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When I'm trying to tune my guitar/bass without a tuner, if a single string is in tune, I can tune the rest of the strings based on the tuned one, using the harmonics over the 5th and 7th frets.

But what if I don't have or know if any of the strings are on tune? How do I tune the instrument then?

After playing for many years, I pretty much remember 'how every string sounds', so I try to approach that pitch, but I rarely get 100% correct. Usually I am about half a semitone lower or higher than the desired pitch.

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There are many answers here and some good advice for when other instruments are available. But I feel a need to make an obvious point. All of the suggestions would help you get in the "ballpark" (close) in the absence of any reference tone. BUT - if you can already get within a half semi-tone by ear - nothing short of a tuning aid or something to generate an accurate reference tone is going to get you any closer than that!

I agree that if playing with another instrument (such as an acoustic piano) it is better to tune to that instrument - even if you are a semitone off, than to be in perfect 440 tuning.

But I am pretty sure you already know how to tune if there is a piano around. Unfortunately, if you don't have a digital tuner, a pitch pipe, a tuning fork or another instrument that you can tune to, or a smart phone with a tuner ap or tone generator, or a computer, I just don't think you are going to get much closer than within a half semitone.

You could leave yourself a voice mail playing your strings when you know they are in tune and listen with ear buds (hey that's at least as good as a "tension meter" lol), but if you have a phone handy - you can use a tuning ap.

If I was on a deserted island with no tuning aids, no phone, no computer, and only had my guitar and I wanted to play to myself - I would be real happy getting within a half semitone of perfect. Nobody else is going to hear me anyway. Hello?

Perhaps somebody knows of a reliable way to get more accurate than within a semitone in the absence of a tuning device or anything to generate a reference tone. But I can't think of any.

BTW - I am envious of your tone memory (within a half semitone is pretty darn good).

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I suppose you could see if you have any "natural frequencies" you can make reliably yourself. Having perfect pitch makes that trivial but if not, if you hum or sah 'ah' like being at the dentist, without aiming for any particularly tone, you might be fairly reliable at producing the same tone. If you can find which fret of which string that corresponds to, you have a way to get one string in tune and then it's easy.

(This is only a thought experiment, I never tried it)

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    I took a sight singing class, and a key assignment was every morning to try singing 'la' (A) or 'do' (C) then checking it against the piano. Every day. Her claim was that you might not develop perfect pitch, but you can at least have your A, and then work things out from there. And wouldn't you know, over a couple weeks you can get pretty close. – prototype Feb 24 '15 at 15:59
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When I was younger it often happened that I needed a pitch reference. The only way I could do it was try and spontaneously sing a song that I heard a bazilion times. Epic by Faith No More worked well, as I knew the first note should be an E, so I'd sing that, see if it sounded right and tuned to my first note. Not foolproof, but I guess it is similar to using muscle memory.

Just to make clear though, I've had extensive classical music training in my youth, although I never had absolute pitch.

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Here's an out of the box answer for you (which is what I think you're looking for)... An unconventional reference you could potentially use is a computer monitor.

Here's how to do it...

  1. Look at the refresh rate in the monitor settings (usually around 60 Hz). Set the refresh rate to a frequency (or harmonic) you can achieve on at least one string on your base (open or pressed on a certain fret).

  2. On that string get it close to the right tone.

  3. Turn off all the lights in the room and pluck the string with the string between you and the monitor. The standing wave on the string will appear to "not move" when it's vibrating at integer multiples of your monitor refresh rate.

  4. Adjust the tension to tune that string.

  5. Use the tuned string to tune the remainder of the strings.

Unconventional and accurate!

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    That's interesting - But if you had a computer, could you not have a reference tone stored in a file on the computer that you could play or if access to internet, just go to an on-line guitar tuning site? – Rockin Cowboy Feb 24 '15 at 20:08
  • Assuming your computer has speakers, a reference tone file, and/or an internet connection then yes use that. If not or if you want an alternative method then you can use the strobe action of the monitor. Alternatively, you could use any optical source that strobes (digital or analog TV for example... assuming you know the frequency). – ndiggity Feb 24 '15 at 20:31
  • This is an interesting idea, and a good one if it works. Perhaps you could use some other manifestation of "mains" hum (50 or 60 hz, depending on country). Perhaps hum from an old amplifier? or maybe the optical technique you describe could work with a fluorescent tube/CFL/led light? – Digital Trauma Feb 25 '15 at 0:06
  • I have personally observed the standing wave using a TV on my acoustic guitar low E string in this configuration. However, I have never used this to actually tune a guitar. My background is in physics, I understand waves, and I have observed this behavior personally. The reason it works is because the TV/Monitor is strobing (albeit faster than the human eye can observe). So, an acoustic source won't work to visually see the standing wave. However, a tube, CFL, or led could work if the frequency is known. A monitor is perhaps nice because you can set the frequency. – ndiggity Feb 25 '15 at 1:29
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I think you either need to have perfect pitch yourself, a reference pitch like a tuning fork or another instrument (or even a CD) you assume to be in tune, or a tuner (or something that can 'become' one, like a smartphone or computer).

