There is a famous Chinese song that has survived down through the ages,'s still one of my all-time favorites. T-shirts bore the inscription, "TUNE OR DIE", and this adage is appropriate for yesterday, today AND forever!

How you sound to yourself and others is first of all determined by the tuning of your instrument. If you are out of tune, everything you play will be out of tune and sound like crap! Your guitar is like your mind, if you are thinking about some perceived hurt or anger it will color all your thinking and hence all your conversation, and thus all your relationships. If your guitar is out of tune, everything you play will be out of tune and will create a negative response, not only in your audience but in your own heart itself.

One of the reasons young bands and orchestras sound like young bands and orchestras is that they do not or cannot tune their instruments. The obvious solution is to obtain and use an electronic tuner. This wonderful invention came about many years after I had been playing the guitar, so my mind contains a plethora of alternative tuning methods. For those who are interested, I will elaborate on those shortly.

 The electric tuner is a Godsend for everyone, listener and player alike. But what could and should have been the greatest ear trainer in musical history has, sad to say, become a great crutch.

If you manually tune your guitar and then use your tuner to check and correct yourself you will find where your ears are deficient and train your ears to hear correctly and you will develop "Ears To Hear". the human ear has a tendency to hear certain notes of the scale slightly flat. Therefore a singer singing
a cappella (without musical accompaniment) will tend to drop their pitch on the thirds and seventh notes of the scale as they occur in the song being sung. Without proper training and awareness, the singer will then continue to sing a little flat and if these notes (in a song being sung in the key of "C" the offending notes would be "E" and "B") continue to occur in the song, will continue to go flat, and by the end of the rendition be hopelessly out of tune. A trained voice will compensate slightly and remain on pitch. Singing with musical accompaniment should keep all but the most stubborn singers in tune or, on pitch.

I am of the opinion that the human ear is probably correct and that we should drift flat on the thirds and sevenths and that the ear and mind perceive these sounds correctly and that musical instruments which copy the sounds a human hears should have been designed to accommodate this phenomenon. The guitar has that wonderful capability which is clearly demonstrated in that peculiarly, American musical art form called the "Blues" where the vanishing and interchangeable flated thirds and sevenths are flatted, without becoming minor in gender. In between a totally flatted third or seventh, the semi tones are what make the "Blues" such a distinctly sounding musical art form. The capability of the guitar to "bend strings" to accomplish this phenomenon is all the more reason for the guitarist to train his or her ear.

 To tune with a tuner first, denies oneself the honor and privilege of having an "ear to hear".

The ability to"hear" when chord changes occur gives you the ability to actually play. If you have to count the number of beats a certain chord is played or read it on a piece or paper, you will never have the Godlike experience of being a spontaneous player. To have "ears to hear" means first of all you listen. You listen to something besides yourself. If you are the only one playing then this means also listening to your own heart. If you are playing with other players then this means listening not only to what they are playing but listening to their hearts as well.

If while you are playing your mind is counting, or trying to hear when to change chords, then you miss the powerful opportunity to be thinking about what you are playing. The properly trained ear will be able to intuitively know when the chords are going to change and will automatically make the right changes at the right time. When two or more people do this together, it is called music. The biggest failing of any band is when each of the individuals listen egotistically to themselves and fail to perceive what the others around them are saying in their playing. Have "Ears To Hear." The first step in having "Ears To Hear" and becoming a spontaneous player is manually tuning. Once again the process is to tune manually first and then check yourself with the electronic tuner.

At some point in your illustrious musical life it would be an amazing adventure to play a solo, a hot lick, a fill, a zoomer, a boomer, that wonderful piece of your exposed soul shooting like a lightning bolt, from your brain down your arm into your fingertips onto the hot steel of your guitar strings and pulsating into the atmosphere and assailing the ears of those around you as they move and grove. They love you and they borderline worship your ability to communicate the inner man in such a profound manner. This can only be accomplished if you have, "Ears To Hear".

The other reasons to be able to manually tune your guitar are as follows. Your batteries are dead in your tuner, or you need to touch up your tuning in the middle of a song.

If you think, "I tuned with my tuner and now I am in tune," sad to say you do not have "Ears To Hear". First of all, you only tuned the open strings. Try playing another note on one of those strings up the neck and see how in tune it really is. There are several variables that must be taken into account if you want to really sound in tune and have "Ears To Hear". Every guitar has some inconsistencies in the frets and the neck. Secondly the age of the strings will always play havoc with tuning your guitar.

New strings stretch and go flat and must be touched up as they stretch into pitch. You can hurry this process somewhat by pulling on the strings when you install them, but be careful not to break the strings in this process as you will have to start all over. This will also test how you attached the strings at the head of the guitar where the tuning gears are located. The attachment will vary depending on the construction of the guitar, but if you can get the string to overlap itself, this will help the string lock upon itself. Locking tuners are wonderful, but only come on a few select guitars or are custom added. If you would like specific instruction on locking your strings down, e-mail me the specifics of your guitars' tuning gears and I will get you the appropriate information.

