5th fret on the low E string should equal the same pitch as the open A.
Remember, you are tuning the note you are fretting, not the open string you are comparing it to.
After a few weeks of using this method, you get very good (and very fast) at tuning your guitar. It also trains your ears to discern the differences between notes that are very close in pitch. You will learn to hear if the fretted note is higher or lower (I used to sing the pitches), and you will find shortcuts that make the process much faster. Also, distortion emphasizes the beating effect, but after awhile, you won’t need it- you will hear it even on an acoustic.
However, tuning the guitar to itself has one fatal flaw. It assumes the first E string is in tune. If it wasn’t in tune, your guitar will play in tune with itself, but not always with everyone else. It is still a good method to learn, as the benefits of ear training and not relying on technology will make us better musicians.
Other Matching Pitch-Based Methods
These methods also rely on an ear that is sufficiently trained enough to hear the differences in pitch. A tuning fork solves the problem of the above tuning method by giving you a reference pitch to tune your first string to. It is a small piece of metal you strike on your knee (never a hard surface since it could bend) and either
hold up to your ear or over the pickups on your guitar. You then use your other hand to tune the first string.
Another method is using a pitch pipe, which is a small whistle that contains the notes for all six strings. It is small enough to keep in your case and it frees up both hands to use for tuning the guitar. These aren’t used much anymore, but they are a battery-free alternative to electronic tuners. They are also inexpensive enough to keep in every guitar case. Just don’t let anyone else use them, because, well, do you want their mouth germs?
Tuning to a piano is a great method as well. The diagram below shows the location of the notes on the piano and how they correspond to the guitar strings. This assumes the piano is in tune (most aren’t), so it might be a good idea to use an electronic keyboard.
Keep in mind that the actual sound from a tuning fork, pitch pipe, or piano differs in timbre (the unique sound) from a guitar. For some people, pitch is much harder to discern if it isn’t generated on the same instrument.
Electronic Methods of Tuning
These days, tuning is much easier than it used to be. Electronic tuners range from devices you plug your guitar into as it senses the individual string, to apps on your phone. Phones and tablets offer guitar tuners. Some are free, but my favorite is AP Tuner which is a highly accurate and offers many modes of tuning. I also mention a few in my other articles here and here. All of the apps use the phone or tablet’s microphone to pick up the sound of the guitar, and the several I have tried have been easy to use. Just search your devices’ app store to see a selection of tuners to choose from. Usually they mimic a hardware tuner: There is a meter in the display, and when the needle settles in the middle, you are in tune. Apps tend to be more accurate than hardware tuners, but both work well. The disadvantage to these types of tuners is that when playing live, you can’t (or shouldn’t) take your phone out of your pocket to tune. Also, some hardware tuners require you to unplug your guitar, and plug into the tuner directly, which is clumsy in front of an audience.
What About for Live Use?
For live use, there are essentially 2 methods that have gained traction. The first is a pedal tuner. This looks like a typical stompbox, but when you step on the pedal, it mutes the signal to the amp and sends it to the internal tuner circuitry. It allows the performer to silently tune without the band or audience hearing. Usually they display some sort of meter and note name. I look for ones that can be seen in the dark as well as direct sunlight. Some displays are not designed for direct sun, so if you ever plan to play outside in the sun, you’ll need it. Pedals are more expensive than other tuners, and they also take up pedalboard real estate. I put mine last in the chain, and as a bonus, it mutes my rig when on a break.
The other type of tuner that has really taken off is the headstock tuner. These are small, inexpensive devices that clamp on the headstock of the guitar and sense the vibrations of the strings through the wood. They are almost invisible from the audience view, but you can keep it on for the whole performance and when it is time to tune, turn the guitar volume down and tune away. I talked to Rob Cunningham, Product Manager from D’Addario/Planet Waves about their new line of headstock tuners.
What advantages does a headstock tuner have compared to any other kind of tuner?
Headstock tuners have really taken over the tuner market. Mainly because they do not require any connection through a cable since they pick up vibrations directly from the instrument and they can remain on the guitar where they are easily accessible and ready to tune at a moment’s notice.
When designing a tuner, what are the most important features? (accuracy, size, outside noise rejection, etc)
Many things need to be considered. Accuracy is of course the most important issue for any tuner but other factors come into play such as quick and accurate note recognition, rejection of outside interference, smooth performance, friendliness of the display and overall ease of use. All of these factors add up to the total user experience.
Why would someone choose one or the other? (NS Micro Tuner or the Clip On Headstock Tuner)
We make a couple of different form factors. The NS Micro was designed for the player that would like to tune discreetly and also leave the tuner on their instrument while playing. When we started designing our headstock line we noticed that most of the headstock tuners were quite large and that they could not be left on the instrument for fear of falling off if the performer was prone to move around a lot during performance. We also wanted the tuner to blend with the aesthetics of the instrument and not look like a foreign object. After the micro was out a while we felt the need to provide a larger format headstock tuner for those that want a larger display and that is when we came out with the improved version of our original headstock tuner. The beauty of this tuner is the automatic power up and shut down when you flip up and down the screen. This literally makes a tuner where no button pushes are required in order for it to operate. Great for quick tuning between songs. Folding down the screen also allows the tuner to be less noticeable on the instrument while playing. Essentially if you want to tune discretely I would recommend The NS Micro or if you not necessarily concerned with that and a larger display is more important than I would go with the Clip-On Headstock Tuner.
What advantages do D’Addario tuners have over other ones out there?
We always try to provide the best user experience possible. Many headstock tuners on the mar
ket have an accuracy of +/- 5 cents in use which is on the threshold of human pitch detection. Humans can distinguish a difference in pitch of about 5-6 cents. Our tuners have a tighter in-tune window without the display being jumpy or erratic which can happen if you make the in-tune window too tight. We also have streamlined interfaces, easy to ready displays in light and dark environments and the tuners blend with the aesthetics of the instrument when not in use. Our NS Micro Tuners are very popular due to their accuracy and the fact that they can be left on the instrument and provide discreet tuning. the audience does not even see the tuner or the musician tuning. All the NS tuner models have been designed in conjunction with Ned Steinberger of NS Designs and Steinberger guitar fame.
How did you learn to tune your guitar? What method do you use now?