First I should say that this blog post is NOT going to be a basic tutorial on guitar tuning. There are hundreds of websites out there that can show you how to tune your guitar strings to EADGBE. What I want to do today is address some of the finer points involved in tuning the guitar.
Nearly all of my students, somewhere between a year to year-and-half into their guitar lessons, start to report having a certain difficulty with tuning their guitar. It isn’t that their guitars are suddenly not staying in tune or that their electronic tuners need calibration. What is happening is that after about a year of playing, their ears begin to really notice (and are bothered by) slightly out of tune harmonies.
The complaint is always that the student is fingering something very simple, usually an open C or open E chord, and the chord just sounds sour or “off”. And when they play it for me, it certainly is. I used to try and get students to correct this problem much earlier in the learning process. But there is just so much to grasp in the first year of lessons, and let’s face it you are going to sound bad in the beginning for a variety of reasons. Fine tuning your guitar isn’t going to make a difference until your ears are capable of understanding what you are hearing; which is precisely when you will begin to notice this problem.
I first encountered this problem years ago. I found it particularly baffling that I could tune my guitar’s open strings using an electronic tuner, play and open E chord that sounded perfect, but then my open C sounded way out. Specifically the problem with the C chord was beats in the perfect fourth interval between the 3rd string G and 2nd string C. I tried tuning the 3rd string upward to eliminate the beats (which make the C chord sound perfect) only to find that the problem of beats had now shifted to the open E chord: between the 3rd string G# and second string B (what should be a minor third harmony).
I found out much later on that this problem has to do with the difference between the something called “just intonation” and the system of “equal temperament” which western music has adopted in order to make fixed pitch instruments (including the fretted guitar) equally playable in all 12 keys.
The issues arising from equal tempered tuning and its effect on intervals and key centers is fascinating but a bit to DEEP for me to get into right now. If you really want to understand how equal tempered tuning effects the intervals of the guitar you should start reading up on the overtone series and the history of equal tempered tuning. Be patient as this subject is very hard to understand. It took me a few years even to begin to wrap my brain around it. If you have specific questions on this subject, send them to me in an email and I’ll do my best to explain. Or, if you’re already one of my students, just bring it up in your next guitar class.
Assuming that most of you are NOT interested in going deep into equal temperament, and would just like to fix the problem and have your chords sounding nice an pretty. You are in luck. There is a very practical solution to this problem. There are actually several, but I’ll just tell you the one that I use most often.
I just explain to you how I tune my guitar and then you can try it and see if it helps you.
1.) Tune all open strings by one of the normal methods. Tuning the open strings to EADGBE using an electronic tuner is the fastest. You can also tune the open strings by ear to their corresponding piano keys, or use a pitch fork or whatever.
2.) Strings 6, 5, and 4 (E-A-D) are fine so long as you really tune them right using the traditional methods. So these do not need any additional adjustment.
2.) We will make fine adjustments to strings 3, 2, and 1 (if needed) using by fretting an open D5 chord. The open D5 is made by playing the 4th string D (open), 3rd String A (2nd fret), 2nd string D (3rd fret) and 1st string A (5th fret). Low to high the notes of this chord are D-A-D-A. Check the first D against the first A (a 5th interval) then the first A against the second D (a fourth) then the A against the second A (an octave). Basically I check all the intervals against each other and balance out any beat frequencies or inconsistencies. Usually this only requires a slight adjustment of the 3rd string to get all 4 stings resonating with perfect clarity. Whatever you do don’t adjust the open 4th string. That should be the the reference for the other 3 fretted strings.
After you’ve do this fine tuning carefully, go back and try the open E and open C chords. You should find that both sound great. In truth their upper intervals are slightly degraded and if you listen real close you might here a very slow *wow* in the C chord, but it is certainly not enough to sour the harmony.
I also use this method to check my guitar in between songs during a performance if I think the 3rd or 2nd strings may have slipped out of tune due to bending, temperature change or some other fluke. In truth it is probably impossible to keep your guitar in tune 100% of the time. But if you master little tuning tricks like these you can identify tuning problems and resolve them immediately; and as a result you guitar will always sound great!