Tuning, And The Cost Of Taking Your Ear Out Of The Equation

I have had the privilege of teaching many guitarists at the very onset of their journey with the instrument, and it is always an interesting experience.  Over the years, I have come to notice how the changing landscape of modern technology has afforded many new guitarists opportunities in their learning that would have never been available to me when I was just starting out.  An obvious example is how most people these days have instant access to the entire library of human recording history at their fingertips without ever having to step inside a record store or even sacrifice a single dollar. 

One fascinating distinction between the modern beginner guitarist and my own experience in starting out is the cheap and immediate availability of an ever expanding variety of accurate and innovative electronic tuners.  Nowadays, a person can download apps like Guitar Tuna on their smart phone and have free and instant access to an electronic tuner of a quality and convenience that did not exist even 20 years ago.  While the development and subsequent democratization of this technology is certainly a beneficial thing for guitarists everywhere, I have noticed that this has begun to change the way that new guitarists view the practice of tuning their instrument in a way that must be addressed. 

A Note On Electric Tuners

When electric tuners first entered the marketplace, they were an answer to a real pragmatic concern for artists at the time.  Anybody who has spent time listening to live recordings by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and countless others will be familiar with the sound of the band tuning their instruments in between songs or before the set.  While we may occasionally lament the loss of artifacts like this as we reminisce about the "good old days", I think we can all agree that this disruptive form of tuning has no place in some of the extravagant pop concerts of modern times.  The modern freelance guitarist working for an artist of just about any level needs a fast, accurate and silent way to tune their guitar during a show in order to do their job.  That said, most professional guitarists today can still remember a time in their life before they owned an electronic tuner, when they needed to use their ears to tune... and these guitarists can still tell within a reasonable degree of accuracy when they are out of tune by using their ears.

The Problem

As recently as the early 2000's, the acquisition of an electric tuner was delayed by beginner guitarists due to several barriers of entry into that marketplace that no longer exist.  Costs have decreased, ease of use has increased, and the integration of technology into any learning experience has become an expectation. 

Seeing as new beginner guitarists no longer experience a time in their development where they are required to tune by ear or by using their other strings as a reference, I have noticed that many new guitarists are starting to view the practice of tuning their guitar as mechanical, rather than auditory.  Tuning the guitar has become associated with visual reference points like "making the red light turn green" or "making the needle stay in the middle" rather than identifying the audible warning signs of an out of tune guitar and correcting it by looking for certain audible cues. 

The tip of this iceberg is evident to anyone who has ever witnessed a guitarist playing a Gibson guitar fitted with robo-tuners (i.e. the min-Etune or G Force) that is still out of tune because of how hard they are squeezing the neck.  Even if your open strings are in tune, playing in tune requires a developed ear (string bends are another good example).  Relying too heavily on electronic tuners can prevent a guitarist from sufficiently developing their ears.  

The Solution

At the risk of sounding eccentric, I make an attempt to impress upon most of my students that the practice of tuning your guitar is all about your ears.  While visual cues from electronic tuners are a welcomed advantage, what should really be telling us whether or not our instrument is in tune is the sound.  There are some widely available products that I recommend students use to tune their guitars that will also help to train their ears.  While I wouldn't recommend using these products on stage or at a performance (electronic tuners will always be the best option there) these are perfect for practicing at home and for developing your ears. 

Tuning forks are fantastic for learning how to tune your guitar.  The first link on the left is made by D'Addario and is tuned to an A which I like to compare with the 12th fret harmonic on my open A string in order to make sure I am in tune.  The link on the far right is a set of two tuning forks that are both tuned to A as well, and the middle link is an adjustable tuning fork that can be set to produce any note in the chromatic scale.  This can be used to produce the pitch of all 6 guitar strings and is super useful for tuning your guitar.  

Tuning forks are ideal for developing your ear because unlike your guitar strings or the notes of a piano, the pitch created by a tuning fork is very pure, meaning that the overtones are very quiet compared to the fundamental note.  Although tuning forks are very quiet when struck, they can be made louder by holding them in front of your guitar pickups (if you're playing an electric guitar) or by holding the handle of the fork in your teeth, allowing the sound to resonate using your bones.  

Pitch pipes also provide a reference note with which to tune your guitar, affording you the opportunity to develop your ears in the process.  The first two links are pitch pipes that will provide a reference pitch for any of the open strings on a guitar in standard tuning, but the link to the far right is for pitch pipes that will produce every note in the chromatic scale.  This will help if you are tuning your guitar to something other than standard tuning.

Using either of these tools in conjunction with the 5th fret of your guitar as a reference point to tune your guitar will teach you how to identify when you are out of tune, and will prepare you for more advanced tuning concerns down the road such as identifying intonation issues.  

Thank you as always for checking out my article, if you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to reach out.  I consider it a privilege to be just a small part of your journey with the guitar, and it is something that I do not take for granted!

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