by Mark Dvorak
With a pluck of your thumb, a single string is sent vibrating into motion. What we hear is the air around that string vibrating with the same frequency as that string. There’s a moment right after impact when the tone flares and then a moment when it settles a bit and rings. Then it begins to fade. Listen to it fade. Can you hear the moment when the tone disappears completely?
Tuning your guitar is listening to your guitar. Believe it or not, all humans are born with the ability to distinguish differences in pitch, and so were you. Musicians sometimes describe a pitch as being high or low. Or higher or lower than another pitch.
Pitch can be measured by the number of vibrations, or cycles, per second. If you sound the first string of your guitar while holding it down at the fifth fret, it will vibrate somewhere around 440 times per second. Let’s say that’s a lot of vibration, and on the guitar, it is. The third string, second fret vibrates somewhere around 220 cycles per second. That one’s somewhere in the middle. The fifth string open (don’t hold it down at any fret), around 110 cycles per second. We’re starting to get down there.
Without using machines or calculations, our amazing ears can tell, almost immediately, that these three tones are different in pitch. Can’t they?
I don’t like to tune using one of those electronic tuners, but I have one. And I do use it. It’s a Sabine. I’ve added a thing to it called an Iso-Clip, which is a small alligator clip attached to a wire that plugs into the Sabine. The Iso-Clip prevents my Sabine from hearing everything except the sounds that come from my guitar. Very helpful when trying to get in tune in a noisy room.
When I get in tune using my machine, I turn it on and attach the Iso-Clip to the post of one of the tuners. When I pluck a string, the Sabine tells me to which pitch that string is closest, and whether I need to tighten or loosen the string to bring it into pitch. So I monkey around with the tuning gear until the little green light goes on. Then I pluck then next string, and so on. Believe me, I use it. But I don’t like it as well as listening to my guitar.
If you’re exasperated from trying to get your guitar in tune, or curious about an electronic tuning machine, I’d say go down to the guitar store and get one. Nothing beats being in tune. Get an Iso-Clip, too.
Then try this: You need two people and two guitars to do this and one of the guitars has to already be in tune. Find a quiet place and sit close, facing each other. The guitarist whose instrument is in tune will give the tones and the other will match those tones. Name your strings one through six, one closest to the floor as you hold your guitars, six closest to the ceiling.
You can start with any string, but we’ll start with the fifth string. The giver sounds the fifth string over and over to a slow, steady beat. Like, one tone every two or three seconds, or something. The matcher also sounds the fifth string to that same slow, steady beat. Listen for the moment after impact and after the little flare-up of sound. Listen for the sound of the tones ringing and listen to them begin to fade. Before they fade away completely is the time to strike your strings again and listen to them again. Do it some more and don’t say anything, just listen.
Decision time. Continuing to sound your fifth strings in unison, the matcher need only determine if the sound of his string is the same or different from the sound of the giver’s. It’s not yet time to worry whether it’s higher or lower in pitch.
Determine only whether it’s the same, or different, or maybe you can’t tell. Those are your choices. Again: same, different, don’t know. Make your decision in one second or less. Really.
If you think they’re the same, then they’re the same. Move on to the next string. If you think the two strings have different pitches, or you’re not sure - sometimes it’s really hard to tell - here’s what to do.
Find the tuning gear that controls the tension of the fifth string by tracing that string from the point at which you’re plucking all the way down the neck, past the nut to where it’s tied off on the post. Turn the tuning gear each way while plucking the fifth string and you’ll be able to tell which way tightens the string, or raises the pitch, and which way loosens it, or lowers the pitch. There.
Have the giver begin sounding his fifth string as before. The matcher also sounds his fifth string, one hand ready on the tuning gear. As fifth strings sound in unison, the matcher loosens his to a point where he is absolutely certain it is lower in pitch than the giver’s. If you’re not sure, keeping loosening. If your idea of absolute certainty is loosening your fifth string until it flops around like a sagging clothes line, so be it. The idea here is to begin using your ears and to begin trusting them. If you can’t tell, loosen that string until you can.
If the matcher is now certain his string is lower in pitch than the giver’s, the matcher is also certain which way to go. Up. Continuing to sound fifth strings in unison, the matcher tightens his steadily, maybe a quarter turn at a time. Maybe less, but always steadily increasing the tension. Sound the strings to a slow beat, turn the gear steadily.
When the matcher’s string begins nearing the pitch of the giver’s, you’ll hear waves of sound ringing, almost clashing. Think how circles of ripples expand and finally collide when when two stones are plopped into calm water. It’s kind of like that.
The clashing ceases when the two strings are in unison not only in rhythm, but now also in pitch. Ahh. It’s not uncommon for the eyes of the giver and matcher to meet when this moment occurs. Isn’t that funny?
Try this whole thing again for the fourth string. Then the third, second and first strings. Save the sixth string for last, it’s the lowest in pitch and the most difficult to hear. By then you’ll be in good practice.
Keep the process moving. Listen, lower your pitch, bring it up to what you think is in tune and move on to the next string. That’s better than laboring over your pitches and worrying about perfection. Your ears are not muscles, but like tiny muscles, intensive listening can tire them out quickly.
If a string seems cantankerous and doesn’t want to get into tune, skip it. Go back to it after you’ve done the others. When you’ve attended to all six strings, strum a G chord (we use all six strings when strumming a G chord) and listen for a quality of wholeness. If you think you’re there, then you’re there. If not, try each one again. Or get out your electronic tuning machine.