Tune up and tune in – making sure you’re playing in tune

Playing in tune is such a fundamental part of playing music and something that seemingly is relatively easy for a guitarist to do given that we have frets and all, unlike our four-stringed orchestral cousins.

Tuning fork (Diapason) on resonance box, by Ma...
Taking it back to the old school – a tuning fork (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having said that, guitarists are not disinclined to poor intonation themselves, bending the strings to produce a note which is a microtone or two out of tune. Anyway, that is not the real subject of today’s blog post (perhaps a topic for another time). Today I’m talking about actually being in tune before we begin to play a single note.

The various woods, and even more so the strings, comprising the classical guitar are highly susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. So applying the basic laws of physics that we all learnt at school, when materials are cold they tend to contract, and when they warm up they tend to? Yes, that’s right, they expand! Now as wonderful an instrument as the guitar is it still observes the earthly laws of physics and so we have a relatively temperamental instrument in terms of tuning. It seems our wee strings do a lot of expanding and contracting.

Then when you add in the types of strings being used, the effects of the age of strings and how much they might have stretched over time, whether the strings have used different turnings (drop D, or 4th string = F# lute type tuning) this can really effect how the strings stay in tune and how often they need checking and tuning.

At the very least we should check our tuning every time we first sit down to play or practice, or moving from one space or room to another to play. There’s a self-disparaging classical guitarist joke that we spend 90% of our time tuning, and the other 10% playing out of tune. Yup, this is our lot people. Better get used to it.

So how do we tune up?
There are three really simple methods you might want to give a whirl.
(1) Invest in an electronic tuner or tuning app on your smartphone
I’d suggest investing in something that gives you an indication (usually via coloured lights or a needle arrangement – check out the photo of my tuner) of how in tune you are, whether you’re slightly sharp or flat.
You can buy these little devices that perch atop your headstock, they’re not really all that expensive and very easy to use. They are particularly quick and easy to use in performance situations, as they are often come with a piezo-type pickup that rely on vibrations, not just microphones, so you don’t need to play loud to tune. The audience is probably not that interested to hear “doo doo” on the E string as you tune up. They may think it’s the start of your piece!

(2) Invest in a reference tone tuner

When at home (i.e. less ideal for performance situations) you could use a reference tone tuner. This is something that plays you a note that you then tune to.

You can buy dedicated tone tuners for this or you could use an “old skool” tuning fork, but these days you can also get extremely cheap or even free reference tone apps for your smartphone.  I also have the world’s most expensive guitar tuner at home – a piano.

These reference tone tuners will (almost) always give you correct concert pitch, but rely much more on your own ear to discern whether the string on the guitar is the same as the reference note being played (i.e. how in tune you really are). It’s quite a good method for really listening in though and developing your ear; I recommend giving it a try. Once you get your ear in, so to speak, it’s a very fast method, and assure you of playing in the proper pitch, as written by the composer (which can affect how a piece feels when played, but I digress…).
(3) Tuning to yourself, using the  “fifth fret” method

You can also tune the guitar so that it’s in tune with itself. It won’t necessarily be at concert pitch though, unless you have perfect pitch (in which case issues with tuning correctly are probably non-existent!). I used this method solely for many years, much to the annoyance of my then guitar teacher as by the time my lesson rolled around my guitar was pretty much a whole tone out of tune with respect to concert pitch.

You can tune the guitar to itself by playing the fifth fret of the sixth string (low E) – which produces the note A – and then play the open fifth string, which is also an A. These two tones should sound exactly the same, if not you’re out of tune and you need to adjust the fifth string up or down accordingly. You continue doing this for each if the strings, aside from the third string (G). Here you need to play the note on the 4th fret (which produces the note B), to match the open second string (B).

Check out this website which has a simple explanation with photos of how to use the fifth fret method to tune your guitar to itself:

You can also check and tweak your tuning using harmonics, but I’ll let you get your fingers around the “fifth fret” option first and we’ll save that method for another post.


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