Using A Pocket Tuner
If you have an acoustic guitar than you probably have a tuner that uses an external microphone to pick up the string’s pitch. If you are using this type of tuner then make sure you are in a quiet place and that your tuner is close enough to the guitar sound hole to get a solid reading–if the tuner is tripping out then it may be too far away. There are a couple other types of acoustic tuners: some clamp to the headstock or pickguard and read the string by vibration. I like those tuners for their accuracy and versatility (way easier to tune in a loud room before a gig) but they are more expensive (around $40 vs $20 for the external mic’d ones.) Some tuners tune by using a flashing light (strobe tuners.) The professional level ones are great, but I personally find the pocket or “pick strobe tuners” difficult for a beginner to use—get one of the other above types if you can.
A few tips on tuning to remember:
#1. Remember your musical alphabet—both the natural and sharped notes. This can be found in the Basic Musicianship section of the site in more detail, but here it is again:
A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
#2: A tuner will pick up the closet pitch in any register, not necessarily the register your string is in. This means that if you are tuning your low E string and the tuner says “D4” instead of “E6” then your E string is probably a whole step below pitch, and your tuner is picking up the D note in the register below your E string. This is a very common scenario because the open strings of a guitar are E A D G B and E, and a tuner will always find the closet possible pitch to a strings vibration, in any octave.
The inverse of this is also common. Let’s say you are tuning your G string and instead of the tuner displaying “G3” it shows “A5.” In this case your G string is most likely a whole step too high. Why too high? Well, it’s more likely that your string got bumped upwards a little bit over the odds of it it being yanked all the way down to the G below. Starting to make sense yet? When in doubt of which way bring a strings pitch test the tension by tugging it a little and compare it to the other strings; you don’t want to end up going up too high and breaking the string. It’s pretty easy once you get used to it.
#3: Always tune upwards into pitch, not downwards. When a string is tuned downwards to pitch slack builds up between the tuner and the nut. This slack causes the string to slip down and out of tune when the guitar is played. A string that is tuned upwards will be held into pitch by its playing tension.
#4: Keep the signal pure for your tuner to hear. If you are using an acoustic tuner with an external mic than make sure it is close to the sound hole of your guitar and that background noise is at a minimum. If you have an electric guitar tuner (with a 1/4” jack) then make sure your volume is turned all the way up for a loud, clear signal.
#5: Isolate the string you are tuning. Get in the habit of covering every string with your right hand except the one you are tuning. This isn’t an easy habit to learn, but work towards it. Why? When you play any string on a guitar the whole guitar vibrates, thus ringing every string a little bit. A tuner picks up all sorts of overtones created by these unnecessary strings and it can get a false reading (one of the reasons the needle jumps from time to time.) Keep the signal as pure as possible!
#6: Is your tuner freaking out? If you’ve followed the steps above and it is still giving you trouble then you might be on a pitch that is exactly between neighboring notes. This is common with chromatic tuners or tuners with such a setting enabled. Read your display carefully; you may be directly between a C# and a D (if your display reads in sharps) or a Db and a C (if it displays in flats.) Be patient and you will do just fine.
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