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©2016 Bradley Laird

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You may already know how to tune and if you do great! But let me waste a few electrons here by discussing some of my thoughts on tuning.

Each and every time you play your guitar you will need to check your tuning. There is no such thing as a guitar that stays in tune indefinately. Always check your tuning before you play and from time to time as you play. Learning to tune a guitar by ear takes some practice but with the advent of electronic tuning devices it is almost becoming a lost art. However, rather than battle the tide of so-called progress, I will explain how to tune the guitar using an electronic tuner.

Electronic tuners are simply devices that "listen" to the sound of your instrument and display the pitch on some sort of visual readout. The display might be a set of LEDs, a liquid crystal display or an analog meter with a needle. But, bear in mind that YOU are the real tuner. The device just suggests when you should stop turning the tuning pegs. That's all it does.

Here is my drawing of a typical electronic tuning meter:

electronic guitar tuner
There are "tuners" made just for guitar or bass guitar which only read out the notes that those instruments are normally tuned to. There are also "tuners" called chromatic tuners which will display any note of the scale and can be used to tune almost any stringed instrument if you know which notes the strings are supposed to be tuned to.

For bluegrass music, the guitar is almost universally tuned to "standard guitar tuning" which means the strings are tuned to the following notes:

1st string (The smallest diameter, closest to the floor) E
2nd string B
3rd string G
4th string D
5th string A
6th string E

I should mention that when you tighten a string it produces a higher musical pitch. Looser produces a lower note. Take a close look at the tuning machines on the peghead of your guitar and notice how the strings are wound around the peg. Play a string and turn one of the knobs so that the pitch lowers slightly.

On most steel-string guitars a counter-clockwise turn of the knob when viewed from the side of the knob will raise the pitch of the string so go the other way. Always play the string you are tuning so you can hear if you are raising or lowering the pitch and so you can tell if you are turning the correct peg. Failure to be aware of this, especially in the early stages, will break strings by cranking away on the wrong peg or turning the wrong direction.

In any event, play the string, and while it is still ringing, turn the knob slightly. Hear the pitch change? Did it go higher or lower? Take a few minutes and lower the pitch of a string a bit and bring it back up to where it was. Don’t make big, radical movements of the knob. Just enough to hear the pitch change. Do that a few times. (If you find it impossible to tell if the pitch is raising or lowering you might want to consider taking up watercolor painting instead. But, I think you will get it eventually so hang in there!)

Instructions (Generally) For Using An Electronic Tuner

OK, now that you have the feel of the tuning pegs let's do it the easy way. Grab your electronic tuning machine and turn it on. Play the 6th string. (That is the big fat one nearest the top of the guitar.) The machine will most likely read "E" and give some indication of being "flat" or "sharp" of an E note. If the display shows an E, which is the correct note for the 6th string, you are on the right track. Now look for whatever tells you flat or sharp on your device. Flat (-) means the pitch is too low and the string is too slack. Sharp (+) means the pitch is too high and the string is too tight.

Either tighten or loosen the string until the device is centered. On some tuners you are looking at a needle or a representation of a needle. Just center the needle. If your device uses LEDs the usual design is to illuminate the center LED only. This center LED is usually a different color from the rest.

When you are satisfied with the tuning of the 6th string do the same with the 5th string. It is tuned to an A. Continue adjusting the tension of all the strings until you are satisfied that the electronic device thinks you are "in tune." Look back at the chart for the correct notes for each string of the guitar. If you are not seeing any of those note names it means you are waaaaaaaay out of tune. Keep reading...

For you players who already are well-versed in some other guitar styles this information is nothing you need. But, for a beginner it is extremely important. There are few things that will hurt the perception of your playing ability as much as playing out of tune. Here is a tip that will help you tune the guitar whether you use an electronic device or some other method:

Play each string with a good loud pick stroke and let it ring. Then check the tuning with a quieter note. Friction can inhibit the string’s ability to slide smoothly over the bridge and through the nut slots. This can cause unequal tension in the non-sounding segments of the string. When a string goes out of tune after you play a while what probably happened is that the unequal tension equalized! In other words, tune the note, play it hard and try to knock it out of tune. If it held, good! If it went flat, bring it up while playing it hard and check it softly again. Better that you knock it out of tune now than to have it go out in the middle of a performance.

What to do if the guitar is so out of tune that the tuner is reading the wrong note...
If you are tuning the 6th string and you know it should be an E, yet the tuning device is reading out some other note it just means that the string is considerably out of tune.

The names of all the musical notes proceed upwards from A to G and then repeat, A up to G, A up to G. So the note names from lowest to highest are A, B, C, D, E, F, G... then A an octave higher, followed by B, C, D, etc.

In between these "natural notes" are the flats and sharps. Between A and B is A sharp (also known as B flat.) Sharp is indicated by the # symbol and flat by the b symbol. Here is the entire musical scale including the flats or sharps: (From low to high)

A# or Bb
C# or Db
D# or Eb
F# or Gb
G# or Ab
A (repeating now, one octave higher)
A# or Bb
B (etc. upwards to dog hearing range.)

If you are trying to tune the "E" string and the display of the tuner reads D look at the list above. D is a lower note than E so you are so flat (loose) that the tuner is reading out the note below. Understand that a D note that is pretty sharp is just about the same as an E note that is pretty flat. Just look at the what the tuner is telling you about the pitch of the string. If the pitch you are trying to get to is higher up the scale tighten it. If the pitch you are trying to get is lower down the scale lower it until the display shows that note.

About That Calibrate Button

Most tuners have the ridiculous ability to be calibrated to a variety of "standard" pitches. Just know this for now: 440 cycles per second for an A note IS THE STANDARD in the modern world. Every time you punch that calibrate button, intentionally or accidentally, you will set the tuner to 435, 436, 437, etc. and you will end up "in tune" with yourself, but "out of tune" with the rest of the world. Without a lot of excess explanation, just be sure you keep your tuning device set to A440. Same goes for those "b", "bb" and "bbb" things that some tuners do to get metal heads in their preferred slack tuning. Read the leaflet manual that came with your tuner, keep 'er on 440, don't have any "bbb" showing in the display and call your guitar playing buddy to come over with a six-pack and explain it all again.

Now, if you are in tune just hop on over to Lesson 3 and I am going to teach you how to play basic bluegrass rhythm.

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Brad Laird's Bluegrass Jam Session Survival eBook

The chords progressions for the 100 most popular bluegrass jam session tunes. Stop missing chord changes, sound better and have more fun. If you don't need it you probably know someone who does!

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