Never, I say, never tune the guitar sharp or higher than standard pitch in a futile attempt to compensate for the stretching of the strings. Guitar strings have a memory and once you tune them sharp they will always want to return "HOME" and you will fight with your tuning even after the strings stop stretching and are relatively stable. When you tune, go below the pitch and slowly come up to pitch. This will keep your strings from thinking they should be sharp and will keep them alive a little longer at pitch or in tune. After a few hours of playing, you will find that your strings will go dead and become dull sounding. This process is gradual and to the untrained ear may not be noticable, but believe me, it is true and is painfully evident to the other musicians you are playing with and even your audience will know. They may not technically know why but they have "Ears To Hear", from years of listening to the best, and can feel and hear when things are out of tune.

When your strings get old they also become increasingly difficult to keep in tune. The higher up the neck you go, the worse the problem becomes so some adjustment for age has to be made in your tuning. The younger the string the more it stretches. When the stretching stops the string is mature and then the aging process begins. There are a few golden moments when the strings no longer stretch and have yet to age into dullness. Enjoy those and compensate for the rest. Bass player Joe Osborn once told me that he boiled his bass strings to keep them alive. His strings were already fifteen or twenty years old at the time! I once saw him change and put new strings on his Fender bass, but the sound was so altered from his well known and unique sound that he trashed the new strings and put the old ones back on. Once when his house burned down, the only thing he saved was his family and his bass, in that order. I would imagine that he still has the same strings on that most recorded of all basses.

Other variables are the song, the key, and the other instruments and players you are with. To solve this, I always tune for the song and to the pitch of the keyboard as it usually is unchangeable and will vary in pitch from key to key. Keyboardist Larry Knechtel (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Elvis Costello, Simon and Garfunkel, The Mammas & Pappas, Bread and many others) always carries a tuning wrench with him to touch up whatever acoustical piano he is playing, but he also has perfect pitch and is the exception. Once tuning has become part of the trained intuitive part of your brain, it will become as automatic as driving your car. How you initially train your "Ears To Hear" will not change throughout your musical life any more that your driving habits. So train yourself appropriately and you will have"Ears To Hear".

                                                     THE MECHANICS....

The oldest and most common method of tuning is the "5th Fret" method. By placing your finger (first finger, left hand for right handed guitarists) behind the fifth fret (the frets are those little metal wire things embedded in the fingerboard of the guitar). So, squeezing with enough pressure to produce a clear tone, place your finger behind the fifth fret on the sixth string "E" on the neck, that is the part of the guitar that is closest to your chin as you look down at it. The sound produced by this action should be matched by the sound produced by plucking the open fifth string or "A".

Then place your finger behind the fifth fret on the fifth or "A" string. The sound produced should be matched by plucking the open fourth string. Then place your finger behind the fifth fret on the fourth string or "D". The sound of this note will be matched by the open "G" string. Now here is the your finger on the third or "G" string only now put your finger behind the fourth fret. This sound will be matched by the open "B" string. Now we go back to the earlier pattern and place your finger on the second or "B" string behind the fifth fret. This note when sounded will match the open first or "E" string. Always tune the ascending or higher string to the lower string because you want to tune the un-tuned string to the one you have already tuned. This may sound more complicated than it actually is. If you would like visual conformation on this procedure be sure to sign up for "The Finger Tips" interactive live-on the-net, guitar workshop. Also, if this is new to you, find a more accomplished guitar player and they can demonstrate this process for you. An older player would be best because they won't be so locked into their electronic tuner and will remember this antiquated method. Another method of checking your tuning manually is....

                                                 THE HARMONIC METHOD

The harmonic produced by brushing lightly on the sixth or low "E" string just behind the fifth fret (be sure to pluck the string with your right hand at the very same time you brush the string ever so lightly with the left hand). This should produce a tone that matches the harmonic produced by brushing the fifth string behind the seventh fret. By sounding both harmonics at the same time, this should produce a single unvarying tone. If you hear a beating or warbling, keep tuning the guitar until the beat slows and finally stops and the two notes become one. Then brush the fifth string lightly behind the fifth fret. As you pluck the string and brush the fourth string behind the seventh fret again, the tones should be adjusted until oneness occurs. Do the same process with the fourth and third strings until they are one. Now the variable occurs play the harmonic on the third string behind the fifth fret but the "B" or second string will not produce a "G" Harmonic behind the fifth or seventh fret so you must match the third string harmonic by pressing down on the second string behind the eighth fret. Now you can go back to the pattern, play the harmonic by brushing the second or "B" string behind the fifth fret and it will be matched by playing the harmonic on the first or high "E" string behind the seventh fret.

This process can be repeated or interchanged with a combination of harmonics and hard notes by playing the harmonic of the lower note behind the fifth fret and matching to the fretted note of the next higher string behind the seventh fret. Don't forget that the variable will occur going from the fourth to the third string. To tune to the key a song will be played in, tune a chord of that key, for example, in the key of C, play a C chord and make sure the notes in the chord are in tune, first with your tuner or your ear and then adjust to the fixed tuning instrument such as the piano.

"Never, I say, never tune at the same time someone else is tuning. You will compensate for each other and neither of you will ever get in tune."
(Tommy Tedesco, June 12th, 1968, Capitol Records Studios, Hollywood, California).

© 2002-2021 Mike Deasy