Have you ever played with a keyboard player or recorded an overdub and found out that you’re not in tune? You check your tuner – everything’s fine there – and try again, but your guitar still sounds slightly off. It can’t possibly be the keyboards, and the guitar track you recorded earlier is dead on. What’s going on? Well, what’s going on is that you’re really a bit out of tune, but in this post I’ll give you some tips on how to make your guitar really play in tune.
I should mention that I’m assuming a pretty well set up guitar. If this is not the case, chances are that whatever makes its setup lacking, will also influence tuning adversely. I wrote a post on basic guitar setup a little while ago – check it out here if you’re interested: Basic Guitar Setup. I’m also assuming that you have basic understanding of how to tune your guitar. This is meant as an improvement on the tuning techniques we’ve all been told about when we started playing, not a tutorial for beginners. Think of it as tuning v1.2.
…are difficult, but I touched on the subject in the post mentioned above, and the basic principle still stands – the thickness and stiffness of the strings make them misbehave in certain situations. This means that it’s likely that a fretted note will be a tad sharper than the same note played on an open (non-fretted) string, all things being equal. Furthermore, harmonics are not to be trusted as they are intrinsically out of tune. This is called the strings’ inharmonicity, and the further away from the fundamental the harmonic is, the more out of tune it is. Actually, getting perfectly in tune in all keys and octaves is impossible, so maybe we should just quit and get used to our guitars being permanently out of tune? Well, no. There are things we can do to minimise the problem to a degree where it’s almost inconsequential.
Tuning the guitar
Here’s how you do it. Tune your high E string to a known, good reference – an electronic tuner, for instance. Afterwords, tune the other strings so that
- the B string at the 5th fret is identical to your open high E
- fretting the G string at the 9th fret is the same note as the open high E
- the D string at the 9th fret is identical to the open B
- playing the A string at the 10th fret is identical to the open G
- playing a D at the 10th fret of the bottom E is identical to the open 4th string
Your guitar should now be pretty well tuned. I’ve noticed that lowering the G and low E a minute amount can sometimes sweeten the tuning even more, but this only applies to my strat. Actually, it does apply to my Martin acoustic, but on that one it’s the B string that needs further adjustment – not the G. This has made me suspect that it’s a bug/feature of the thickest unwound string, and that it being the G on the strat is just coincidence. For most electrics the G will be unwound, so it’ll apply in the same way as on my strat, but keep it in mind if you prefer a wound G.
Adjusting As You Play
This does not mean turning the tuning pegs (although you could do that as well) as you play, but making small adjustments to the way you play, thereby changing the tuning by a small amount. This can be done when chording, but I’ll concentrate on how to sweeten single notes. No matter how well you’ve tuned your guitar, any note representing the minor seventh, or either the major or minor third in the harmony, will be a little bit sharp. This is just those vexed physics all over again, and what’s happening is that the thirds and the minor seventh occurring naturally as harmonics are a little bit flat compared to the ones you’ll find when you’re banging out Elton John songs on a keyboard. That’s because there’s a discrepancy between the tempered tuning of the piano, and the so-called just tuning that relies on overtones.
What you do is to apply some (not a lot) finger pressure towards the bridge on the string you’re playing. Usually when you’re fretting a note you’re applying pressure to get the string to make good contact with the fret. What you’ll be doing now is to also add some pressure towards the bridge, effectively reducing the tension on the string by a tiny amount. For it to work you have to know that it’s either one of the thirds or the minor seventh; doing this while playing a fifth won’t have the same positive effect. Getting it right is easier than it sounds, and after a little bit of practice you should be able to do it fairly consistently.
Turn on, Tune in, Rock out!
Hopefully you’ll now have an idea about how to make your guitar really play in tune, and not just light up your electronic tuner in a pleasant way. Remember, the tuner is just tuning strings in isolation, and won’t factor in the fact that open strings ring a little bit flat compared to fretted ones. If you follow the steps outlined above I’m sure you’ll be on your way to a better tuned – and better sounding – guitar in no time at all.