Are you wondering how to tune a guitar by ear or with a tuner? Today we’re going to discuss both methods and give you a good understanding of what exactly tuning is.
A guitar string is brought up to a specific “tension” or “pitch” by turning the guitar machine head or guitar tuner. Here when we refer to the guitar tuner we are referring to the tuners on the headstock of the guitar. These tuners are used to bring the guitar up to pitch or in other words to bring it into tune, so let’s discuss what tune and pitch mean.
A specific pitch has a letter name and that letter name actually represents a number of vibrations per second. If you for instance go to your local music store and purchase an A 440 pitch fork that pitch fork will vibrate at precisely 440 vibrations per second and produce the note that is written here on the musical staff:
Back in the old days what players would do is get a pitch fork and then tune the A string or 5th String to the vibration of the pitch fork and then in turn tune each string relative to the A string which was now in pitch. Note that the pitch fork is tuned to 440 but the actual number of cycles (vibrations) of the open A string is 110. If you double 110 you get the next octave at 220 and if you double 220 you get 440. 220 is at fret II on string 3 and 440 is at fret V on string I.
This 440 vibration is an accepted standard and would be the same tuning that a piano would use for its A note so that if you were to play with a piano player you would be “in tune”
together and would be using the same language to describe the note names. The same will now hold true for violin, flute, mandolin, bass, cello and a number of other concert pitched instruments.
This is an important point because it is possible to be “in tune” with yourself but be lower or higher in pitch to other instruments because your pitch or tuning does not correspond to an absolute pitch, A 440. In fact some older guitar centred recordings are in tune but out of pitch. The guitars and basses are in tune with each other but are not to a pitched standard. If this recorded group was to play with a piano player they would have to tune to the piano. If on the other hand a piano player wished to play with this recording he would be out of tune with it.
Now, if you were to use a digital tuner and strike the pitch fork for a reading the digital tuner would read A. Effectively a digital tuner will provide the same result as the pitch fork with significantly greater ease because you can tune each individual string to the tuner rather than tuning only one string and then the rest of the strings to the string that is in tune or in pitch. The tuner is therefore “calibrated” to the same pitch as that old fashioned tuning fork. The digital tuner reads the frequency or waveform and then spits out a result that tells you if you are below (flat) or above (sharp) to concert pitch. Concert pitch being A 440 as the standard.
To explain it another way, if your A note is 428 you are flat, if your A note is 454 you are sharp and therefore if you tune the rest of your strings to those pitches you may be in tune with yourself but you will not be in concert pitch or in tune with other instruments.
I would suggest that getting your hands on a digital tuner app or a clip on digital tuner would be a necessity. I like to use a digital tuner to get into tune and then refer to my clip on tuner at my headstock for tweeking. Playing in perfect tune and in pitch will educate your ears and will lead you to eventually being able to just tune on your own without a tuners help.
Guitar Tuner or Chromatic Tuner?
There are two types of digital tuners that you should be familiar with. One is referred to as a “guitar tuner” because it only has the pitches of the 6 strings of the guitar, the other option is the “chromatic tuner”. The chromatic tuner has all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, in other words simply “all” the notes. I would suggest you learn the names of your strings and buy a chromatic tuner because this way you can use it for standard and alternate tunings as well and they are close to the same cost.
So to recap. Strings vibrate and those vibrations are called frequencies. The fixed frequency of A 440 is referred to as the standard for “concert pitch” and is shared by other instruments so that all instruments have a shared standard and can be expected to play in tune with each other. Digital tuners are calibrated to this concert pitch.
Hertz– The scientific unit of frequency – cycles per second – was named the “hertz” in honor of Heinrich Hertz and his discoveries in electromagnetic waves.
Wave– A collection of frequencies.
Frequency – Number of vibrations per second or within a unit of time.
Pitch – Musical name for pitch frequency. Also refers to number of vibrations within a timeframe, now commonly referred to as hertz. ex. 440 hz.
In Tune – A relative term referring to a musical result of relative pitches.
Concert Pitch – A common standard of A 440 cycles per second, this standard has fluctuated over the centuries.
Chromatic – All the notes in our system of music in the Western World.