Most musicians know how bad an out of tune guitar can sound when playing in a group. Staying in tune is vital to good shows and good recordings, but sometimes simply using a tuner or tuning by ear wont help. I’ll try to shed some light on the situation here.
First of all, Tuning by Ear – Myths and Facts
I love my Korg Pitch Black Chromatic Tuner, and I’ve never sounded better without it. I like it so much sometimes I like to show it off to visiting guitarists and students. Sadly, the most common response “I just learned to tune by ear, I don’t need a tuner”. While this is a good ability to have, you simply can’t assume the mind can pick out the specific frequency of an A “440hz” or a middle C, it can only get close with a reference point. While some people have perfect pitch, and an pick out notes with astonishing ability, even these people can’t rely on the human ear as a tuning device, thus, to stay in tune, we need a tuning device.
A standard guitar tuner that only tunes the notes E, A, D, G, B, E, can be great for the guitarist that only plays in standard tuning, but if you’re into drop tunings, down tuning, or just plain different tunings, your going to need to pick up a chromatic tuner. Chromatic tuners can pick out all twelve notes in an equal temperament octave, and sometimes come with a fancy “cents” reading to help you tune outside the standard 12 note octave (Indian music, for example).
The Importance of Intonation
Tuners are wonderful devices, but many guitarists will tune their guitars perfectly on the open strings, but it will still sound out of tune on the higher frets, which can be frustrating. This is due to the intonation of the guitar, a slight difference in the position of the frets in relation to the notes on the strings. There are many different ways of fixing intonation, but the trick I’m going to show you is simple, and effective.
Play the harmonic on the twelfth fret (Lightly touch the string, not pressed into the frets). If your intonation is out, you may notice this harmonic isn’t exactly above the fret wire. The same test can be done with the 24th fret, but it’s typically more difficult to tune perfectly. Doing intonation requires a lot of patience, and a chromatic tuner. A good ear can be used instead of a chromatic tuner, it’s not recommended, and should not be attempted unless you have an exceptional ability.
On your bridge there are screws attached to string mounts. These control the length of the string, and can move the position of the notes on the string to better fit the frets. First of all, do the test above, and take note of how far above, or below the twelfth fret the harmonic is. Now slowly tune the string way down, to avoid breaking it, and turn the screw under the string on the bridge. Turn it to move the mount toward the pickup if the the harmonic is closer to the 13th fret, or away if it’s closer to the 11th fret. Do this carefully, and tune the string back up to the desired note, and test the pitch of the twelfth fret against the twelfth fret harmonic, and repeat the process if needed.