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Review: Tuning the Guitar by Ear

When author Gerald Klickstein emailed me after reading my post on tuning by ear, he challenged my thoughts on tuning. Gerald was kind enough to send his book, Tuning the Guitar by Ear (aff. link).

The tuning methods described in this book are different from what I wrote and what’s usually done.

First Step: Learn How to Hear Differences in Pitch

After some preliminary text, the book goes into a few exercises designed to help the student learn to hear beats between out of tune unison harmonics. This is an often skipped step. Teachers, including myself, just show the student where to put the fingers for tuning with no mention of how to recognize differences in pitch. The book’s system relies on hearing the beats between unison pitches and adjusting them strings until the beats sound a certain beats per minute.

Equal Temperament

In an equally tempered instrument, such as the guitar, only the octaves and unisons are in tune and tuned beatless. The other pitches are adjusted. The seventh fret harmonics sound pure fifths, not tempered ones. As such, tuning open strings to pure fifths of harmonics puts other intervals out of tune. Gerald Klickstein’s method for tuning factors this in. Each string is first tuned with harmonics. The strings are adjusted until the beats between unisons sound at a certain metronome marking. The secondary tuning method is a series of checks and test chords that ensure the guitar is in tune.

So, does it work?

Yes. It works very well. I have started using some of the checks and test chords to tune my guitar. The book’s strength is its inclusiveness; every detail of tuning by ear, from muting strings to moving to and from altered tunings, is covered in the text.

My test of a book is always, “did I learn something?” The answer, with Tuning the Guitar by Ear, was a resounding, “yes.”

8 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 January 20
    Jojo permalink

    I was beginning to wonder if you’ve ever heard of the pythagorean comma, in the context of fifths, when you stated that your method of tuning included checking fifths.

    But that said: I don’t really think it matters that much, since no guitar with straight frets will ever give you perfect equal temperament over all frets and all strings.

    (PS: What going on with Jason Vieaux? Is he scared to release information? Or is the interview just completely unimportant to him?)

    • 2010 January 20

      I hadn’t heard of that. I put my guitar in tune, then I play–not terribly interested in the mathematics of tuning: too many other things to do and learn about.

  2. 2010 January 21

    There are so many ways on how you can tune a guitar, but I think that it’s all about experience. The more experience you have, the better and faster you will tune it. You can tune the guitar using intervals or even full chords, for example when I take a chord – I always hear if there is something wrong in the way it sounds!

  3. 2010 January 21

    About 7 and a half minutes into this video, Steve Vai displays a guitar with very strange looking frets:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b58Xil8RfRY

  4. 2010 January 21

    ProFuzz: Thanks for your comment. Unlike you, I’ve found that many experienced guitarists don’t tune swiftly and precisely because they employ flawed tuning systems and lack fluency with tuning skills. In fact, the widespread confusion about tuning was what motivated me to create my tuning method.

    Regarding your being dissatisfied with the way that chords sound on your guitar, I suspect that you’re a sensitive player and you’re noticing the compromised nature of equal temperament (virtually all guitars are fretted in equal temperament).

    Equal temperament causes some intervals to sound beatless and others to beat significantly. When you play a major chord on an accurately tuned guitar, for instance, the octaves will sound beatless, the fifths will beat very slowly, and the third of the chord will beat noticeably. For that reason, I recommend that guitarists use test chords that lack thirds.

    You can read more about these and other tuning issues in this free article that I wrote about ten years ago: http://www.guitar9.com/columnist177.html

  5. 2010 January 22

    So why not use a tuner?

    • 2010 January 22

      I think using a tuner on stage looks bad, but I don’t see anything wrong with it for practicing, etc. I haven’t owned a tuner for about 5 years now.

  6. 2010 January 23

    Great question, Bobber. I recommend that beginning guitarists use tuners until they have the technical skills to tune by ear. For the rest of us, though, electronic tuners are insufficiently accurate to serve our needs. Not only are tuners relatively imprecise compared to our ears, but they also don’t accommodate differences in guitar setup, which my tuning system does.

    Tuning isn’t difficult once we acquire certain knowledge and skills. But ignorance of basic tuning concepts pervades the guitar world, so students and teachers commonly ignore the main issues. So countless guitarists struggle to tune, and they mistakenly believe that it’s due to a lack of talent rather than a deficit of knowledge and skill.

    I agree with Christopher that, for performing classical players, using a tuner on stage seems lame. After all, if listeners go to a concert to hear expert, artistic playing, surely they expect that the performer can tune easily. That said, in noisy environments like a jazz club or reception, tuners can be quite helpful.

    It’s up to all players to make their own decisions about the tuning systems they’ll use. But I believe that we should expect fluency with tuning to be a standard ability shared by all performing guitarists, and we should expect teachers to provide their students with basic knowledge, including the know-how to tune fluently.

    Hence, I created Tuning the Guitar by Ear so that expertise with tuning would be accessible to any guitarist or teacher.

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