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When I tune a guitar, electric (luthier intonated) or acoustic to a Spark (black) tuner it doesn't sound right when strummed (always below 12th fret).

(All good guitars including Epiphone Texan Masterbuilt, Fender Tele, Guild M-75, Dano 12-string)

But when I make a chord and play each string from low to high, and tune it by ear, harmonizing each higher string to the previous one, I always end up lowering the G,B and E strings and when I strum it sounds much much better - the strings are harmonizing far better ... is it just my ear?

If a simple answer isn't available I'll create some sound samples.

ADDENDUM ... the entire instrument, any position, sounds better ...

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    Which chords exactly? If it’s a Bb major chord the answer will be different from when it’s an open G major chord. – Todd Wilcox Oct 1 '20 at 5:34
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    A classical guitarist once told me the guitar couldn't be perfectly tuned. It had to do with the G and B strings. Perhaps he meant it needs retuning depending on the key of the piece. I don't know. – Old Brixtonian Oct 1 '20 at 8:12
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    One plausible explanation why one might feel like tuning the treble strings down: when tuning string-to-string over a chord, the major thirds will generally sound best when tuned a bit narrower than 12-edo. (Minor thirds should be a bit wider instead and thus compensate, but that is less noticeable so it can very well happen that high strings go flat overall when using this method.) However, in the resultant tuning, full chords would not sound good. – leftaroundabout Oct 1 '20 at 10:37
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    Remember that tuning string pairs by open or harmonic fingerings will be "true" intervals, while you may want "well-tempered" tuning when hitting a multi-string chord. I certainly deal with this on the cello -- no frets involved. – Carl Witthoft Oct 1 '20 at 15:05
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    Then there's those wacky guitars with wigglly frets... – Carl Witthoft Oct 1 '20 at 15:08
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First, how hard are you pressing on the strings when you make chords? Sometimes it's your finger pressure causing the 'out of tune' feel. If the guitar has neck issues, even setup issues, that could cause them to sound out of tune. First sight down your neck and make sure the guitar has good relief, bows up a little past the 7th/9th fret. Do you have any dead frets or dead notes? That could mean a truss rod adjustment, I recommend taking it to someone who has experience with truss rod adjustment, it's not for first timers. You might get a crash course in truss rod adjustment from someone, so you can do it yourself, if the need arises. Always use a digital tuner to tune the guitar, they give you a -+cents readout so you can fine tune the guitar.

I've had this problem with an acoustic guitar I had, having to tune certain strings a little off to get it to sound right. The truss rod was the culprit, you really have to know what your doing when it comes to truss rod adjustment. I tried adjusting it myself, but I was a beginner then and didn't have a clue what I was doing, ended up taking it to a guitar luthier, and he gave me a crash course on truss rod adjustment. Man, that guitar played totally different when I got the truss rod right. Chords sounded better, could tune it by ear or tuner, they both gave the same result. An in tune guitar, with good fingering intonation.

Well I've spoke enough on the matter, simple things can cause a sound difference in a guitar, their precise instruments! Good luck!!

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  • Any chord. Any guitar. Expensive or cheap. I think I'm pressing hard enough. – Randy Zeitman Apr 11 at 16:02
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Guitar frets are designed for equal temperament.

There are no intervals in-tune in equal temperament.

It's more complicated when you tune the strings by ear - many people using harmonics on adjacent strings - You can achieve extremely accurate tuning on adjacent strings, but you will end up with one pair of strings a comma out - around 22 cents. You will then have to temper the tuning of all the strings to compensate. This might be what you are experiencing.

Then there is the fact that fretting a string changes its tension, especially near the nut, where the angles are more extreme.

And that is if your frets are accurate, and your guitar has been well set up - they might not be.

And... to be really accurately set, the frets would need to be in slightly different positions on different strings due to the difference in string gauge - your bridge is probably set with different positions for each string, but the frets are not.

So, yes, you cannot have a guitar completely in tune.

My advice is

  • Get a good set-up on the guitar
  • Tune with a tuner
  • Adjust the tuning so that the principal chords of the song sound better
  • Tune between every take
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  • "You can achieve extremely accurate tuning on adjacent strings, but you will end up with one pair of strings a comma out - around 22 cents." All I can say is "wow" ... which leads me to ask "Why aren't tuners programmable?" ... so it shows a green light at a certain pitch you assign as 'correct'. – Randy Zeitman Apr 11 at 16:02
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Some of the details aren't clear, but this much seems clear: if you tune a particular chord, you can get it well tuned and it sounds good.

You didn't say what chord you tune to, or what the other chords are that sound bad in comparison.

But I imagine you might tune to an open C major and get it sounding nice, then play an open A major and it sounds badly out of tune.

My understanding of this is mostly practical. When you get two strings tuned nicely to some interval and then play another interval with those same two strings the second interval can sound out of tune. To me it's most noticeable when I tune a perfect fifth between open x3x0xx and then play the octave x0x2xx and the octave sounds out of tune.

I don't know all the math of tuning behind this, but I understand it is just one of many tuning "problems". It's like the problem of 12 perfect fifths don't add up to seven octaves. Not perfectly. Not if P5 is the ratio 3:2 and P8 is 2:1. When one interval is perfect you can't always divide it up into some other perfect or just interval.

The solution is to compromise in some way. Equal temperament is the modern tuning compromise. On the guitar I usually work through all five open chords and tweak them until they all sound good. The most noticeable difference to be is between the E A D chords where the voicing is all octaves, fifths, and fourths in the lower voices and the G C chords where the voicing is close with thirds in the lower voices. Compromising the tuning for open A and C is my main focus. Then I follow up with tweaking open D. I think I misjudge the high strings for some reason and open D helps me get them sorted out.

Also, a lot of this depends on the proper placement of the frets and position of the bridge(s.) People refer to that as the guitar's intonation. If the guitar isn't good quality re. fret placement, neck alignment, etc. or if the bridges are poorly set up, it can be practically impossible to get it decently tuned.

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  • It's all chords. Any positions. Any guitars. – Randy Zeitman Apr 11 at 16:00

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