Welcome to Part 3 of our series on tuning – we’re getting close to the end!
So far, we talked about what tuning is and also reviewed some of the different types of electronic tuners that are available. (Just as a reminder – my top recommendation is to use an electronic tuner of some type whenever you can.)
But there will be those times when a tuner isn’t available. So what do you do then? Well – you go “old school” and use one of a few different methods to tune your guitar manually.
Let’s dig in, but before we get too deep we need to discuss some of the things that make manual tuning not necessarily the best way to go…
Disclaimer #1 – Note References
Before we get into the specific techniques used to manually tune, I want to review some of the things that really drive me to recommend using an electronic tuner if at all possible.
One thing that an electronic tuner gives you is true and absolute references for your notes. By that, I mean if your tuner says you are correctly tuned to an A note at concert pitch of 440 Hz, then you’re exactly where you need to be. That’s, like, super important – especially if you are playing with other musicians (especially a keyboard player).
Manual methods tend to tune great from the viewpoint of the notes/strings being relative to each other. But you have to have an accurate starting point for a reference note. If your starting point isn’t exactly right (a little sharp or flat) then your whole guitar will be off. It’ll sound great if you’re playing by yourself, but the minute you play with someone else that is tuned correctly you’ll immediately be able to see the problem.
Disclaimer #2 – Your “Ear”
Another point to consider when trying to manually tune is how well your “ear” is developed. The more you play the more you’ll get a feel for hearing notes and how they relate to each other. You’ll hear this skill referred to as “ear training” or “developing your ear”.
Manual tuning is completely dependent on hearing two notes and getting them to sound exactly the same. For beginners that can be kind of tricky.
One thing that can help here is to listen for a slight pulsating sound when both notes you are working with are being played at the same time. As you are tuning you’ll hear it – a low level throbbing between the two notes that gets slower as the pitches get relatively close to being the same. Get the pulsing to go away and your two notes should be pretty doggone close.
I bring these “disclaimers” up because, even though you are following the manual tuning processes to the letter, these two things have a good chance of giving you some trouble to get things just right. Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at a few different ways to manually tune.
Manual Tuning – Method #1
This method is the most common way you’ll find for manual tuning.
To start out, get your low E (6th) string as close to a correct E note as possible. You can do this by using a piano or keyboard to get the reference note (if you just happen to have one handy), or another quick way is to download a free smartphone app that will produce reference tones.
Once you have the E set to where it needs to be, then you tune the A string. Fret the A note on the 6th string at the 5th fret. That is the same octave of an A note as an open A (5th) string. Adjust the tuning machine for the 5th string until the two notes match. It’s a big help if you let both notes ring as you make the adjustments.
Now that the A string is all set, then move to tune the D string. You’ll use the same process – fret the D note on the 5th fret of the 5th string. It’s the same note as the open D (4th string). Adjust until the notes are exactly the same (remember, listen for the “pulsating” sound to get slower until it completely disappears).
Tune the G string? Same deal – fret the D string at the 5th fret (G note) and tune the open 3rd string accordingly.
Tuning the B string is a little different. Based on how the notes for standard tuning are arranged, you’ll be using the 4th fret of the G (3rd) string to get your B (open 2nd string) reference note.
Finish up with tuning the high E (1st) string by going back to fretting the note on the 5th fret of the B string to get your high E reference note. Tune-up your open E.
Check out the chart below to reference the whole process – I’ve even color-coded the notes for you at no additional charge!
That’s it! It really is a pretty simple process. After doing it for a while, you’ll find that your ear will be developed enough to easily tell when the two notes you are working with are sounding the same pitch.
One last tip – it helps to keep things consistent, and your tuning more stable, if you start out with the string you’re trying to tune at a lower pitch than the reference note. Slowly increase the tension to bring the note to pitch. Going slow helps to keep you from overshooting and taking the note sharp, and it’s a lot easier to hear the note pulsations to find the sweet spot where the notes are identical.
Manual tuning, while easy to do once you get the hang of it, isn’t necessarily the most accurate way to get your guitar tuned. Again, I’d recommend using an electronic tuner as much as you can – especially for a beginner. This is because of having exact reference notes and your ear isn’t as developed as it should be when you’re first starting out.
There are other ways to tune manually, and we’ll take a look at those in next week’s installment for this series. You never know…we may even briefly touch on what is called “alternate tunings” (bonus material!!). We’ll be wrapping things up then and moving on.
So, until next week – peace out!