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I played viola for 6-7 years and always had this problem to a degree where plucking or playing a string made me feel the pitch was wobbling in a range. I assumed I just don't have a precise ear, but was just fine tuning using 5ths, i.e. playing two strings and listening for them to match against each other.

For guitar, sometimes I tune string by string, but then the relative pitches don't sound right sometimes. Sometimes I tune relative by playing the 5th (or 4th) fret of the lower string to match, but then I wonder if the precision drifts as I go from low E to high E. Sometimes I outright use a tuner with the gauge, but as much as the device reads correctly, I swear sometimes they just don't feel precise. (It's been a while since I tried the tuner so maybe I imagined it.)

For an unpracticed, or maybe just off-pitch, ear like mine, is it better to tune string by string against each pitch (play E, tune E, then play A, tune A, then play D etc), or better to tune one string then match relatively by playing the 4th or 5th fret of the lower string, or use a tuner? I've been tuning relatively simply because I prefer the strings sound good against each other than trying to tune each to a perfect pitch.

  • I use a tuning app on my phone, works pretty well. Another easy way for me to check is tune via the octaves across different strings. – Michael McGriff Jul 1 '15 at 19:17
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    @MichaelMcGriff: Yes, tuning apps are great, some like pitch lab or so have various good visual representations that can help a lot, but you need t be aware of that your phone can be a very bad frequency counter. E.g. my sgs3 shows 440HZ as 439.2Hz. So before using such an app I would recommend to check it against a known well tuned instrument. – PlasmaHH Jul 2 '15 at 9:39
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It can depend on a couple of factors; amongst them, how good your ear is & how accurately the guitar is set up.

The method that removes the most drift would be to tune each string to a played note on a piano or against a tuner. That way any inaccuracy would not be exacerbated as you move down the strings.

If you tune by fretting one string & comparing it to the next open string, there is the chance that
1) the guitar is inaccurate enough or
2) your precision in making each comparison is sufficient
that by the time you reach the last string, even the octave Es no longer match up.

Sometimes you can correct for that using a second pass, but not necessarily.

For some reason, people find the B - G hardest to do that way. If you've drifted by the time you reach the bottom, correct the bottom E to the top E, then work your way back up the strings. See if you went out at the G on the way down.

Whatever you do, don't fall for the 'trick' of comparing harmonics at 5th & 7th frets - mathematically, that can never work.

I've found over the years that a good way in the long-term of being able to do it is simply playing each string one at a time, from top E to bottom E.
Do it before & after it's in tune & feel the difference.

Eventually you can actually tune it just by doing that, string at a time from top to bottom, as a 'set' - you learn how those specific pitches sound compared to a 'normal' which lives inside your head. You don't need perfect pitch to do that either.

Mechanically, check the intonation is good at least to the 12th fret, and that the action is not so high you're pushing the strings out of tune by merely fretting on the lower part of the neck. Once the guitar is actually in tune, all simple open chords ought to sound good, not just some.

Remember the guitar is a pseudo-even-tempered instrument. It has idiosyncrasies you won't find on either piano or unfretted stringed instruments.

Oh… one more thing…
Dirty old strings will never be in tune up the fretboard.

  • It wasn't me!! However, I've used 5/7 harmonics for 35+yrs, on gtr and bass, and it's by far the best way for me. On well intonated instruments. – Tim Jul 2 '15 at 5:57
  • Then you must have got used to how to compensate for the drift, because mathematically it doesn't work & any beginner would be listening for the beating between the 2 notes & naturally tuning til that stopped. tbh, I have been happiest since I just learned what all 6 strings ought to sound like… can't do it on stage, I need a tuner, but if it's reasonably quiet – Tetsujin Jul 2 '15 at 6:02
  • It was also used by Segovia - that's the first time I saw it, in the '60s. Wondered what he was doing ! But, yes, on stage an electronic tuner is the best way to go - especially to check in the middle of a song! – Tim Jul 2 '15 at 6:06
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    5-7 works wonderfully. And it's very quick. But I'm with you re stage tuning - electronics are fast and can work in a loud environment – Doktor Mayhem Jul 4 '15 at 6:42
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Since you are a beginner, I would strongly suggest you start with an electronic tuner. Take one and tune you guitar and then see how it's supposed to sound when it's tuned correctly. Play the natural harmonics over the 5th and the 7th frets and listen to the correct sound. Or, you can try playing the 5th fret and the open string below (these are supposed to be the same note); or, you can try playing the 7th fret and the open string above (these are supposed to be the same note, an octave apart).

Then, when it's out of tune, play one of the ways mentioned above again and try to see if you can match the correct ones. If not, use a tuner again and do the same process again.

When you tune just by ear, still use a tuner afterwards to check if the tuning is correct. This way you'll know for sure if you have it correct or not.

But, I remember when I was a beginner, I couldn't tune the guitar just by ear. I needed some help. Use the technology. You can even find tuners online.

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    When I was a beginner, I forced myself to tune by ear (using a tuning fork!) because I thought using a tuner would be not as accurate nor as educational. When I started getting into bands and getting paying gigs, I learned that have an accurate, automatic, chromatic tuner is key to tuning quickly and accurately, especially in noisy environments. I still think tuning by ear is educational, but my first lesson with any student always included how to use an electronic tuner. – Todd Wilcox Jul 1 '15 at 17:28
  • @ToddWilcox tuning by ear is really useful, I agree; but I think starting off with a tuner is much easier – Shevliaskovic Jul 1 '15 at 17:35
  • I agree with everything except the harmonics. That's bound to fail, especially with a beginner, as they won't know to compensate for the drift. Maths - schrof.net/guitar/articles/harmonics.html – Tetsujin Jul 1 '15 at 17:39
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    @Tetsujin correct. I added two more ways that could work – Shevliaskovic Jul 1 '15 at 17:41
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    I wholeheartedly agree with Shevliaskovic. Definitely tune with a tuner. Surely it's great to be able to tune your instrument by ear, but a tuner will certainly make your life a lot easier, and should make your tuning a lot more accurate. – MrTheBard Jul 1 '15 at 18:51
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I always use the reference string method if I don't have any other tuning reference to hand.

