Tuning your guitar is always a needed skill for every player.
Although most of them are really accustomed to tuning it using a device, mainly a digital tuner, there are also more and even better options.
At some point, if you are a guitar player, you must learn how to tune your instrument by ear. Guitars are imperfect instruments that need corrections all the time. Tuning by ear will give you a better sound fidelity. It will make you a more reliable player, and have the freedom to jam with anyone.
Beginners may think that it will be impossible to master this tuning technique.
In addition, a lot of intermediate and advanced guitarists don’t even know how to do it.
Although it will take you time to learn how to tune by ear, it is not extremely difficult and will reinforce your musician abilities.
Why tune by ear if you can use a tuner?
Although the tuner is a great tool that helps the player a lot, it is important to know how to use your ear skills to tune.
You may wonder why you would use your ear if you can just tune your guitar by using an app or a device but let me tell you that in some cases it is better to trust your auditory canal.
Some players feel comfortable tuning slightly up or down. If you want to match that tuning with a tuner, it would be impossible.
The only way to get that kind of tuning is to learn to use your ears.
That’s because the guitar is an imperfect instrument and the same happens, for example, when you play with a capo.
By using your ears you can correct the tuning of some strings when playing in certain keys.
It is also useful when you are recording chords, you could tune your guitar in a way you can have each chord sounding perfectly in tune.
This would be just unattainable tuning with a device. That’s because the tuner’s recommendations are adapted to the open strings.
Does tuning by ear require having perfect pitch?
This is a common question among beginners but in fact, you don’t need to have a perfect pitch to tune by ear.
Everyone can tune their instrument by ear with a reference.
There are some tools for those without absolute pitch.
You can use a pitch pipe which is a device that provides a pitch reference.
Another possibility could be a tuning fork that is an acoustic fork-shaped resonator that produces a fixed pitch, commonly an A 440hz.
Besides, those who are along in years may know that the landline tone is also an A440hz!
Using these references you can get your instrument in tune.
However, if you don’t have pitch-perfect it would be difficult to be sure if the guitar is perfectly tuned in the standard tuning.
But keep in mind, that even without references, if you were to play alone, you would be able to tune your guitar using any of its strings as a reference.
Probably you will be slightly off from a perfect 440hz tuning, but you will still be able to play in tune within the instrument.
How hard is it to learn how to tune by ear?
At first, it can be hard but then you will be able to do it. If you have never tuned your guitar before, try to take some time to familiarize yourself with each string’s tuning.
As we mentioned earlier, anyone can do it so the answer would be It’s not difficult at all.
However, it may take some time to train your ear and get used to doing it.
Can you learn to tune my guitar by ear by yourself?
You may think that you need someone to explain to you. Of course, a teacher always helps you but you definitely can learn by yourself.
What is more, most players learn how to tune by themselves. In the beginning, could be a tough task but what you have to do is put down the hours.
I recommend you start with a particular tuning method (more on this later) and stick with it until you master it.
Then, you could start combining them, or even by trying them all, finding the one you like the most.
How can you start practicing tuning by ear?
As we said, tuning your instrument by ear is not hard at all but how can you start to practice?
Well, you can detune one of the strings just a little bit then, try to find the correct note in a near string, and play each of them.
After that, check if the detuned string’s sound is lower or higher than the previous reference. Finally, repeat until both sounds are indistinguishable.
Play them individually, think about it, adjust. Play them together. Do it as many times as you need.
Another technique good for practicing is playing one note over and over again while singing or humming it.
This is good to recognize the notes in your head, once you can clearly hear the note in your mind you will be able to identify pitches.
Should a beginner learn to tune a guitar by ear?
Although it would be completely useful to know how to do it, I wouldn’t say that a beginner should focus on learning to tune by ear.
Starters are giving their first steps on guitar so at first, it will be really confusing.
Moreover, trying to learn how to tune by ear will take you a lot of precious time destined to practice and understand the instrument overall.
I suggest you do this when you are truly comfortable with the instrument.
Different ways of tuning a guitar by ear
As we have already mentioned, you can tune your guitar by ear using a tuning fork or a pitch pipe but how can you do that? Well, you have to follow some simple steps.
Tuning by fretting the same note as the next open string
To begin with, you require one string in tune. It could be from an external reference point or you can decide that one string is close enough.
In that way, you can tune the rest of the string from this starting point. In the end, you may have your guitar in tune.
Assuming that your starting point is the low E (sixth string), the process is the following. First, you play the fifth fret of the sixth string.
Then play the open fifth string and listen to it. Tune the open A string until the pitch matches the one played on the sixth string.
Be patient, remember that tuning in this way could take you some time. Repeat as many times as you need until you feel convinced that the fifth string is perfectly in tune.
For the rest of the strings, the process is the same except for the second one. In this case, you will have to play the fourth fret of the G string instead of the fifth one as in the other strings.
Tuning using natural harmonics
Another ear-tuning technique is using natural harmonics. This method is similar to the above mentioned because you use one string to tune another.
You need again an external source to tune one string, assuming that string is low E the process is the next.
Play the harmonic on the fifth fret on the E string, pay attention to it and listen.
Do exactly the same on A string but play the seventh fret harmonic. Try to figure out if there are any differences between both of them.
Then tune the fifth string until its pitch matches with that on the sixth string. Once again, the process is the same for every string with the exception of B and E high strings.
To tune the second string, first, play the harmonic on the seventh fret of the sixth string. In this case, the pitch matches the open B string (not the harmonic)
Finally, to tune the first string, play the harmonic on the seventh fret of the fifth string. Here happens the same that in the B string, the pitch matches the open E high string instead of the harmonic.
Tuning using octaves
Another option is using a reference note and octaves. By using this method you can get one of the most accurate tunings.
What you have to do is get your D string in tune by using a tuning fork or a pitch pipe. Then play the second fret of this string and the sixth open string.
These two notes are an octave apart, but you will be able to tell if they are in tune. Next, play the same second fret of the D string and check if matches the first open string.
To continue, play again the E on the second fret of the D string which will match the fifth fret on the second string. This will be an E one octave higher as well.
This leaves the fifth and third strings but you can tune them using the previous methods (fifth fret adjacent open string or harmonics).
Tuning using fourths (nearby open strings)
Last but not least, you can also check your guitar tuning by playing nearby open strings.
Playing the E low string and the A string you get that wide warm perfect fourth sound.
You can repeat this process with the rest of the open strings except for the third and second (fifth – fourth, fourth – third, and second – first).
In the case of the G string, you need a C note to form a perfect fourth so, instead of playing adjacent open strings, you need to play the first fret on the second string.
Or alternatively, the open B string against the G will give you a major 3rd.
With a little practice, you will start hearing how the notes clash against each other when not perfectly in tune.
This last one is my favorite way of tuning any guitar quickly when I pick it up.
If I’m having a bad day, I will then go for the natural harmonics to get a finer tuning.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.