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Tuning Your Guitar With Octaves

By Mark Hanson

It used to be that tuning a guitar was a challenging proposition for many players. Poor instruments, less-than-stellar-quality tuning gears, and mediocre strings caused all kinds of frustrations. But for most people, the biggest problem was their untrained ears.

With the advancement of guitar construction technology and the advent of electronic tuners, the problem of tuning a guitar has been alleviated to a large degree. But have technical innovations improved the human ear? Let's discuss it a bit.

Electronic Tuners: Pluses and Minuses

There are advantages and disadvantages to tuning with an electronic tuner. Certainly they are great for people who are just developing their sense of pitch. And they can be a necessity for performers in noisy venues. They are also very useful during the restringing process, and when changing from one tuning to another. But I have yet to meet a $50.00-variety tuner (the kind most guitarists own) that is as good as my ear.

The human ear is a highly trainable organ. Unfortunately, it can be trained to hear out-of-tuneness as "correct." By using a tuner, developing players can get accustomed to the "correct" sound of a guitar--one that is in tune. As a developing musician, you must ensure that you are indoctrinating your ear properly. Using a good-quality instrument and a tuner will take you a long way down that road.

But, is the use of a tuner really training your ear? In order for it to help you develop your sense of pitch, you must pay close attention to the aural aspect of what you are doing. In other words, you must listen closely to what the guitar sounds like when the machine says you are in tune.

In one of my interviews with fingerstyle kingpin Leo Kottke, I asked him if he used a tuner. His response: "I hate tuners. They erase my ear." It is very easy to become dependent on the visual aspect of tuners, and not pay much attention to the actual sound.

Sound Waves and Octaves

I have spent many years paying attention to intonation, making sure that my guitar is right in tune. I have also watched and talked with piano tuners, discerning how they tune a piano. I apply an important technique of theirs to fine tune my guitar: matching octaves.

Due to the acceptance centuries ago of "even temperament" as standard (as opposed to other frequency-varied tunings, such as "mean-tone" tuning), the 12 notes of the octave on the piano are tuned equally out of tune. The only "perfect" interval on the piano is the octave. When octave notes are exactly in tune, the frequencies of the notes are exact multiples of each other, and their sound waves fit together perfectly.

An example is A-440. This is the A above middle C in pitch. It is equivalent to the fifth-fret note on the high-E string on a guitar in standard tuning. All the other A notes on the guitar must be exact multiples of this pitch. The A at the second fret of the third string must be 220 cycles per second. The open fifth-string A is 110 cycles per second.

If you get all of these pitches exactly in tune, their sound waves "fit" into each other, creating a smooth, rich sound. If one of the notes is not quite in tune with the others, the sound waves are slightly different sizes ("out of phase"), and cancel each other out a certain number of times per second.

Guitarists hear these wave cancellations as "wobbles" when tuning two strings to each other. The faster the wobbling sound, the more cancellations there are per second, and the farther away the pitches are from each other. As you bring the two strings closer together in pitch, the size of the sound waves will be closer to each other. This creates fewer "wobbles" per second.

Eventually, when the two strings produce the exact same pitch (the sound waves are the same size), the overall effect will be one of smoothness. It will sound like one string, only louder.

You should listen intently for this when tuning with the standard fifth-fret technique (fifth-fret note equals the next open string). The "wobbles" are also very audible when using harmonics. (The fifth-fret harmonic equals the seventh-fret harmonic on the adjacent, higher-pitched string.) But I prefer tuning with octaves, because they are the intervals that must be perfectly in tune for guitar chords to sound right.

Tuning Using Octaves

Here is my method of tuning a guitar in standard tuning using the "perfect" interval of an octave. First, I simply play a first position E major chord to see if it sounds right. Then I'll play a C chord, a D, an A and a G. After years of listening to these chords, I can tell immediately if they are in tune or not.

If I decide I need to tune, I first match my open high-E string to my E tuning fork. I use an E fork because it matches the open first string exactly. (If you have an A-440 fork, it matches the fifth-fret note of the first string. Or, you may match the open first string to your electronic tuner.)

After I tune the high-E string, I match the second fret of the fourth string at the octave to my open first string--the piano tuner's octave technique. These notes are both E. I can get rid of the "wobbles" by making the pitches exact multiples of each other.

(Once you think the octaves are in tune, check it by playing the lower pitch first, followed by the upper pitch. It should sound like the first two notes of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from the Wizard of Oz.)

When these two notes are in tune, I play the open fourth string (a D) and match the third fret of the second string (also a D) to it at the octave. I make sure that I tune the second string at this point, since the fourth string is already in tune with the first.

After the second string is in tune, I match the open second string (a B note) with the second-fret note on the fifth string (a low B note). Then I play the open A string (the fifth string) and match the second fret of the third string (also an A note) to it.

Finally, I play the open third string (a G note) and match the third fret of the sixth string (also a G) to it.

If you have followed my pattern in tuning with octaves, you have already tuned all six strings. Here is the order in which to tune your strings using the octave technique:

bullet Tuner or Fork matches 1st string open
bullet 1st string open matches 4th string, 2nd fret
bullet 4th string open matches 2nd string, 3rd fret
bullet 2nd string open matches 5th string, 2nd fret
bullet 5th string open matches 3rd string, 2nd fret
bullet 3rd string open matches 6th string, 3rd fret

When you first work through this, go ahead and check each new note with your electronic tuner to see how close you are getting by ear. If your octaves are nicely in tune, and your guitar is in good repair, your chords should sound great.

Checking Chords

In each of the following first-position chords, check the tuning of the notated strings. They are all octaves:

Chord Note #1 Note #2
E-chord: 1st, 4th and 6th (E) 2nd and 5th (B)
D-chord: 2nd and 4th (D) 3rd and 5th (A)
G-chord: 1st, 3rd and 6th (G) 2nd and 5th (B)
C-chord: 1st, 4th and 6th (E) 2nd and 5th (C)
A-chord: 1st, 4th and 6th (E) 3rd and 5th (A)

An important point: When you use octave tuning, make sure that you always tune the string you are going to, not the one you have just tuned!

Tuning Alternate Tunings with Octaves

The octave tuning concept can easily be applied to alternate tunings as well. Oftentimes in alternate tunings, several strings are octaves of each other. So, for an alternate tuning there actually may be less fretting of the notes than what is required in standard tuning. For open strings that have no open-string octave, you will need to find a fretted note on another string with which to match it.

At this point I'll put a little plug for my book The Complete Book of Alternate Tunings. If you need help with alternate tunings, it provides a wealth of information. You can find the book at our website by following the link shown above or in your local retail store.

Have a great time developing your ear, and have a tuneful time!