It’s always impressive when you see someone on stage quickly retune their guitar between songs; whenever I see that, I always think, “there is an experienced musician.” It is especially impressive if you, like most people who are new to the guitar, have to perform several iterations of plucking and tuning before even getting one string in tune.
You can get by without this skill, since tuners are cheap and plentiful. But, besides the advantage of not always being dependent on a tuner and being able to quickly re-tune if you go out of tune while playing live, is not having to deal with the nagging feeling, in the back of your mind, that you can’t tune well. It’s just another thing to make you feel like a beginner and diminish your confidence. As guitarists, the fewer things we have eating away at our confidence the better.
A lot of beginners who struggle with tuning by ear find that even after doing it over and over; they aren’t getting better at it. You might even start to think you just have a bad ear, and hope it will improve over time. If this sounds familiar, I have good news. The problem is probably less about your ear, and more with the way you approach tuning mentally, and this is something you can correct.
This article isn’t about the mechanical process of tuning your guitar. I’m not going to go into things like, “Now fret the 5th string at the 5th fret and then tune the 4th string to that note.” I’m assuming you already know all that, but still struggling at getting better at it. If you need that kind of information, there are plenty of articles that tell you the proper sequence to go through when tuning (here is one, http://www.daddydoodle.com/how2tune.html), Also, you may use a tuning other than standard tuning (open D for example) and the secrets I am going to give you are applicable to whatever tuning system you use.
What this article attempts is to describe the mental steps you need to go through when tuning your guitar, because if you take the right mental approach when you tune, you will find that you get better at it every time. If you don’t have the right mental approach, then no matter how often you do it you will see very little improvement. Once you see how much easier tuning is when you think about it properly, you will realize there is nothing wrong with your ear, and you will feel more confident as a guitarist. You will also find that this approach applies to other aspects of your playing, such as learning to bend properly.
The big secret to tuning: Listen.
The most important thing you need to do when you tune is to listen. That statement probably seems obvious, but a lot of beginners don’t really listen properly. You may hear the notes, but you aren’t really listening to them. Following the steps I outline in the next paragraph, will make you conscious of the difference between hearing and listening. At first you will really have to think about it, but by doing it every time you tune it will become more natural.
Every tuning method involves some process of tuning a string to some reference tone, which may be from another instrument, from a tuner or metronome, or another string that you’ve already tuned. If you are like most guitarists learning to tune, you play the reference tone and you immediately start tuning your string to try to match its pitch. Ok, Stop! Don’t do it. You’ve already gone wrong. Before you start tuning, you first need to lock your mind onto the note that you are tuning to. What do I mean by this? I’ll show you.
First sound the note you want to match, let it ring out for a few seconds and then stop it. Now try to hear that same note clearly in you mind. Can you still hear it? If you think you have it in your head, check it by playing the reference note again. Did it match the note that was in your head? If you have to repeat this several times before you are confident that are hearing the note clearly in your mind when it isn’t playing than do so. At first it might take some repetition before you feel like your mind is locked into the note but you will find you develop this ability fairly quickly, and you are developing the listening ability you need to be able to tune like an expert guitarist.
Once you have the note clearly in your mind, then and only then should you try to tune to it. While you are tuning, the reference tone should be silent, instead, you are tuning to the reference tone in your mind. Eventually when you get better at tuning it won’t matter if the reference tone is sounding or not, but until then it is just a distraction that will prevent you from developing the ability to hear a tone and then tune to it. You should only be dealing with the sound of the note in your head, and the sound of the string you are tuning. Also always tune up to pitch, if your string is to high, tune it down until it is clearly lower than the pitch you are tuning to, then bring it up to pitch. If at any time you feel like you’ve lost the tone in your head, repeat the first step to reestablish it, but don’t tune unless you have your mind locked onto the reference tone.
That’s the big secret to learning to tune well. If you follow this advice every time you tune you will find that your skill at tuning improves much quicker. Eventually you won’t have to consciously think through the process. I also want to share with you two other little secrets that will help you when you tune.
Only turn the tuning peg if the string is making noise.
This is another that that may seem obvious, but until you pay conscious attention you might not notice that you start turning the tuning peg before you even pick the string, or you continue tuning after it has faded out. I find this to mainly be a problem if you are tuning in front of someone else and you are anxious about it. Make sure that you only turn the tuning peg when the string is sounding. If you are turning the peg and you don’t hear the pitch changing, stop what you are doing. You are probably tuning the wrong peg. The real point is you always need to be conscious of what you are doing when you are tuning your guitar.
Start by tuning the 5th string not the 6th.
This one is more of a suggestion. You may find it easier to tune if you start on the 5th string rather than the 6th, tune all the higher strings and then go back and tune the 6th string to the 1st string two octaves lower. The reason for this is that the 6th string is the lowest in pitch and has a tendency to be somewhat muddy and indistinct and therefore harder to tune. If you start with the 5th, the rest of the guitar will be more accurately in tune. You might find it difficult to tune the first string to a string two octaves higher, but even so, I think from a practical point of view you are better off with strings 1 to 5 accurately in tune even if the 6th is a little off, than to have the whole guitar slightly out of tune with the rest of the band.
So if you are struggling with tuning, try following my advice. I think you will find that you will experience a breakthrough in your ability, which is one more step toward being a confident guitarist rather than a hesitant beginner.