Whether you are playing guitar alone or you are accompanying other instruments, your guitar must be tuned. There must be a standard applied first to your guitar; and if you’re playing with other instruments, all must apply the same standard. If not, the result is noise, not music.
Without bogging this article down with too much technical jargon, the American Standards Association and International Organization for Standardization have long established that “Concert A” (also called “A440“) would be accepted as the standard for the pitch of the “A” note above middle “C”. For what it may be worth, that pitch resonates at precisely 440 Hz1. Here’s what that means to you and your guitar:
Your third string from the bottom, fretted in the second fret should be tuned to that note. There are many ways to achieve this, each worthy of discussion.
- On a full keyboard (88 keys), like for instance a piano, in the middle you will find a pair of black keys (they are in groups of two and three). The white key immediately to the left of them is “middle C”. From that note, only playing the white keys and ascending to the right, the notes are: D, E, F, G, and A. That note is the “Concert A”. But, let’s count down the keyboard to find the note that should correspond with your top string. Go back to middle C, and descending to the left on only the white keys are: B, A, G, F, and E. You are now at the first E below middle C. Now continuing down: D, C, B, A, G, F, E. This note, 2nd E below middle C, is the note your top string should be tuned with. Once tuned, you now have a standard. You may continue to tune your guitar with the keyboard by counting up the white keys to the corresponding notes, A, D, G, B, and your high E string. Your guitar will then be as perfectly tuned to the keyboard as your ear is accurate. I say that because some people have a naturally good ability to distinguish pitch, while others have to work to train their ears. A piano makes a good source for your standard because they stay in tune very well. Also, a standard piano is technically a stringed instrument, and therefore produces a similar sound. Even though the pitch may be exactly the same, sometimes tuning with a non-stringed instrument can be a little tougher because the tone is different. An electric keyboard does not lose tune.
- You may tune your individual strings using a pitch pipe. This is a wind instrument specifically designed with the six pitches of the guitar strings. Some of the disadvantages to using this method are: The pitches are produced by your breath, and can actually fluctuate if you blow too hard. Also, there is the difficulty of different tone, although the pitch may be the same. I usually discourage my students from using a pitch pipe.
- You may choose to use a tuning fork. This piece of metal is calibrated so that, when struck and then placed against the body of your guitar, to ring at a perfect A440. Isn’t that neat? I don’t usually recommend this method for beginning guitar students.
- Whereas, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND electronic tuners as an inexpensive and reliable means of guitar players, from beginners to pro’s, to tune their guitar. Various models have diverse displays, from needle graphs, lights, to digital readouts. Some models simply need to be in close proximity to your guitar to accurately detect pitches. Often, they include jack plugs so you can plug your electric guitar directly into the tuner, and without amplification, it will discern. Most electronic tuners also tell whether your string is sharp (too high) or flat (too low) from the standard. The end result is a digitally perfectly-tuned guitar, fast and simple.
- But every guitar player should know the tune-by-ear method. You know, “old school”. You must have a standard to start with, even if it comes down to what you think your low E string should sound like. Once you have your standard, all of the other strings will relate to it. Here’s how:
1) Beginning with your 6th (top string, Low E) as your standard, when you play that string in the 5th fret, you are playing the note “A”.
2) This is the same “A” as your 5th string should be. Adjust the 5th string (adjustment string) to match your standard. Now this becomes your standard.
3) Playing your standard string (5th) in the 5th fret, you are playing the note “D”. This is the same as your 4th string should be. Adjust to match your standard.
4) Your 4th string is now the standard. Played in the 5th fret, you are playing the note “G”, the same as your 3rd string. Adjust to the standard.
5) The 3rd string is now the standard. Playing it in the 4th fret, it is the note “B”, the same as the next string. Adjust to the standard.
6) Your 2nd string is the standard. Playing it in the 5th fret is the note “E”. You guessed it… the same as your 1st string. Adjust to the standard.
Tuning can be frustrating. Guitar strings react to humidity the same as some people’s sinuses. Guitars go out of tune if they just sit, or if they’re played. Some guitars lose tune easier than others. But it is an essential skill to master.
- 1.Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A440