how to tune a guitar by ear

In truth, most beginner musicians have asked themselves this very question – “how to tune a guitar by ear?“. To young, aspiring guitarists, tuning the guitar by ear is a sort of confirmation of skill, so it’s only normal that you want it too.

Further on that point, it goes without saying that learning how to tune your guitar by ear is the most natural way possible. Tuning devices might malfunction, software might not be so accurate, and there’s a world of potential errors coming your way in this sphere.

So, how do you tune your guitar by ear? Hopefully, you’ll know the answer once you’ve finished reading our humble guide.

Main Benefits of Tuning Your Guitar by Ear

First of all, let’s begin with the presumption that you know next to nothing about tuning in general. The tuning is the process of setting up your guitar strings in a certain audial order. This setting is called “tuning“, and it’s often either “standard“, “dropped“, or “open“. The most common tuning is the “Standard E“, which we will use as our starting point.

string guitar name

This picture can be understood in two ways, though, as the name of the tuning is exactly the same as the name of the strings. If this is puzzling you in any way, feel free to watch this video that will, hopefully, shed some light on the matter.

The most obvious benefit you’ll be able to take advantage of is, of course, a “properly tuned guitar”. Now, apart from that, learning how to tune a guitar by ear will help you with a manifold of things, of which we’ll name a few.

Sharpen Your Memory

We’re talking about “learning”, so, for comparison sake, let’s compare learning how to tune a guitar with learning a lesson in school.

First of all, you could try to crunch down the numbers in mathematics, or memorize the exact words from a textbook. This is profoundly similar to learning how to tune a guitar by other means than your hearing (by ear).

As this is not the most pleasurable of ways of learning, it’s only normal that your memory of such lessons would be vague, at best. In the correlation with learning how to tune your guitar, this method would imply the use of tuning devices and similar tuning software.

On the other hand, you could try to grasp the object of your study, understand the basic principles, and put everything you’ve learned in a logical order. This method of learning is similar to “learning how to tune a guitar by ear.

Understand the “bigger picture”

Once you’ve learnt how to tune your guitar by ear, you will (most likely) start to rely on your sense of hearing a lot more. Furthermore, you’ll be more thorough when inspecting whether or not you’ve tuned your guitar properly, but you will also pay more attention to details you deemed were unimportant or trivial.

Even though it may not seem like it at first, learning how to tune your guitar by ear will start off a spontaneous mechanism that will propel you to greater heights of being a musician.

Advance Your Skills with Other Instruments

Not only will you be a better guitarist, you will also passively improve your skills with other instruments. Even though you may, or may not have ever tried to play, for example, a piano before, you will be able to pass for a beginner pianist after mastering this form of technique.

The logic behind this statement is pretty simple – you will memorize the small details more accurately, and you will perceive the notes more clearly, thus being capable of wonders unbeknownst to you prior to this experience.

The Useful Tips before Tuning for Beginner

Now that you know why this is so important, let’s get to the actual tips and tricks. Right off the bat, improving your sense of hearing to the point where you will be able to tune your guitar by ear might appear challenging. Nevertheless, you’ll be fine for as long as you stick with us, so let’s begin:

Starting Off – “where” and “how” Do You Begin

This is not a rule, per se, but you might want to start with an already tuned guitar. The reason for this is because you’ll have other strings to compare the outcome of your efforts with. On the other hand, should you try to tune an out-of-tune guitar, you might get lost easily.

This leads us to our first tip – the “five-semitone trick”. This little trick is something most guitarists use while on stage whenever they don’t have other means to tune their guitars. If the crowd is too loud, tuning a guitar by ear alone might prove too difficult, so this is a handy tool in any musicians’ arsenal.

The Five-Semitone Tuning Trick

This is one of the easiest ways to check your progress, even though it might not be too helpful if all the strings on your guitar are clearly out of tune. Anyhow, this trick is done by fretting (pressing) the fifth fret of the thickest string (E string) and plucking the next string open (without pressing anything on the A string).

five-semitone tuning trick

“Fretting” means “holding down the fret”. The “fret” is a position on the guitar’s fingerboard.

Needless to say, this trick doesn’t work with the E string, but you could always perform it in reverse once you’ve finished with other strings. The logic of this trick is as following – each string sounds “higher” or “lower” for exactly five semitones when compared to other adjacent strings, with the exception of the “G” string, which is four semitones “different” from the “D” and “B” strings.

