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I am playing a six-string guitar tuned to open D (DADF#AD).

I have “heard tell” of players who use the principles of “just intonation” to... improve/make more pleasing to the ear... the intonation of some chords in this tuning...

Specifically, the low D string is often tuned (lowered a smidge?) to match a harmonic (?)

There are tons of sources out there explaining the principles and differences (and mathematics!) of just and equal temperament...

What I'm seeking is a simple step-by-step guide to tuning the guitar this way.

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    If you adjust your guitar tuning to just intonation you will sound out of tune when playing with anyone else unless they are also tuned accordingly. Also guitar is not as precise as say a piano because you have one string that must play 20 + notes vs. piano with one set of strings per note. So you might get just intonation on some frets but will be off on others on same string. I tune to open D by ear and adjust until it sounds "right". It's usually slightly off from what tuner indicates it should be but sounds "better" to me. I can't offer a duplicatable approach. – Rockin Cowboy Jul 20 '17 at 17:39
  • Thanks for taking the time to respond RC! Joni Mitchell and Keith Richards and a lot of others... use some specific steps... to make some specific chords... sound more “full”... in some open key tunings. This is referred to in many places on the web... often by the artists themselves... but nobody says specifically... I'm using open __ , and I really want that __ chord to sing, so I pluck the __ string, and then hit the harmonic on the __ string at the __th fret, and when those are perfectly tuned by ear, yes, the open chord is slightly out, but listen to this... – HLRomberg Jul 21 '17 at 18:33
  • I understand that tuning the entire guitar to just intonation will sound weird to the Western ear, and you would not be able to play with instruments that are in equal temperament... such as piano etc. But using the principles of just intonation to improve the sound of certain chords on a guitar that is overall tuned to equal temperament is being done, and, apparently it really makes a noticeable difference in certain open tuning chords. : ) L – HLRomberg Jul 21 '17 at 18:43
  • I don't have any ideas about a process such as you described. – Rockin Cowboy Jul 23 '17 at 22:00
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Given the intonation issues on any guitar, my approach is to mainly tune the D string to a reference note (say, on my electronic tuner, a recorded song, or the person I'm playing with) then tune the rest of the guitar "to itself".

Also consider the song: is it mainly played down in the open position, or further up the neck? Any guitar tuning is a compromise so aim for the fine-tuning that sounds best for what the particular song demands.

Herewith my procedure, assuming you're retuning the guitar from standard tuning to open D:

1) Initial tuning

  • The A and D strings are already there. Just check they're 5 frets apart, then refine by matching the 5th fret harmonic on A string to the 7th fret harmonic on D string.
  • Drop the lowest string a whole step from E down to D. Fretted at 7th fret it should match the A string. Now double-check the lowest string by playing its 12th fret harmonic against the 3rd string (D string) played open. Fine tune till any beats are gone.
  • Now drop the G string (4th string) down a half step to F#, checking it against the 3rd string / 4th fret.
  • Now drop the B string (5th string) down a whole step till it matches the 12th fret harmonic on the A string (2nd string)
  • Now drop the high E string (6th string) down a whole step, matching it to the 5th string at the 5th fret and double-checking by matching the 6th string 7th fret harmonic to the 5th string 5th fret harmonic. Finally, check the open 6th string matches the 12th fret harmonic of the D string (3rd string).
  • At this point, you've reduced the tension on several strings and are likely out of tune again due to neck relaxing and/or the tremolo readjusting. Repeat the steps above, in order, at least twice, until the strings all sound right in that sequence.

3. Finer points

a) The most obvious guitar tuning/intonation issues tend to creep in on the 3rd of a major chord. Procedure:

  • Strum the guitar all open (no fretted notes). Listen for any off notes, particularly the F# (4th) string.
  • Compare the F# to the low D (1st) string fretted at the 4th fret; adjust the fretted low D to match the F#.
  • Compare 5th fret harmonic on the low D (1st string) to the high D (6th) string played open; adjust the high D to match.
  • Repeat with another open strum
  • Now check the sound by strumming the 12th fret harmonics across all strings, and by playing straight barres at the 5th, 7th, 9th and higher frets. Tweak any off-notes accordingly.
  • Finally, if you really want to optimize for any position other than open strings, apply a capo at the desired position and tweak again. Just be sure to do this last, after you've tuned without it, as the capo will both introduce string friction and disrupt the way the instrument responds to the neck-tension changes involved in moving from standard tuning to open D.
  • Thank You so much Die Hard! I really appreciate your detailed answer. That all makes sense to me, and I look forward to trying it out. Thanks again, HLRomberg – HLRomberg Sep 8 '17 at 1:41
  • This is certainly a good recipe for going from standard to open-D tuning, but it's doesn't really adress the just intonation aspect, does it? By comparing the F♯ to any 4th fret D-string, you're always getting the 12-edo relation, i.e. a bit too high. – leftaroundabout Sep 11 '17 at 14:14
  • Good point @leftroundabout. Tried to address this in the "finer points" section but will clarify here. The weak spot in this tuning is the F# string which is the major 3rd in the open D chord. On a guitar this note can sound slightly off and will often sound better if lowered slightly from what fret-based tuning suggests. Final step of the procedure, then: lower the F# string a turn or so, strum an open chord, and turn the F# string back up until the chord sounds sweet. – Die Hard Sep 12 '17 at 16:45
  • Caveat: Other chord shapes than a straight barre will have the 3rd on a different string so the dissonance will be elsewhere. "Whack a mole"! – Die Hard Sep 12 '17 at 16:58

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