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Tuning – (Part 1)

The Guitar Head here…thanks for stopping by!

For the next few weeks, we are going to be taking a look at tuning – how important it is and the best ways to do it.  Without a doubt – one of the things that any beginner guitarist should try and understand is the concept of tuning.

A guitar that is not tuned properly will make everything basically sound like a bunch of cats fighting in a bag (that’s my way of saying it’ll sound like dissonant crap).  Not having your guitar tuned correctly can be a reason why some players lose interest and quit trying.  Some may wonder why, no matter what they do, their playing just doesn’t sound right.  They may think it’s something they are doing when it’s actually a problem with their guitar not being tuned as it should be.

Let’s have a conversation about all things related to tuning…your ears will thank you for it in the long run.  I’ll give you a little advance warning, though – we’re going to talk about some science-y type stuff so bear with me if physics wasn’t your thing.

What is tuning?

As we all know, a guitar is basically a piece of wood with a bunch of metal wires on it, right?

What most beginners don’t know is that those metal wires need to be tight in order to properly produce a note.  If the string is too slack then you won’t get any sound out of it at all when you pluck it.

The sound that you hear when you play a string is called the “pitch”.  Pitch is directly related to the amount of tension that is on the string.  Higher tension means a higher pitched note, and lower tension will give you a lower pitch.

By the way…that’s what those funny little knobs on the headstock are for.  Those are called “tuning machines”, and they are how you adjust the amount of tension (one tuning machine per string).

Properly tuning a guitar means having each of the strings set at the proper tension so that, if you play two or more of them at one time, they sound correct in relation to each other.

How much is enough?

If you’re like me, the less tension that I have in my life, the better.  That’s not necessarily true for tuning a guitar, though.  With a guitar, you need just the right amount of tension.

Physics lesson time…

When a string is plucked, it vibrates.  The rate at which it vibrates (called the frequency) is determined by how tight it is (amount of tension).  For a particular string, there is a set amount of tension that will give you the correct note.  When I say “correct”, I am referring to what is known as “concert pitch”.

Concert pitch is a musical standard that states what frequency will produce the right note.  For our purposes, an A note (the fifth string on the guitar, when played open) needs to vibrate at 440 Hz (Hertz is the unit for frequency).

All of the other strings have set reference points to achieve concert pitch as well.  Once each string has enough tension to create a note with the proper pitch, then your guitar is tuned.

Complicated but simple at the same time, right?

Best way to tune?

There are two overall ways to tune a guitar:  manually and with a guitar tuner.

With manual tuning, you use one string as a reference point and then tune all of the other ones relative to it.  There are a few different manual methods you can use.  Some use fretted notes and others use natural harmonics.  We’ll go over those later on.

For now, let’s talk about guitar tuners.  By far, using a tuner is much easier and is more accurate than the manual methods.

With a tuner, getting each string to proper pitch is as simple as hitting the open string and then looking at the display on the tuner.  The display typically will automatically identify the note you are trying to tune to (yes, they are that smart).  It will also show if you are sharp or flat to the reference frequency that will give you the right note in concert pitch.

If the note is sharp then the pitch is too high and you’ll need to reduce the tension by using the tuning machine.  The same goes for if you are flat – in that case, the pitch will be too low and you’ll fix it by adding tension.

Tuners will tell you how far away from the reference note you are.  The best practice is to let the note ring out while you adjust the tension.  The display will – in real-time – adjust as you turn the tuning machine.  That will let you get the note exactly perfect.  Most tuners have some sort of indicator as to when you are dead-on with the right amount of tension.  Some change display colors from red to green and others may flash some sort of indicator to let you know when you are in the right spot.

Conclusion

Tuning is the very first thing that you need to do to your guitar to make sure that everything sounds as it should when you are playing.  Chords will sound terrible and leads will have sour notes if your guitar isn’t tuned properly to itself.

One other point – think about a live situation.  If your guitar isn’t tuned to the same concert pitch standard that the other instruments are, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a rough night.  Your audience won’t appreciate it that much either.

In the next few posts, we will go over types of guitar tuners and also discuss how to do it manually as well.  By the time we’re done, you’ll know more about tuning than you ever thought…but that’s a good thing – trust me…

So, until next time, peace out!

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