Being Persistent Without Losing Your Nerves is The Key

You need to be and remain focused while you tune your guitar by ear, as there are various circumstances that could hinder the process, such as ambient noise, for example. Anyhow, don’t take this advice too literally, as your tuning process doesn’t need to resemble a scene from “The Brilliant Mind”.

All it takes are a few minutes of concentration, and you’ll have tuned your first string by ear. You might be surprised to find other strings easier and faster to tune, which is only normal, as your first string will be the object of comparison.

How To Tune a Guitar by Ear – The Process in a Nutshell

Basically, you want to lay your guitar on your knees. This way you will have easy access to the tuning gears without losing the ability to pluck the strings with your other hand. Now, after you’ve done this, you should start by plucking the thickest (E) string. Do it for a while until you’ve memorized the sound.

If you’re feeling confident in your hearing sense, you could compare the sound you’ve heard with a song you know (note: the song should be in the same tuning as your intended guitar tuning). If not, that’s not a problem, as you don’t have to do everything perfectly off the bat.

how to tune a guitar by ear

Once you’ve memorized the sound your E string makes, you should search for the “E” tone, whether by listening to a song in E scale, or by reproducing the “E” tone specifically via other means. This only applies to beginners, though, as more experienced players know how each tone sounds by heart.

Keep in mind that this is the trickiest part – once you’ve nailed the E string, others will be substantially different to tune.

After you’ve completed this step, you will be at a crossroads – you can choose to repeat the process in entirety with other strings (which will take more time and effort), or simply use the “five-semitone trick” to tune other strings.

The Thing You Should Consider

There’s a plethora of options for you to discover as your hearing sense develops, but try starting off easy, before all else. It’s not like no harm would be done if you tune your guitar by ear in the wrong way – anything that was learnt wrong should (usually) be forgotten, so as to make room for “proper” information.

This statement applies to learning how to tune a guitar by ear to the letter, which is the reason why we’ve listed a couple of things you should take into consideration:

Make a Habit Out of Learning Songs by Ear

Even though most people find tuning by ear to be easier than actually learning whole songs, that’s not always the case. Actually, there are certain songs which are so plain that you will know for sure if you’re out of tune. Even so, you could simply move down the fretboard until you’ve nailed it.

The purpose of learning songs by ear lies in the improvement of your hearing. Simply put, you’ll get better with tuning as you develop your sense of hearing, so combining this trick with tuning your guitar by ear is like mixing what’s good with what’s useful

Learn The Very Basics of Music Theory

music sheet

Knowing how to spell and name each tone will not teach you how to tune a guitar by ear, but it will certainly help. Additionally, you’ll also get to know how each tone sounds like, as well as the key characteristics of each sound. For instance, you’ll get acquainted with “music scales”, and you’ll know where each tone belongs.

Further on that point, you’ll get a better understanding of various types of tunings, and, eventually, you’ll be able to tune in your guitar in several ways. This will also make your exercises a lot more fun and enjoyable. For more detail, learn music theory from this article.

Try Amping Your Guitar before You Get to The Tuning Process (if it’s electric or acoustic-electric guitar)

Playing your guitar loud will undoubtedly help you figure out some of the mistakes you were making. This also applies to the tuning process, as you will be able to discern the notes more easily. Anyhow, this won’t work with acoustic guitars, so feel free to proceed to the next advice if that’s the case.

Practice in a Setting Where You Won’t be Disturbed

You should pick a time when your parents are at work, or simply let them know that you are practicing your guitar skills. Frequent obstructions will definitely unnerve you, your focus will drop, and you should simply call it a day if they happen.

Apart from that, close the windows of your room, and try keeping the ambient noise to a bare minimum (turn off your TV and other sound-producing devices).

Practice with a Friend

It’s true that some people progress faster than others, but why not share your experience with a friend? This is a sure way to keep your exercises entertaining, for one, but it will also help you concentrate on the task at hand if you’re feeling competitive.

Apart from that, your partner could point out any possible mistakes more objectively, just like you should.

Conclusion

Tuning a guitar by ear takes more time when compared to plugging your instrument into a digital tuner, but the benefits are simply incomparable. Not only will you improve your sense of hearing – you will be able to reap a plethora of benefits as well.

In truth, this tuning technique might appear too hard for some while others will feel natural about it – in any case, you shouldn’t give up, even if you’re facing certain difficulties. Every guitarist should be able to tune his (or her) guitar by ear at some point, as this is the only fail-proof way to be sure you did it right.

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