The cheapest tuner you’ll ever use

I realize that I have been taking longer in between blog postings as of late. It is difficult for me to be indoors, typing on a computer, when the weather is getting so nice. As nice as it has become, it’s still a bit too cold to bring the computer out into the yard and type; so, instead it stays inside while I am outside.


One thing that I have been aware of with guitarists coming up in the last 15 years or so has been the lack of emphasis of tuning the guitar by ear. With the advanced nature of electronic tuners now-a-days, it would seem like this is an outdated skill to develop. But, the way I see it, it is yet another way to develop a deeper connection, awareness, and attention to details that may be getting rare in our age of advancing technology.


I was made aware of my own weakness in this area about 15 years ago. I was teaching at a guitar camp and we were having a jam session with the students and faculty. I got up to play and realized that I didn’t have my tuner with me. I kinda panicked, and frantically searched for one. Another instructor looked at me with confusion, and said “just tune it?!?” He then proceeded to pick up an out-of-tune student’s guitar and tuned it by listening to the open strings- not even using the 5th fret or harmonic method! I felt amazed and really small.


After that I made it a point at getting better at tuning by ear. It’s not that I couldn’t tune by ear; it’s just that I had become so dependent on the electronic tuner that I had absolutely no confidence in my ear.


I began by getting used to the sound of the adjacent open strings- most notably the fourths. I even devised a method for practicing this. The first thing I do every day when I pick up my guitar is to untune it entirely. I then try to find the right pitch for one of the strings- for some reason I always use the D string. I think of the opening notes of Sweet Home Alabama, which I have heard approximately one million times in my lifetime. Other good reference pitches are the low E of Enter Sandman, or Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap), or the open A shuffle of Keep Your Hands To Yourself. Any song will work that you are familiar with.


Once I tune the guitar to what I think is the right pitch, I then check either the E or A string with a tuning fork, and adjust it if necessary, (which it usually is, though I have gotten pretty good at getting close after all this time). I then tune the guitar to the “in tune” string, checking it again afterwards.


I find it much more accurate to tune to one reference note, instead of starting on the low E and then going to the next string, etc. This has the most accumulation of error: if the A isn’t quite in tune from the E, the D will also be out of tune, and each successive string getting worse. Instead, if I start with the D string, I use the fourths to tune the A and G. I will get the low E in tune with the A, but then compare it to an octave above it with an E played on the second fret of the D. I like to hear the compound 5th sound of the low E and B to tune the B, but I then press the B on the 3rd fret and check the octave with the D string. I get the high E intune by either using the 4th of the E and B together, the compound 5th of the A and high E, or the 2 octaves of both E’s. But, then again, I fine tune it with the 2nd fret of the D string. So, in the end, everything is referenced to the D string. Of course, this is my own method- you will probably have your own.


Working in a guitar store, one realizes just how little emphasis people put on tuning. Many people pick up a guitar to try, and either don’t touch the tuners, or make a poor attempt at fixing it. But that’s not as important as showing off their “guitar store chops”! This is also obvious on the many youtube videos that are meant to review a new piece of equipment. Out-of-tuneness will automatically make the best guitar, amp, or pedal sound terrible. The true mark of an experienced player is their awareness of whether they are in tune or not; and if not it drives them crazy.


By developing this skill, it also heightens your awareness of what you play. When you put time into tuning your guitar by ear, you then start to become aware of how everything should sound, and in turn become very adept at fixing it. Tele players that have a traditional 3-barrel bridge on their guitar usually become pretty good at this. The inability of these things to intonate accurately forces those players to find a compromise in the bridge adjustment (usually flat), and then the player bend those notes sharp as needed. On my tele, I have a compensated 3-barrel bridge that is supposed to intonate better, but it still isn’t perfect. As a matter of fact, very few guitars are totally in tune on most of the neck, and once you consider strings stretch unevenly almost immediately after you start to play on them, depending on the instrument to play in tune for you is pretty hopeless. It is up to you to tune it as you play as much as possible. As a matter of fact, in orchestral settings, most horns and woodwinds are constantly aware of their tuning as they play each note.


I always find it cool watching a professional guitarist playing a gig, and seeing them, mid-song, reach up and turn a tuning key.


I also think that by developing your awareness of the tuning of your instrument will also heighten your awareness of the other members of your band. By acutely listening to yoyr own tuning, you also become more “in tune” with what everyone else is playing.


Electronic tuners have been a blessing for our ears- they make it that much easier and quicker to tune a guitar. But, by depending on these things, I feel that some important skills are being lost. Of course, in a studio situation, a tuner can be invaluable. And, in a live setting, using a tuner to quickly get touch up an out of tune guitar is much preferable than forcing an audience to endure the tedious sound of someone trying to tune their instrument between every song.


It does seem that developing this skill isn’t just about tuning your guitar, but more importantly, tuning your ear.