Throw Away Your Tuner

Musicians are always trying to develop their ear. One of the simplest forms of ear training is matching pitch or tuning!

So throw away your tuner. Work on tuning by ear. Get one string correct, then us octaves and harmonics to tune the rest of the strings.

I usually use a tuning fork or my metronome to get an A440 (the fifth fret harmonic on the fifth string), and tune the rest of the strings in relation to that string.

Here’s what I do:

  • Tune the fifth string with the tuning fork or metronome
  • Tune the sixth string by matching its fifth fret harmonic to the fifth string’s seventh fret harmonic.
  • Tune the fourth string by matching its seventh fret harmonic to the fifth string’s fifth fret harmonic.
  • Match the A on the third string, second fret to the open fifth string.
  • Match the D on the second string, third fret with the open fourth string.
  • Tune the first string as a fifth with the open fifth string. I also tend to tune the first string to the seventh fret harmonic on the fifth string.
  • I recently found this great article with very detailed article on Tuning by Ear. Some great suggestions that challenge what I thought I knew about tuning.

    After that’s done, additional checks can be done by checking and adjusting fifths. The fifth string C (third fret) with the open third string (G) is a good one to check. As is the open sixth string and the open second string. Checking fifths takes a bit of practice, however, and is not as approachable as tuning in octaves or using unison harmonics. That is, the sound of a good (perfect, even!) fifth is not always in everyone’s ear–the clear “beats” in out of tune octaves or unisons are easier to hear. It’s possible to train your ear to hear a fifth, though!

    Its also be a good idea to check octaves all around the guitar.

    This method has produced better intonation across the neck for me. However, it will vary from guitar to guitar. I definitely had to adjust the way I tuned a bit when I got my new guitar.


    Just a holiday note: First off, thank you so much for reading the classical guitar blog. I wish you and yours happy holidays and a great new year of guitar learning and development. I had hoped to publish a big interview by Christmas, but it’s still in the works (waiting for approval!). Instead there are two new arrangements of Satie available on the Free Stuff page.

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • Majorshake

    personally I find that a good way of developing the ability to tune by ear is to tune the guitar by ear however I consider it to be in tune naturally.. and then check with a tuner. at first i was way off, but nowadays with the classical guitar i dont even need to check whether the pitches match across the neck, they just do ๐Ÿ™‚

    merry christmas chris!

  • Jeffrey Bianchi

    It shocks me how much people are dependent on tuners… I started guitar lessons when I was 12… The first thing my teacher taught me was not a song…It was how to tune a guitar via open strings… We worked on it a little at each lesson… In about 2.5 weeks I could tune a guitar with no tuner…It’s not rocket science. It’s a beyond basic skill that every guitarist should aquire in the begining.

  • distant observer
    distant observer

    Hi Chris!

    So tell me: how do you tune?
    -> in equal temperament? Or do you use some tempered tuning?

    And if you do tune in equal temperament, how do you really make sure that it’s equal?

    In particular: will checking for perfect 5ths yield an equal tempered tuning or not?

    I really should stop teasing you, right?! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Anyway, have a nice New Year!
    Your friendly* observer

    PS: When are you posting that interview with Jason Vieaux?

    * I really am friendly! I enjoy smiling people. So please don’t fell bogged down by my comments, OK?!

    • Christopher Davis

      I suppose the method above would be equal temperament. Checking octaves and fifths, then splitting the difference to make each one in tune (or out of tune, as it happens) would seem to apply more of an equal temperament thing. The guitar is an equally tempered instrument, technically. I also do some test chords. If I’m playing a tonal piece, I might do test chords from the key I’m going to be playing in, and adjust (more of a tempered tuning).

      It probably doesn’t really matter. Putting the guitar in tun on one part of the neck puts it slightly out in another. Besides, equal temperament tuning might not be all it’s cracked up to be

      After I post this the author of a book on tuning the guitar by ear contacted me to challenge my ideas (the same guy who wrote the article linked above). I hope to be enlightened on the subject of tuning — look for a review of the book later next month.

    • Christopher Davis

      Oh, and the Jason Vieaux interview is done and edited (and on youtube, but private). I’m just waiting for Jason and his management to give the green light on making it public.