How to tune a guitar for the tone deaf

Customizing your electric guitar: replacing the whammy bar

By now you’ve practiced (if not cursed at) the basic tuning procedure of 5 – 0, 5 – 0, 5 – 0, and so on. But what if the strings still aren’t harmonizing and an electric tuner is not an option?

Here is a short checklist to eliminate the abstract:

  • Make sure new strings are stretched. And consider making two or three winds on the tuning peg rather than the whole string. Then trim off the excess.
  • Could the neck be warped? This would alter not only the tuning up, but the playing out.
  • Tune hard. Play it loud — of course not to the point of radical distortion.
  • If you pick heavy on the bass, you may want to consider tuning it up, to counter the flattening of the pitch — but do this AFTER the other strings are tuned.

If you’re playing in a group and have access to another instrument, locate the note you want to begin with. Use the Sixth-string E as the starting pitch if another stringed instrument is available. An experienced brass player can offer a note to tune off of, but be leery of a wavering pitch. Also, remember the key they play in is different. In the case of a B-Flat trumpet player, your E is their D.

Check the way you’re striking each string. Use a pick instead of your thumb to make a clear, resonant pitch. Listen first (sometimes humming it helps), THEN strike the corresponding open string. Often you’ll hear a “wave” when the pitches don’t match. (Rarely do they not mis-match.) The slower the wavy sound, the closer the match. Repeat the step backwards, open string first — listen — then strike the corresponding string. Then, to triple check, strike them BOTH at the same time. Make sure no other strings “hum” along. The two should sound in unison.

If you have a knack for hearing things sharp, listen to your logic and tune low to begin. Also, setting each un-tuned string far low of the correct pitch and bringing it up slowly will give a fresh sound to a tired ear when the elusive pitch desires not to be found.

A minor theory lesson may also play a major role in your tuning. Think “Fourths.” As in the song, “Taps.” You know the tune, “Day is Doneā€¦” The Perfect Fourth sound you hear in the opening measure is the same sound you hear between the open (sixth string) E to A, A to D, D to G, and then the B to E string. The Major Third between the open G to B strings is the second note of the triad for any chord or the three main notes that make up any given chord. Pluck out the C chord from C (E, G,) C, and there is the one, three, five, (one) structure for any major (as in not minor) chord. Within the G, B (D, G), chord structure the G to B open strings will not alter from the one-three sound unless it’s out of tune. Think of a song that uses that one-three structure to further develop your ear, as the one-four did in “Taps.”

Some differences are easier to hear in octaves. Strum a first position E Major chord and listen for discrepancies. Play the Sixth string and First string E’s by themselves. Use variations by fret; C (on the fifth string) to its corresponding octave. B to B, A to A to A (first string, fifth fret), G to G to G and so on. Sometimes the ear will pick up difference in the octave better than other methods.

If you feel adventurous, begin tuning with harmonics. Lightly touch (do not let the string touch the neck) the twelfth fret of any or all of the strings. Strum this a few times if you are unfamiliar with the sound. Strike the sixth string, “touching” the twelfth fret, then all the corresponding E’s on the other strings. It’s a little tricky at first. Next, strike the D string (from the twelfth fret), then the D on the third fret of the second string, and so on with each string, listening for differences. In this case, the relation of the G – B strings (mentioned above) do not apply.

Finding your tuning “niche” may not be easy, but it’s there. It could be in one of the methods described or a combination of several. It may be an idea you’ve tossed around or something completely new you haven’t tried yet. The ear takes a long time to develop, so play often, listen carefully and don’t let a “sour note” discourage your love for tunes.

Finding your tuning

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