Of course you could probably do something like measuring the tension on the string and working out the resonant frequency using engineering principles, but... I rarely do that :)

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Base the first string you tune on an old favorite song of yours.

Many times you have a certain song so ingrained in your memory, that hearing that first note will either ring true or sound off.

So go through your mental music library, find that song that starts with an arpeggiated open chord like E or A, and tune the corresponding sting to that first note.

  • While this is a good suggestion, it doesn't differ so much from what I've already tried; I remember pretty much how very string sounds, so I can tune them almost perfect, but not 100% – Shevliaskovic Feb 24 '15 at 15:22
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Simple honest answer is you won't! If you had absolute pitch, it's a different ball-game. When playing by yourself, it actually won't matter. If the instrument is a semitone out either way, the difference is so small, it isn't an issue. If you're playing with others, then all need to be in with each other, so use one instrument as reference. Acoustic piano is favourite - it just takes too long to re-tune one, in comparison to, say, a guitar!

On tuning with 5th and 7th fret - you might like this method. I find it easier, on bass and guitar.Play the harmonic at fret 24 and compare with the 19th on the next string. It's the same harmonics as 5 and 7, BUT - if you play them with your plucking hand, at the same time, you can twiddle the knobs at the head end with your other hand. No left arm jumping from strings to machine heads! On a lot of guitars, the '24th fret' is right where the neck pup lives.

Late edit - just remembered that the British time pips use a B note. There's usually a time pip in whichever country you happen to be!

Back to tuning - a reference is the best way, and in the absence of a tuning fork/tuner/mobile app. etc., an idea I used as a kid camping in the Summer was my house key rang with a certain pitch when dropped onto a hard surface. It was always in my pocket, and was a great datum point.

As an exercise, try slackening off all the strings, then re-tuning. Each time, you may well get a little closer to concert pitch. Ear training!

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Assuming you have access to an amplifier, you can use the buzzing noise that they make when not plugged into a guitar, called mains hum, to tune.

For example, in the UK, mains hum is 50Hz, which is about equivalent to G1 (49Hz).

Of course, you will be very slightly out (1Hz) but seeing as you aren't tuning against anything else, this will not matter too much.

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Without a reliable source of pitch or a tuner, Your best shot is to trust the lowest note as being in tune. It has the least tension and the most friction because of its designated size and pitch.

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It depends on context. If you are playing by yourself you don't need to be 100% in tune. As amalgamate said, trust the lowest string and tune to that. As long as you're in tune with yourself most people won't know the difference.

If, however, you are playing with any other players the goal is still first to be in tune with each other. A piano can play you a low E and you can tune your string to that, or if say you're playing with a bassist, one of you can tune to the other.

There are also apps for smart phones such as pitch pipes that will play you a pitch and you could tune your first note to that.

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    In fact when you are playing with a piano, even in the presence of technology, it is probably best to tune to the piano, as it is not easy to tune those things. – amalgamate Feb 24 '15 at 15:11
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Find out what the dialing tone of your phone company is. That should be a reliable reference (in some countries, 440Hz is used I think). Of course, this has become much less useful with analog lines dying out since the dialing tone these days does not necessarily come from the phone company any more.

Ok, so we have modern times. Program your mobile phone to have a ringtone with a well-discernible melody. I have an "old" phone with monophonic ringtones. First movement of Partita 3 in the Bach solo partitas and sonatas for violin is pretty workable monophonically. So program that. Make its volume annoying, so that you fear it.

This should give you a solid E. And depending on your phone use, you get ringtone training frequently. After a while, you'll be anticipating its starting pitch and no longer need to actually trigger it in order to tune to it.

This requires less discipline than always keeping a tuning fork in your pocket and striking it infrequently (of course, carrying a fork makes the "tuning problem" rather trivial to solve, so there is something to be said for that).

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Following from Mr. Boy's answer, I just tried to see if I have a "Natural frequency". I found that if I hum, I get a sort-of internal resonance that corresponds fairly closely to D# on my acoustic. Might be worth a try to see if you can find something similar.

  • I've checked what's the lowest note I can hum. Happens to be around D, so I know how low E feels when I hum it. Combined by knowing what's the tension of my strings this gives me a passable practice tuning. Been doing that long enough that I actually get pretty close to accurate 440Hz tuning so the band won't sound absolutely horrible :) – Peregrino69 Feb 24 '15 at 20:34
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I wouldn't trust my tone memory on this, or “feel”; sometimes I'll hum the deepest note I can and tune according to that, but that's also only accurate to a semitone at most.

When I check out some untuned string instrument and have no reliable reference at hand, what I do first is “order” the strings by relative detuning. If some string is obviously much too low, I first get that up to roughly what it should have, inferred from the surrounding ones.

