How To Tune A Guitar

So you think you can tune a guitar? Maybe you can, but when you’re in the studio laying down a track for posterity, there are plenty of details that you might overlook…

There Is No Tune

My guitar wants to...
Creative Commons License photo credit: Red.head

The standard tuning for a guitar (or most occidental instruments) is referred to as Concert Pitch, where the A below middle C vibrates at a nice round 440 Hz.

However, the western chromatic scale is actually a series of slightly out-of-tune notes that work as a sort of ‘best compromise’ for playing in a variety of different keys without having to re-tune your instrument. Because of the very physical interaction with the tautened strings of a guitar, they can go (even further) out of tune very easily.

So point number one is this – it’s actually impossible to get a guitar perfectly in tune.

Playing The Same Tune

When recording a band, it’s entirely likely that the band are just tuned to themselves – the lead guitarist might have tuned his guitar to the rhythm guitar, and the rhythm guitar tuned to the bass, who had just readjusted his tuning because one of his strings was slightly out… but if nobody actually used a tuner, then everyone could be way off Concert Pitch. Which can be a problem if you have to come back and do an overdub the following week, and your tunings are all different again…

So point number two is – use a tuner. But not only that – make every member of the band use the same tuner; because, amazingly enough, not all tuners are calibrated exactly right, and some may skew with age.

The Fundamentals Of Tuning

When tuning your guitar, you want to tune to the fundamental note, rather than the harmonics. The second harmonic of a guitar string is an octave up from the fundamental, and is positioned at half the length of the string – over the 12th fret.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ttanabe

The ‘power of two’ harmonics (2nd, 4th, 8th and so on) are effectively the same as the fundamental to the tuner. However, the other harmonics are different notes, and are an essential part of the guitar’s sonic character and timbre – but they can confuse the tuner.

Where you pluck the string – and how hard you pluck it – has a huge impact on the mix of fundamental and harmonics that you hear. The position and type of pickup is also an influence.

Nearer the bridge (for plucking and pickup) creates a higher twangy sound; in the middle you get a purer tone. Hitting the string harder creates more attack on the signal, and more high harmonics. If you roll off the high frequencies into the tuner, you’ll get a more accurate idea of where the fundamental is.

Tune For The Song In Question

So you might say, well, let’s tune the guitar by plucking the guitar softly. This is generally OK, but if you are a punk thrash speed metal outfit, then when you actually start playing, the guitar will move into a different tuning zone.

If you are ferociously pounding on the strings, there will be a lot of attack on the envelope and a whole lot of harmonic content colouring the signal. So generally, it’s a good idea to tune the guitar to the same sort of playing style that you’re actually going to be using on the record.

Attack has more influence on notes lower down the fretboard – when you hit them, they initially go sharp and then settle down to their sustained note. As you move up the neck into the higher notes, this effect diminishes. So, there are significant tuning differences between low notes and high, which is further emphasised by playing style. If your song is played entirely above the tenth fret, you may want to tune to those notes, rather than the open strings…


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