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Notwithstanding innate intonation issues, just versus equal temperament, and a variety of tuning methods, I would like to ask what other guitarists use as their "check chords". That is, what chords do you utilize as a quick tuning test by ear?

I have adopted the E5 and the A5, both in the seventh position with open strings. If you have adopted others, I would welcome your suggestions.

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Continuing my own research, I discovered Chris Brooks' helpful comment to an article concerning tuning by harmonics; he recommends tuning by unisons & octaves. The two check chords that I volunteered above do just that. The E5 chord in the seventh position provides four E tones and two B tones. The A5 in the same position provides three A tones and two E tones.

I suppose that I am really looking for suggestions to further cross-reference the B string with other unisons & octaves (*). I will refrain from using any thirds, as they clutter the interference beats. (I realize the tuning will never be perfect across the neck; I am just looking for the best compromise using a standard uncompensated nut, typical frets, and an adjustable bridge.)

(*) I should take a cue from Steve Howe's And You & I introduction.

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Well, I always tune the open B string directly, in unison, to the fret 7 harmonic on string 6. Then, by tuning open string 1 and the fret 7 harmonic on string 5 to the 5th fret harmonic on string 6 (again, both in unison), four strings have all been directly tuned to each other, via the common string, string 6. –  Bob Broadley Apr 8 at 14:32
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...but, as I say below, I do my final check with octaves... –  Bob Broadley Apr 8 at 14:33
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Both E strings, B string at 5th fret and G string at 9th fret will cover four strings with E. Together with the E5 and A5 you're already using you should have a pretty good picture. Another version is both E strings, D string 2nd fret and B string 5th fret. –  Meaningful Username Apr 8 at 17:33
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Harmonics quickly get you close, but they are just-tempered and precisely not quite correct. The 2% error compounds with each string away from the reference. Even tuning the B-string directly from the 7-fret harmonic of the E-string is off by 2% from that reference. (2% is a round-up of the actual 1.96% difference specified by en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_temperament "Comparison to Just Intonation" table.) –  Kirk A Apr 9 at 12:39

5 Answers 5

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As you say, there are innate intonation issues to consider when tuning a guitar. For this reason I don't rely on using chords with open strings to check tuning.

I tune first with harmonics, often check the sound of the fourths between those strings tuned in fourths ("violin-tuning-style", if you like...)

My final "check" is a series of octaves, each having one open string: - Open E on string 6 and E on string 4 - G on string 6 and Open G - Open A and A on string 3 - B on string 5 and Open B - Open D and D on string 2 - E on string 4 and Open E on string 1 - Open G and G on string 1

This is essentially a one-and-a-bit-octave pentatonic scale in octaves, so can be executed reasonably swiftly.

Of course, even these octaves will need some compromise when tuning.

And yes, there is value in considering the piece or song you are about to play when tuning. But, for instance, getting an open G chord in tune, doesn't necessarily help you to play a song in the key of G in tune. After all, a piece or song in the key of G may use "E-shape" barre chords on fret 3. Instead, it will mean that chords played with a G shape have their intervals in tune.

But, if I'm in a hurry, I will just play an E chord! In fact, if I'm in a massive hurry (like when tuning 20 guitars for a guitar group lesson) I'll just strum the open strings - you can still tell which strings are out of tune...

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There's some interesting discussion on tuning guitars already on this site - going into harmonics, etc. I think if the guitar is intonated properly, harmonics will give a better accuracy than strumming any chord.Did have one guy who'd hold open E chord, and tune strings whilst holding ... Worked for him. –  Tim Apr 8 at 17:09
    
I have selected this answer because of the emphasis on octave checks -- similar to my stated E5 and A5 chords. However, I typically compare the open strings with notes fretted in the seventh or eighth position, since that reflects my "average" playing position. –  Kirk A Apr 24 at 15:42

I think you should always check with an open E chord AND an open C chord. This is because you have to find a compromise between the two. If the E is perfect then the C will be (slightly) wrong (the open G string will be flat); otherwise, if the C sounds good, then the third of E (g#) will sound sharp (even sharper than it should ...). If you have good ears, you need to find a compromise that you can live with. If you don't want to compromise you should check out True Temperament. (Disclaimer: I'm not related to this company.)

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I would think the simplest test would be to play a quick G C D G in there open positions. It uses all the strings and it should be easy to tell if something is out because it is a simple I-IV-V-I progression that you should be tonally accustom to and be able to tell if a note if 'off'.

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+1, I always check with a standard G major –  rishimaharaj Apr 8 at 1:45
    
+1 I use a G major too... –  pablomatico Apr 8 at 9:26
    
I usually hear if high strings are out with an open D. –  Neil Slater Apr 8 at 10:42

You say not to be consider intonation in this question, But to my mind they account for the defining factor in which check chord you should use. If intonation is disregarded then the tuning chord is redundant, because everything is perfect whatever chord you use.

If you tune to an open E chord and then play an open D then the D will be slightly out of tune at certain points. What if the song you're playing is "There She Goes" by The La's? Well then your chord will be slightly out for that whole sweet intro! So in that case Ideally you should tune to the open D chord.

You can probably see where this is going. If you're playing higher up the neck you'll get slightly different results to what you would tuning lower down so a similar principal would apply.

So for those reasons I'd recommend to use a check chord similar to what you intend to play afterwards.

Disclaimer: In reality, the tuning difference between using the harmonic method and check chord method are slight as long as your intonation is setup right. I'll usually just use an open E chord with the 5th/7th fret harmonics

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On CDs that come with various magazines, it's always the open strings, one at a time, followed by an open Emaj. chord. Works as a quick check when playing with others, too.

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