For The Love Of— TUNE! Tuners, Harmonics and Intonation.

Posted on September 2, 2010


Sorry for that title, I just got done watching some classic Chris Farley movies.  If you have a gig, practice, recording session or are just strumming a guitar, one of the most important things you can do is tune.

Pointless Background Info.

Somewhere back before The Rolling Stones first Farewell Tour in the late 1500s, 12-tone Equal Temperament Tuning started being used, but it wasn’t “the norm” until much later when it was adopted for Western music.  In 1711, an English trumpeter John Shore was credited with inventing the tuning fork most commonly tuned to 440hz (The A above middle C on a piano).

Fast Forward.
Skip ahead to 2010, you no longer have to shush the room so you can whack a tuning fork off a solid structure and juggle your guitar in the other hand, conveniently running out of hands to reach the tuning peg.  Lucky for you there’s plenty of electronic tuners on the market today, but hey I’m not here to judge if you want stick to the fork.  I even considered designing the Tuning Spork and taking over the world.

What Tuner To Get?
You can spend anywhere from $5-$200 on a guitar tuner; pocket tuner, pedal tuner, rack tuner etc.  You can search “online guitar tuner” and pull up free programs to tune your guitar.  You can download a guitar tuner app on your cell phone.   They make tuners that clip on to your guitar’s headstock as well as some guitars have built-in tuners.  You’re running out of excuses not to tune!

It really comes down to your budget and your playing needs.  I keep my tried and true Korg GA-30 pocket tuner around my practice space.  Great battery life, I can tune with or without a cable, it has taken a beating and can be had for around $12.  Live I use a tuner pedal so I can mute my signal giving the audience one less excuse to run out the door.  I use the Boss TU-3, street price $100.  I have no complaints. 

Double-checking The Tuner.
Machines aren’t perfect.  Assuming your low E-string is relativly in tune, fret your 5th fret and see if it matches the next open string A.  Fret the 5th fret A string and see if it matches the D.  Same process for D to check the G string.  Now it gets funny.  You’ll need to fret the 4th fret of the G string to check the B string, then back to normal 5th fret of the B string to check the high E string.

To get even more precise, you can tune by harmonics.  To produce a harmonic you will still be using the 5th fret, however only use half as much pressure as you would to fret the note, keeping your finger as close to the fret as possible and you should hear a higher pitched note (this note is actually the same note as your open string 2 octaves up).  Next, match it with the harmonic of the next string up on the 7th fret.  Follow this to check the A, D and G strings.  (Bassists now can stand around and look annoyed at the guitarists) Now to check the B string, sound the harmonic of the 4th fret on the G string and check it against the the 5th fret harmonic of the B string and then back to normal 5th fret of the B string to check the 7th fret of the high E.

My Guitar STILL Isn’t In Tune, Now What?

There are two common reasons why your guitar isn’t in tune or doesn’t hold tune.  The first thing is to question the age of your strings.  With age and oxidation, strings start to stretch and wear out.  If they look and feel dirty they are too old.  If you aren’t sure how old they are and they sound a bit dull or “tinny” it may be time to head to the music store.  Acoustic or electric guitar strings should average $5-$10 a pack and bass strings around $18-$25.

The next problem is intonation.  Maybe your instrument sounds in tune on the lower frets and not so much the higher you go.  A quick test is using harmoincs like you did before, but you are checking the fretted note of the 12th fret against the harmonic of the 12th fret on the same string.  If the fretted note is sharper than the harmonic; the string needs to be lengthened by tightening the screw that adjusts the length of the saddle.  (It is a single screw on most electric guitars and basses, do not confuse this with the tiny screws that adjust the height of the saddle, for acoustic instruments you’re best taking your guitar to a skilled repair shop)  If the fretted note is flat compared to the harmonic you need to shorten the length of the string by loosening the screw on the saddle.

I hope this helped.  If any of this seemed over your head, feel free to ask questions.  Working on your own instrument is a risk, but learning a basic setup can save you time and money.  If music is a strong passion or serious hobby, I suggest buying a cheap guitar and learning the basics of setups and soldering electronics.  Until then, there are plenty of skilled repairmen out there.

Currently Listening to: Katy Perry Teenage Dream

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