Tuning the Guitar correctly
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Tuning the Guitar correctly

Murray MacLeod 13 Aug 01 - 07:06 AM
GUEST 13 Aug 01 - 09:32 AM
GUEST,Roger the skiffler 13 Aug 01 - 09:35 AM
mooman 13 Aug 01 - 09:39 AM
Rick Fielding 13 Aug 01 - 12:00 PM
JohnInKansas 13 Aug 01 - 09:03 PM
Mark Cohen 13 Aug 01 - 09:56 PM
Jeep man 13 Aug 01 - 10:13 PM
catspaw49 13 Aug 01 - 10:16 PM
Murray MacLeod 14 Aug 01 - 06:39 AM
Murray MacLeod 14 Aug 01 - 06:52 AM
mooman 14 Aug 01 - 07:21 AM
Murray MacLeod 14 Aug 01 - 07:55 AM
GUEST 14 Aug 01 - 11:29 AM
Bert 14 Aug 01 - 01:09 PM
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Subject: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Murray MacLeod
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 07:06 AM

The following reprint from a Guild of American Luthiers data sheet details what I would consider to be the definitive method of tuning the guitar. I would add only the following provisos:
1 ) Your frets must be spaced correctly (not all guitars are blameless in this respect)
2 ) Your action must not be excessively high
3 ) Saddle (and nut ) compensation must be done correctly
4 ) You must want to tune to standard tuning (obviously !)and play in several different keys

Given these conditions tere is no better method of tuning the guitar. If your instrument is faulty in some respect, then you may find that some other method produces better results. Here is the reprint:

The following is a reprint of THE GUILD OF AMERICAN LUTHIERS data sheet #45.

Many guitarists are frustrated because of their attempts to tune the guitar to pure chords (free of beats). These particular players have very sensitive ears that prefer pure intervals and reject the mandatory equal temperament. They tune their guitar beautifully pure on one chord only to discover that the next chord form is unacceptable. In too many instances they assume that there must be a flaw in the workmanship on the fingerboard. Their problem is not in the construction of the guitar. It is one of pure tuning verses equal temperament.

You must accept this compromise because the guitar is an instrument of fixed pitch and the strings must be tuned to tempered intervals, not pure. Equal temperament is the name given to a system of dividing the chromatic scale into 12 equal half steps. Guitarists who have been trying to tune to one or another pure chord form must learn to understand and accept equal temperament. (They might be interested to know that to approximate pure chords on all forms would require about three dozen frets within the octave.) The system of equal temperament reduces the number to twelve, thereby making manageable all instruments of fixed pitch.

Here is what all of this means to the guitarist: You must not, at any time, use harmonic tones at the 7th fret as a point of reference (skilled piano tuners could use them because they know how many beats to introduce between 4th and 5th). Harmonic tones at the 7th fret are pure 5ths, while in equal temperament each 5th must be lowered slightly. To tune by harmonics at the 7th fret (as occasionally ill-advised) will make the guitar sound entirely unacceptable on some chord forms.

On the other hand, all harmonics at the 12th and 5th frets, being one and two octaves above the open strings, are immediately useful as explained below. All octaves and unisons are pure on all instruments of fixed pitch. Therefore, you may use harmonics at 12th and 5th as reference tones in the following tuning instructions.

Actually this discussion and the following suggestions are for those players who have been tuning to pure intervals. When the steps have been followed correctly the guitar will be as perfectly tuned as it could be in the hands of a professional. Nevertheless, when you have finished, your sensitive ear may notice that on each major chord form there is always one tone slightly high. If you start adjusting a particular string on a certain chord form, you only compound the problem because then the next chord form will be completely objectionable. Tune the guitar as instructed below and let it stand. How to help your ear accept equal temperament: It is easier to face a problem if we are prepared in advance and expect it. If you are one of those persons who is sensitive to pure intervals, here is what you are going to notice on an absolutely perfectly tuned guitar in equal temperament: Play an open E major chord. Listen to G# on the third string and you most likely will want to lower it very slightly. Don't do it. Ignore it. Enjoy the overall beauty and resonance of chord just as does the pianist.

That troublesome second string: Play an open position A major chord. Listen to the C# on the second string and you may want to lower it slightly. Play a first position C chord and listen to the E on the first string and fourth string at 2. These tones are slightly higher than your ear would like.

Now play an open position G chord. Listen to B on the second string. Yes, it would sound a little better if lowered ever so slightly. Why not try it? Slack off the second string a couple of vibrations and notice what beautiful G chord results. Now play the C chord and with that lowered second string, and you are going to dislike the rough C and E a lot more than before. Take the open B, second string back up to equal temperament so that it will be equally acceptable on all forms. Learn to expect and accept the slight sharpness of the major third in each chord (and oppositely, the flatness of the minor third in each minor chord). Train your ear to accept tempered intervals and you will be much happier with your guitar.


