If you've ever tuned a guitar using the traditional method of tuning by ear, you've probably noticed that the guitar never really gets completely in tune. For example, it's very common to get to the end of the tuning process and find that the two e-strings top and bottom don't agree, or you may find that your g-string never seems to get in tune with the other strings--falling short of perfection. This can be a problem for both beginner and advanced guitar players.
So What's So Great About This Harmonic Tuning Method
This is mostly a problem when using traditional tuning methods, but you don't have to have these problems. The main reason for the problem is that as you tune the strings you always use the last string to tune the next string, small errors add up until by the time you are done almost all of the strings are out of tune to varying degrees.
Here's a method for tuning the guitar by ear with harmonics that works almost perfectly. I say almost because it's impossible to get any guitar 100% in tune, however this method will get you much closer and much more often than with traditional methods--and it does it in one pass. I call this method the "A-Harmonic Tuning Method". This is really a method for you if you want to get your guitar almost perfectly in tune, or you're looking for an easier way to tune the guitar than the traditional text-book method. If you're perfectly satisfied carrying an electronic tuner around all the time, or you could care less if your guitar is perfectly in-tune, well, this method is not for you. You may as well bail now. For those of you sticking around, here's how it works.
How it Works, and Why it Works So Well
This method works because cuts out the accumulation of error completely. Another benefit of using this tuning is that it's great for beginners or people who feel they are tone-deaf because you don't have to compare the notes, what you'll mainly be listening for is the sound of a warble, and furthermore you'll only be playing one pitch to tune all of the strings. More about that in a moment. For those of you who think this is the tuning trick where you hit harmonics at perfect fifth intervals for each pair of strings, that's not what this is. If you're a guitar newbie and have no idea what I just said in the last sentence, don't worry about it, let's just move on.
An Overview of the "A-Harmonic Tuning Method"
First you will have to tune your A string (the 5th string) to the tone of A using a piano, another guitar, pitch-pipe, tuning fork, electronic tuner or online tuner. Whatever you're comfortable with. You'll be using this A-string to tune every other string on the guitar. Because you will be using this one string, you'll always be referencing this original note and error in the tuning will not be able to build up as it does with the traditional method of tuning the guitar discussed earlier.
Now to start. To tune each string you'll be playing the harmonic at the 12th fret of the A string each time. To play this harmonic, simply very lightly touch your finger directly over the 12th fret (metal bar) on the A string and strike the string with your pick or finger. The string should ring out with a high pitched ringing sound. That's the sound you're looking for.
Tuning the other strings to this harmonic, which I'll explain in a moment, has three big advantages.
1) all strings will be tuned to the same note, which reduces error, as explained earlier, 2) the harmonic will ring out more strongly and have a longer sustain, which makes it easier to hear the note, 3) you'll be able to hear the warble more clearly which will make tuning the strings a snap, even for those who aren't good yet at hearing tones clearly.
The warble that you'll hear when two strings are out of tune with each other sounds kind of like we-we-we-we-we instead of a nice smooth weeeeeee. That's the sound of two similar wave lengths crashing together and canceling each other out each time the waves collide. Once the waves are exactly the same the crashing turns into a harmony and the warble disappears. You want to make the warble disappear. So you'll be listening for this sound and tuning the other strings until the warble is gone.
HINT: You'll here the warble speed up the farther the strings are out of tune, and slow down the closer they are in tune. Okay, now that you understand a little better how this works and why it works. Let's actually tune the guitar. Ready?
The Method: Tuning the Guitar Perfectly
The 5 steps: This assumes you've already tuned your A-string to another reference like another guitar, piano key, etc.
- Play the A-string harmonic on the 12th fret, now while that rings play the 5th fret of the low E-string, listen for the warble, and then tune the E-string up or down until the warble is gone
- Now, play the A-string harmonic on the 12th fret again, and while that rings play the 7th fret of the D-string (this note is also A), listen for the warble, and then tune the D-string up or down until the warble is gone
- Now, play the A-string harmonic on the 12th fret again, and while that rings play the 2nd fret of the G-string (this note is also A), listen for the warble, and then tune the G-string up or down until the warble is gone
- Now, play the A-string harmonic on the 12th fret again, and while that rings play the 10th fret of the B-string (this note is also A), listen for the warble, and then tune the B-string up or down until the warble is gone
- Now, play the A-string harmonic on the 12th fret again, and while that rings play the 5th fret of the high E-string (this note is also A), listen for the warble, and then tune the high E-string up or down until the warble is gone
That's it. This is a very simple method you can use by ear with harmonics, which looks more complicated on paper or screen. Once you've done it once, it'll be very easy to remember and do again. Thanks for reading this article. I hope you've found this information to be useful. Please give me your feedback on this method below in the comments area, or if you have a question or difficulty about it post your comment below and I'll do my best to answer it for you.