A Fool-Proof Guide to Tuning by Ear
This blog’s touched on tuning before – how could it not come up? If you’re not in tune, that’s it. You’re done for. Nothing you play will sound alright, you could have the technique to put the greatest guitar legends to shame but if your instrument’s out of tune it will sound like someone’s stepped on a cat’s tail. An electronic tuner, like a little clip-on thing or a pedal, is great. It really is, you’ll be bang on tune (unless you have a faulty device or the batteries are low on charge) and you barely need to think about it. In my experience, they typically work perfectly. The trick is that, like a calculator, they aren’t any use to you when you don’t have one. What do you do when you forget your tuner or it runs out of juice? You have to use your ears.
The “Just Do It” Method
All over the net there are guides to tuning by ear and even websites that play a tone for you to match with each string. I call this the “Just Do It” approach. This means getting a reference note for each string and copying it or taking your reference from your own guitar. The way you do that is, starting with your fifth string, you take the string lower than it and play its 5th fret – you want the open string to match that. The exception is the 2nd string, which you want to match the 4th fret of the string below it.
Great! So tuning by ear is no problem for you now that I’ve explained that, right?
This is why I call it the “Just Do It” method. It’s like telling someone they can get to a town on the other side of their country by travelling there. There are pieces missing to the guide! It’s true, of course, but it doesn’t help all that much for most people.
I’m going to try to make this easier for you by showing you some little tricks about tuning.
Taking a Fresh Look
The most frustrating aspect of tuning by ear is getting really close but not quite there. When a note is much higher than another it’s easy to tell. Likewise, when it’s much lower it’s also really easy to tell that it’s lower. When two notes are really close together, but not quite exactly the same, it feels like they’re clashing without it being completely clear which is higher.
It can really wear your ear out constantly making teeny tiny adjustments, so here’s my trick: deliberately put the string much further out. Most of the time, I can put a note further out of tune and then reel it back in perfectly in one shot afterwards. I think it’s sort of like when you’re trying to remember a name, you think you have a piece of it that’s almost there but no matter how much you obsess you can’t nail it. Then, when you step back and empty your mind, it pops in. Same principle with obsessing about being almost in tune with a string, sometime a step backwards is necessary so you can look at the situation with new eyes. Or new ears, in this case.
Making Sure Strings Are Stretched
This is more general advice, because it helps no matter how you tune, but it’s even more important if you’re going to be tuning by ear. A guitar’s job is to hold strings to tension but, while you can get strings to the right tension straight away, they will never stay how you want them straight away. They will loose tension and stretch out, dropping in pitch.
How can you stop this from happening? You can’t! It will always happen and there’s no escape! What you can do, however, is force it to happen all at once instead of across days of waiting it for settle.
You just need to tune up roughly, don’t waste your time on precision yet. Then grab the strings at the 12th fret and give a few gentle but firm tugs. Check it, it will be out of tune. Now, repeat the cycle of rough tuning and stretching a few times. This will get rid of all that stretchiness and after a few repetitions of this method you can tune up accurately and quit worrying about it stretching out while you play.
I’ve laid out a couple of seriously helpful hints, but tuning by ear is still a skill. Skills need to be honed, otherwise they’re not a skill!
Deliberately put your guitar out of tune, right now. Take a 10 minute break and return to it. Now, tune it up by ear!
It’s not just functional, either. I know a couple guys who can tune any guitar by ear in under 20 seconds and it’s pretty dang impressive to watch.
image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjlonien