How to Tune Your Guitar Perfectly by Ear Using the A-Harmonic Tuning Method

a harmonic featured How to Tune Your Guitar Perfectly by Ear Using the A Harmonic Tuning Method

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. icon smile How to Tune Your Guitar Perfectly by Ear Using the A Harmonic Tuning Method

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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

In Conclusion

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.

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pixel How to Tune Your Guitar Perfectly by Ear Using the A Harmonic Tuning Method
 How to Tune Your Guitar Perfectly by Ear Using the A Harmonic Tuning Method

About Michael Jae

Michael is a guitarist of over 18 years and has taught lessons, played in front of live audiences, and wrote and recorded his own acoustic fingerstyle albums. He's especially fond of playing classic rock, heavy metal, classical guitar, and fingerstyle acoustic guitar in the style of Leo Kottke and John Fahey.

Comments

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Comments

  1. Ralph Carmone says:

    The problem I have with this method is that you can’t tune with your left hand if you’re fingering a note with it.
    This method works well for me, I believe it’s mentioned above.
    If any string is out, always bring it slightly below pitch and tune up until the wobbling stops and the notes are in unison.
    So:
    Starting with a tuned A string, pluck the 5th fret harmonic on the low E and the 7th fret harmonic on the A string, tuning the E string.
    5th fret harmonic on the A string and the 7th fret harmonic on the D string, tuning the D string.
    5th fret harmonic on the D string and the 7th fret harmonic on the G string, tuning the G string.
    Now play the 7th fret harmonic on the A string and an open high E note.
    Then play the 5th fret harmonic on the B string and the 7th fret harmonic on the high E string, tuning the B string.
    IF the intonation is correct on the guitar, it should be in tune. If it’s not, there will be trouble between the G and the B string, at least.
    But you know this.

  2. That method really makes no sense at all, if you have the means to produce an A to tune to (piano or electic tuner) you then may as well tune all the other strings with the tuner or piano!

  3. Michael Jae says:

    Good point Ralph. Here’s what I do to overcome that downside. I hit the harmonic on the 12th fret A-string then sound the note of the string I’m working to tune. Depending on how it sounds I then lift my left hand make a slight adjustment in the tuning and then hit the harmonic and fret the note again. It may sound complicated but works well for me. Usually I find myself hitting the harmonic and fretting the string a handful of times to make adjustments before getting it in tune. Once it’s in tune you can more on to the next string.

    The method you outlined above is the one I used to use before I started using the A-Harmonic Tuning. The big advantage I find that it has over the traditional tuning method is that it’s easy to hear the warble and so easy to get the notes you are comparing almost exactly the same. However I still find that the strings may be out of tune by the time I get to the end, I believe because of a build up of error. As you mention this will probably be greater if your guitar’s intonation isn’t setup so well. For anyone reading this, try both methods and see what you like. Like I said my method is for the *really* picky who like to get their strings as in-tune as possible with themselves :)

  4. Michael Jae says:

    Tim. The reason that this method makes sense to me is because often I don’t have a piano or tuner around. I might just have someone else’s guitar, and they can hit an A, but still want to get my guitar’s string in tune with themselves. Or, if you don’t have anything around that can produce a pitch then at least you can get your guitar in tune with itself really well using this method. I also, quite frankly, just despise guitar tuners, but that’s a personal issue ;)

  5. Your Mom says:

    Here’s a thought, why not use the much easier, standard method of tuning using harmonics?

    5th fret harmonic of low E = 7th fret harmonic of A
    5th fret harmonic of A = 7th fret harmonic of D

    and so on. Obviously you need to adjust for the B, but other than that, this method is much easier and you can take your left hand off the neck and tune while allowing the harmonic to ring.

  6. Michael Jae says:

    Hey Your Mom, while I don’t agree that the method you outlined is much easier I think it’s a bit easier because you can tune the strings while they are ringing out. However, as I commented to Ralph above who also proposed this the method, in my experience it has the drawback of not producing as good a final result. Like any tuning method it takes a little time to get the hang of. I used the method you outlined for years, and got very acceptable results, I’m just compulsive and like to hear my guitar in damn near perfect tune. :)

  7. Nice tuning method! Thanks for putting it up, I found it really useful.

  8. [Editor's Note: John's lengthy and excellent explaination of intonation and how to correct intonation problems has been converted into a post and published here as "How Very Poor Intonation Can Blow Your Guitar’s Ability to Be Tuned". Check it out!]

  9. As soon as I read the article I tried it. It works brilliantly. I usually have quite an effort in getting lower E string in tune and the lower B string. I have to say my guitar tuning hasn’t sound better.

  10. Actually a good method as you are trying to tune the guitar in a linear fashion and of course harmonically now you can add this I have also been suing the Harmonic say on the E-string 5th fret but them on the A string 18th fret..so they are the same note or the A string 7 frets above the 12th fret..

    This might be a good technique to incorporate with your technique and as a check since you are then covering more if not the entire neck or scale length..

    I agree that for beginners yours is very good as they re ear training and adjusting to just one note..

    Also if they begin with A at the 12th fret they can use the A on the D or E string and also the A on the D string at the 18th fret as well..

  11. Wow I Stumbled Upon This And Loved It. Im New To Guitar And Trying To Learn Most Everything From The Internet Because I Cant Afford The Lessons…And Am Personally Against Them. I Tried A Couple Times And Got It Finally It Sounded Great! Thanks For The Post!

  12. I dont get it :
    can any1 help me plz ?

  13. Hi!

    Liked this method a lot. I agree that the build-up error is the biggest problem wheen tuning a guitar. But best of all is to learn a set of different tecniques and combine them when tuning. In that way you can even come around badly set up gutars.

  14. It sounds great – I have a Les Paul that I usually have to make minor adjustments in my tuning around open D and open A chords to get the sound right – this method sounded great right off. Thanks

  15. you dont need to hold down a harmonic note.vtake off your finger and it still rings out

  16. Hiya,

    Wow, I just tried this and I really like it. I use my right hand to both finger and play the second note, so that I could hear the 12th fret of the A string while tuning and simultaneously be able to turn the tuning knobs with my left hand.

    Man, I like this.

    D Major doesn’t sound great with this tuning, which is odd because A is the 5th of that chord, so either I’m a bit off somewhere and could try again, or there is something inherent in this method that makes D Major a bit off, or it’s my guitar, but my guitar is pretty good…hmm…I do have an old set of strings on.

    At any rate, though it’s a bit funky, I do play and fret the second note(s) with my right hand to get this tuning method to work.

    The result is a nice harmonious sound.

    I am grateful to you for posting this, and I will pass this method along to my students (songwriting and composition).

    Best,
    Dainis

  17. the warble is called beat frequency and it’s not waves cancelling each other, it’s just a psycho-acoustical effect

  18. why not get a 20 dollar chromatic tuner and be done with it?

  19. GREAT ARTICLE on tuning your guitar!! Thanks for putting a new spin on a mundane necessity. Ive been tuning the same way for YEARS now, and it’s nice to switch it up some from time to time.

  20. Another good Idea for tuning guitar.. Hmm I really appreciate your help for this ..
     
    Thannks!! :)

  21. I love that, its a very wonderful parttern for tunning guitars thanks micheal.

  22. Thanks so much for this! This is excellent.
    I am no guitar player, just learning, but I have tried to tune them every now and again when i feel the urge, for years using the 5th fret method, and by the end at the last string, I would be finding all the build-up of errors!
    This method is perfect, I can’t believe it is not THE method for tuning.
    I read this the other night and it worked perfect first try.
    Then I had to search for this article again tonight and it took me aaaaages to find, and I couldn’t find another one quite like it.
    Other articles on harmonics still relied on relative pitch.
    And to all the people here talking about buying “why not just buy a tuner” :
    if you want to rely on a mechanical ear and not train your own inner sense of pitch,
    that’s fine. But why bother to comment if other people want to ?
    If you are intent on using a tuner no matter what, why even visit a webpage about tuning?
    Just to leave a comment to turn other people off learning a good and useful skill rather than being totally reliant on a machine that runs on batteries?

    Thanks again for this Michael!

  23. Damian Trujillo says:

    so I have been playing for several years and sometimes I just sit around and hold a guitar in my hands touching, feeling, etc. I have reached a point where I can tune a electric or acoustic by feeling the string tension. Several years of doing this and I always was just a little flat or a little sharp. Finally I can hit it right on the mark. Yes I can tune a guitar to A440 without a reference tone. I do not have perfect pitch. I just do alot of touching on the strings. Maybe I am crazy or not.

    • Michael Jae says:

      Hey Damian, that’s interesting. I’ve never heard of someone who can tune it by feeling the strings. I can usually guess the A pretty close by listening to the pitch. Sounds like you’ve taken a kinisthetic approach to it–feeling the vibration on the guitar maybe much the way someone who is deaf would feel music. Thanks for sharing.

  24. I have to share the love!
    this tuning method is wonderful!!
    I’ve been playing for a number of years and this is probably the best tuning I have had!
    much thanks

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