Tuning a Guitar by Ear: A Skill Every Player Should Have

Published by tgermann1962 on

I have had a number of students recently ask about the process of tuning the guitar by ear – without an electronic tuner. It is something that I have revisited occasionally and it always bears repeating. It is a very important topic for all of you (at least in my opinion).

Maybe you have never done this before.

Or, you simply need a refresher.

Possibly it could be you know someone that would benefit from this.

Either way, here ya go…

A short while back I talked about how to tune a guitar without a tuner.

I think it bears repeating here. Not just so you can learn how to tune without a tuner. But also how much it will help develop your ear to hear things in music you never heard before.

And that can start with knowing if you were in tune or not. That’s kind of important!

Electronic Tuners

I think we all use electronic tuners to get ourselves tuned up (that includes the clip on types). I use them all the time. Compared to the old school ways, they are fast and accurate. The last couple decades have seen an immense improvement to these little devices. Check some of these out:

Electronic Tuners

There are some great apps too, some free, some paid for. This is my favorite based on an old strobe tuner that looked like an old fashioned oscilloscope. It is very accurate and costs about $10. Well worth it in my book:

Peterson Strobe Tuner App

Before there Were Tuners…

It wasn’t always that easy though. Waaaaaayyyyyyy back when I started, electronic tuners were very hard to come by. So we had to rely on tuning our guitar by ear.

There were ways to go about getting the right pitch too: Often we would use the ‘A’ string: we would pluck it and compare it to an ‘A’ on a piano, a tuning fork, or (and I did this a lot) to a song on a record where we knew it was an ‘A’ they were playing.

In the bands I was in, we would simply tune to each other by plucking the A string (or a keyboard player playing an A note) and comparing how they sound. In fact, if you go back to older recordings in the 60’s and 70’s and try to play along with them, you might find that many of those songs were just a little bit off from standard tuning (which is the A note at 440hz). Things weren’t as precise back then.

But, what it did do is develop my ear. That’s why I still believe, in the 21st Century, you should make sure you do so too.

So how do we do that?

Tuning by Ear

Here is an easy way to practice tuning a guitar by ear:

  1. Using whatever electronic tuner or app you have, tune the guitar the way you normally would.
  2. Now, with your electronic tuner still on, turn the tuning peg for the A string down (or flat) a little bit so that it is purposefully out of tune. The more the better, but try not to reach the next note (G# or Ab – depending on how your tuner reads it).
  3. Next press down the ‘A’ note on the low E string (6th string). The ‘A’ note would be the 5th fret on that string.
  4. Pluck the ‘A’ note on the E string then the A string, making sure they both ring out together. Listen for a “wavy” sound that you should hear between the two notes. It should sound dissonant, or “off”. That “wavy” sound you hear is important for the next step…
  5. Then, while still holding that note down (and the strings are still ringing), reach over with your picking hand and turn the tuning peg up to get the A string back to it’s normal pitch. HOWEVER, and this is important, as you are tuning the string back up, LISTEN to how that “wavy” sound flattens out. It starts to slow down and eventually go away when you reach the actual A note. You can check by looking at your tuner.
  6. It might take you several times to do this to hear what I am talking about. It doesn’t matter, you will get there!

This is a very important skill to acquire. For example, you will quickly be able to hear how out of tune your chords sound if a string is also out of tune.

Another way to tune your guitar is to use harmonics. Here is a video I made a while ago that shows how to tune that way (it is an old video but still very relevant and helpful):

Good luck! Please do me a favor and let me know how it went for you using this method?

Rock On,

Tony G.


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