Using the 4th/D string as your reference string you can make the following comparisons:

6th/E string 10th fret = D string open

5th/A string 5th fret = D string open

3rd/G string = D string 5th fret

2nd/B string = D string 9th fret

1st/E string = D string 2nd fret + 1 octave = 6th/E string + 2 octaves

The advantage of this method is that it avoids the cumulative error that can occur when tuning each string against the previous one.

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If you're used to tuning a viola, you'll be used to the sound of bowed strings, a sound with perfectly pitched overtones (i.e. if you play a note with basic pitch 440Hz, you'll hear 440, 880, 1320, 1760, 2200...). Plucked strings, like a guitar or piano (or pizzicato violin playing) create overtones which are not precise multiples of the base frequency, the imperfections being the result of string thickness and stiffness. This makes it more difficult to tune a plucked string instrument by ear, and has led to things like "stretch tuning" for piano's. See e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stretched_tuning

  • Thanks for that interesting observation - that bowed violins don't have inharmonicity. I learned something new today. – Andy Jul 3 '15 at 12:35
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the question: "For an unpracticed, or maybe just off-pitch, ear like mine, is it better to tune string by string against each pitch (play E, tune E, then play A, tune A, then play D etc), or better to tune one string then match relatively by playing the 4th or 5th fret of the lower string, or use a tuner?... (I've been tuning relatively simply because I prefer the strings sound good against each other than trying to tune each to a perfect pitch)."

answer: In 12-tone Equal Temperament (which is what a fretted-guitar uses), only the octave and unison intervals are truly perfect. Trying to tune using any other interval would not likely be a good idea. If the intonation set-up of the guitar is good (it can never be perfect, partly due to 12-TET https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_temperament), using one string's pitch as reference, tune each of the other strings, by fretting appropriately to produce a unison or octave interval to that reference string's pitch (octave harmonics may be used).

What I've done, for standard tuning, is use an A tuning fork to tune the A (5th) string (the fork I have is an octave higher A at 220hz). I tune the other strings relative to that open A string, variously fretting those strings to produce an A note.

"Sometimes I outright use a tuner with the gauge, but as much as the device reads correctly, I swear sometimes they just don't feel precise."

That statement is unclear (what is not 'feeling precise', the tuner or the resultant tuning of the guitar using the tuner?).

I'm wondering if what you are sensing (hearing) is the imperfection of some intervals due to 12-TET ? Because you mention viola (which is fretless, and can be played in Just Intonation) and state: "...but was just fine tuning using 5ths, i.e. playing two strings and listening for them to match against each other...", it seems that you might have been tuning the adjacent pairs of strings in sequence, and not relative to a single reference.

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Your first step in tuning a string to a reference by ear is to determine where the strings are in relation to each other. Do you need to tune it up or down?

You have to train your ear to recognize which tone is higher and which is lower. That's fairly easy - it might take you a few weeks or months if you practice a few hours a day. Just remember that you aren't a prisoner to the tuning keys. Try bending the reference string up and seeing if the resulting interval sounds more "in tune". Or try playing the reference string a fret (or two) below or above and seeing if that sounds more "in tune". If you play the E string on the 7th fret and it sounds perfectly in tune with your A string, then your A string is (possibly... but possibly not) tuned a whole note too high.

One issue is that sounding "in tune" doesn't necessarily mean "same note." An octave will sound very good. So will a 5th and a 4th. Even a 3rd might fool you. But unison will sound best. And if you mistakenly tune your 5th string to something other than an A (a C or an F, for example), then you'll know when you try to play a 5th between them. Play the open E string and B on the 5th string (2nd fret) and you should have a perfect 5th, which should sound very consonant ("in tune"). But if you tuned the A string to a C you'll have E-D (minor 7th), which is dissonant and "bluesy." It also would match the 4th string exactly, if that string was still tuned correctly.

Once you finally get the two notes close, then you have to break out your auditory microscope. Eventually, you might be able to hear the difference between two very close notes. But first, you'll probably just hear the "wobbliness" between them. When two notes are exactly the same, they sound like a single string when you play them together. If they're slightly off, you'll here an overtone (actually an interference pattern between the two notes) that sounds like a wavering note, rising and falling gradually or quickly. At this point, you make very slight adjustments to the tuning key. You might even just grip it, without even noticeably moving it, and cause a change in that interference pattern. You tweak it until the interference pattern disappears, or until you decide you've had enough and this is close enough.

Again, here you can definitely try a slight bend on the reference string to see how that affects the interference pattern.

Continue the process for all strings.

To hear the interference pattern more clearly, you can try harmonics. I'm sure there are youtube videos on how to get them out of your guitar. You play them right over the frets, not between frets, by lightly touching the string, not pressing down, when you pluck it. The 12th fret is easiest to get a harmonic out of. 7th isn't too hard either. 5th is a bit harder. You can compare most strings using 5th fret harmonic on the lower string, 7th on the higher.

Finally, try comparing you low E's 12th fret harmonic with your high E, to close the loop.

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