The string that I trust most is generally the (relative-detuning-wise) highest or second highest on the instrument. The reason being: strings normally don't go up much by themselves, only down (at least steel strings – for nylon or even gut, the environment can quite spoil such considerations). If a string is too high, then usually because something hit the tuner rather hard. That is pretty obvious then; in that case the string should of course be tuned down to avoid snapping anything, otherwise it's normally more up than down.

Typically this reference will be one of the middle strings. In my experience the lowest strings are the least reliable! Though it depends on the instrument. Off the top of my head, these are the “best” and “worst” to trust, in the instruments I have experience with:

  • Electric bass – best: either G or D, worst: E (or B).
  • Classical guitar – best: d and e, worst: g and E.
  • Electric/western – best: d or g, worst: E.
  • Cello – best: d, worst: C.
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One thing from a looong time ago (okay may not that long ago) is to use a landline telephone to tune the A string, because the "dialtone" is 440 Hz which is A.

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Ok, so here's a hypothetical way do it that works without any pitch references and is in principle exact, assuming a guitar that behaves ideally (neglecting inharmonicity, which is really quite uncautious for plucked string instruments) and only needing some timing reference.

What you do is, you first tune the guitar to Pythagorean tuning. That works the way you described, by matching 3rd to 4th harmonics of neighbouring strings E to g. Then you tune the b string to a perfect twelfth (3rd harmonic) above the E string.

Now at this point you may think the guitar is in (relative) tune, and therefore there should be a major third between the g and b string. But it's not, actually! Not what we normally call a consonant major third. Rather, it's a Pythagorean third, with frequency ratio 81:64, while a just-intonation third has ratio 5:4 = 80:64 (a 12-edo major third lies right between these two variants).

That ratio 81:80 is called syntonic comma; it's a small-ish but significant discrepancy between tuning systems. Small enough at any rate that the comparison of both tones yields a beat with frequency you can literally count: you generate the just-intonation third (+two octaves) above the g-string, realised as the string's fifth harmonic (over the 4th fret). This you compare with the Pythagorean third in the same octave, which you find as the 4th harmonic on the b string.

Let's compare the ideal frequencies of both these tones. Starting from a440, we have 110 Hz for the open A string,

  • so 3/4 of that for the E string, times 3 for the b string, times 4 for the harmonic you play thereon. the 4s cancel, we end up with exactly 990 Hz.
  • 4/3 of that for the d string, again 4/3 for the g string, then fifth harmonic. 110 Hz × 42/32 × 5 comes out as 977.77... Hz.

So for ideal conditions, our beat frequency should be the difference of 12.22 Hz – scaling up linearly with the absolute tuning reference, so if we adjust that until it comes out with that frequency, we'd theoretically proven a perfect 440 Hz concert pitch.

How about practice?

Turns out this really doesn't work very well, mainly because the strings do have considerable different inharmonicity, and because those high flageolett notes decay too fast for counting enough beats to get the statistical errors reasonably low. 12.22 is triplets on tempo 244, but if I try the on my classical guitar the beat comes out more as quavers in that tempo – meaning, the error actually is something like a fifth!

So, this this definitely won't help you getting closer than within a semitone, but IMO it's still an interesting idea to consider.

  • Would one not need also account for the relative magnetospheric influence on the oscillation pattern of the strings exerted at a variable degrees based on the proximity of the nearest magnetic pole and calculate the coefficient of the paradoxical dichotomy of the relevant adjustment parameters? I am not sure the down-voter appreciated your humor. And even less - that theoretically what you suggest could sound plausible to Albert Einstein. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 25 '15 at 3:26
  • There is in fact nothing humourous about this answer, nor is it purely theoretical (though as I said it's nowhere precise enough to be actually useful on guitar). Beat-counting is a very real thing, it has always been used by piano tuners (though probably not for finding the chamber tone itself...), and if you applied the above recipe to organ/synthesizer you would indeed get the precise difference frequency as calculated. Also, the notes would be long enough so you can time it with arbitrary precision, making this method pretty feasible indeed. – leftaroundabout Feb 25 '15 at 9:06
  • Feasible perhaps. I don't have a degree in physics so I can't argue that point. Practical? Useful? - Probably not. But you certainly put some time into explaining how it might actually be possible to use this method to get close. The other answer you posted actually had some PRACTICAL advice. But I enjoyed reading this one. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 25 '15 at 15:55
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  1. Checking out:

If you use the harmonic over the 7th fret of the E string, you get a B. You can use this B to tune the strings E and B together. That leaves you with 2 ways to tune the remaining E string: Using the 5th fret of the B string or ring the other E string itself. This will test true 2 of your memory resources: Strings B and E. You can use this to fine tune your guitar by converging to a point between those 2.

I"m sure there are more ways to test you memory by using other 5th and 7th fret harmonics.

  1. Internalizing a cadence:

I can remember D, G, C and A pretty accurately, and I have done it by pracicing the II-V-I-VI cadence in the key of C. At the beginning, I could only remember D, then I would figure the rest out aided by the intervals in that cadence. Eventually I could sing all 4 of them without knowing any other.

When you internalize more than one pitch, you can use your interval memory to check if they are right and fine tune.

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