Acoustic Guitar Tuning Tips
By: Jerry A. Greene
Question: I use a chromatic guitar tuner when tuning my steel string acoustic guitar. It sounds "okay", but how can I make it sound better? I have heard that doing it by ear is the best way to go, but I have no idea how to tune by ear.
Answer: Tuning an acoustic guitar by ear is not an extremely hard thing to learn, but you must practice it a lot if you want to get it right. An out-of-tune guitar mimics sounds like the feedback on a speaker phone during conference calls and is very unpleasant for listeners.
Starting With The E String
Since you already have an electronic guitar tuner, you have a great place to start. Some people will tell you to tune the A string first, either to an electronic guitar tuner, or a pitch fork. The reason they choose A, is that it is the pitch that is used as a starting point by almost every other instrument (since A440 is concert pitch and will allow you to stay in tune with anyone else that is properly tuned.) For now, I would recommend that you start with the 6th string E (there is a tuning tone at the top left of the page) so that you learn how to tune going one direction (Up) rather than having to tune down from the 5th string to the 6th and then back up to the 4th.
Tuning The A String With A Perfect 4th
After you have the low E string tuned, tune the A to the tuner as well. This will allow you to hear what a perfect 4th sounds like. (A perfect fourth is the distance from one starting note to the 4th degree of the major scale that you are starting from, for instance "A" is the 4th degree (or "FA" in solfege ) up from E in the E major scale: E F# G# A B C# D# E
Play the E and A together and you will get this perfect 4th sound. If you tuned it with the guitar tuner, it should sound almost beatless, meaning that you shouldn't hear any "wa-wa-wa" between the two tones when sounding simultaneously. You may be wondering how you could tune the A without a guitar tuner, just using the E as a starting point. If you play the 5th fret on the E string, you get the tone of A. Matter of fact, it is the EXACT same one that you are hearing when playing the A string. You can then tune the two strings completely beatless that way.
Once you have the perfect 4th almost beatless, you want to tune the A string a tiny bit sharp (meaning a tiny bit higher), or tighter tension on the string. Play both strings (beatless) and start to raise the A very slowly. You will hear the sound "brighten up" as a "wa-wa-wa" starts to happen. Just as the beats start showing up, STOP. This is where you want to be.
Tuning The D, A, And G Strings With More Perfect 4ths
Then it's time to tune the D string. Again, either using the guitar tuner, or "5th fret" example I gave before, do the same thing you did to get the A to just above beatless. The same goes for the G string.
Tuning the B String With A Major 3rd
The hard one is the B string. The distance between the G and the B is different from the other 4 strings we have just tuned (all tuned to perfect 4ths as described above.)
The G to B is tuned as a major 3rd, or 3 notes up in the major scale from your starting point:
This one takes a lot of practice to get right. Unlike the other strings, there has to be noticeable beats between the G and B in order for it to sound good. It's not fast, and it's not slow. It takes time and experience of doing it right on your guitar (each guitar may sound better at a different speed of beats). You can get the B tone from the G string, by playing the 4th fret. This will give you a good idea of how close you are.
Once you think you have it right, you can try playing the B string with the low E string and see if you are hearing a lot of beats. It should be slightly flatter than beatless, but almost imperceptible.
Tuning The High E String With One More Perfect 4th
The next step is to tune the 1st string (high E) to the B string (using the method that we did to tune the perfect 4ths. Check it against the low E string to see if they sound like they are working well together. Note: The high E should be a little on the sharp side of perfect (beatless). It is a tiny amount, but just enough to the point that you hear a "brighter sound" come out of the two tones sounding together.
Testing Your Guitar's Tuning With Open Chords
The last step (if everything was done correctly) is to try playing a few chords, starting with the E major - open string chord. If it sounds good (usually REALLY good when done in this method) try the D major chord, then the A major and G major. If they all sound good, then you are set to go.
Once you are good at starting from the low E string, start by tuning the A first (as explained earlier in this article) and tune the low E back a perfect fourth from the A. It should be slightly flatter than perfect since this is the opposite of what we did going up.
I hope this article helps you to make your guitar "sing" and brings you closer to sounding like a professional!