Tuning the 1st and 6th strings: The E, open 1st string, must be in pure unison with the harmonic of the E, 6th string at the fifth fret. When these two strings have been properly tuned with each other, continue as follows. Tuning the 4th string: Play a harmonic on the (in tune) 6th string at twelve, and as this harmonic sounds, adjust the 4th string until the tone E on the second fret is in pure unison. Now you have the E, open 1st string, 1st on the 4th string at two, and E, open 6th string tuned pure (permissible because they are octaves).

Tuning the 2nd string: Play a harmonic on the (in tune) 4th string at twelve. As this sounds, adjust the 2nd string until D at the third fret is in pure unison. As you have used two fretted tones for references and as the frets are positioned for tempered intervals, you now have the open 1st, 2nd 4th and 6th strings in tempered tuning.

Tuning the 3rd string: As it is easier to adjust a string while listening to a continuous reference tone, you may first try the following: Play a harmonic on the (in tune) 4th string at twelve and as this sounds, adjust the 3rd string until D at the 7th fret is in pure unison.

Double check: Now make this check to see if you have been accurate or if the instrument plays tune when fretted at seven. Play a harmonic on the (now tuned) G string at twelve, and as this tone sounds, play G on the 1st string at three. The two tones should be in pure unison. If they are not, either you are at fault or the instrument doesn't fret tune at seven. Go back to the beginning and carefully check each step up to this point. If the tones are still faulty, then readjust the 3rd string until the harmonic at twelve is in unison with the 1st at three. Do not tamper with the 1st and 4th strings because it is the 3rd string you are trying to bring in tune. When you have the 1st, 6th, 4th, 2nd and 3rd strings in tune, in that order, continue with the remaining 5th string.

Tuning the 5th string: Play the tone A on the (in tune) 3rd string, at the second fret. Listen to this pitch carefully and now adjust the 5th string until the harmonic at twelve is in pure unison. When the foregoing steps are followed correctly, the strings will be tuned perfectly to equal temperament. No further tuning adjustments are permissible.

THE GUILD OF AMERICAN LUTHIERS is a non-profit organization formed, in 1972, to promote the art of the string instrument maker. This is done through it's quarterly journal - AMERICAN LUTHIERS, convention/exhibitions, and the DATA SHEETS, one of which you have just read. The G.A.L. is an information sharing system. Membership is not restricted to practicing instrument makers.

For more information on GUILD publications, membership, and activities, write:

GUILD OF AMERICAN LUTHIERS 8222 South Park Avenue Tacoma, WA 98408 (206)472-7853


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 09:32 AM

Thanks Murray ... interesting stuff and the procedure seems logical and straightforward, and reinforces previous knowledge gained from other readings regarding the pitfalls of using the interval of the perfect fifth for tuning.

The explanations regarding the "out of tune" sound of a major third on a fretted instrument helped understanding my own frustration regarding the tuning of this "troublesome" interval. Giving in to the temptation to fiddle with the tuning of a particular string to make the interval sound correct struck a familiar "been there done that" note. (pun intended)

However, with light guage strings on electric guitars (and theoretically with all strings of all guages) the act of noting a string against the fret is going to alter the tune (more noticeably with light guage strings because they're not as "stiff" as medium or heavy guage strings). Depending on how hard I fret the string with my finger, I can sometimes sharpen the pitch to (what seems to my unqualified ear) almost a whole quarter tone above where it should be.

Printing this procedure out now....

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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: GUEST,Roger the skiffler
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 09:35 AM

Thank the powers that be I don't have to tune my kazoo! How you guys understand all this beats me!
RtS( which explains my singing voice, of course!)

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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: mooman
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 09:39 AM

Thanks for this useful information Murray. This seems straightforward and logical and I will will test it against my usual method of tweaking to get an "acceptable compromise" between a range of different chords.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Rick Fielding
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 12:00 PM

Fine thread Murray. Nothing to add at the moment other than 'Don't mess everything up by capoing in between the frets (or with too much tension). If your capo is placed correctly (almost on top of the fret, your frets are accurate, and the tension is just enough to hold the strings down) you'll STAY in tune.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: JohnInKansas
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 09:03 PM

From: GUEST 13-Aug-01 - 09:32 AM I assume you are not talking just about deliberate "bending" of notes.

The change in string tension caused by pushing the string against the fret is one of the things that "bridge compensation" is supposed to take care of.

This is one reason why it is usually best not to make arbitrary changes in string gauge. Each individual guitar is designed to use a particular "best" string set. If you really MUST change to a lighter or heavier gauge, you may wish to consult a competent luthier about whether a change in bridge (and sometimes nut) compensation is needed.

Of course, what really matters is whether your guitar sounds right to you.

The article correctly describes the hopeless case of trying to tune an equal tempered instrument to a harmonic scale.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Mark Cohen
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 09:56 PM

Tuning....I think I once had a guitar teacher who mentioned something about that, but I didn't think much of him.

Actually, I use a similar method that I learned from John Knowles, a wonderful Nashville studio musician, writer, and teacher, at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. John had us tune our 5th string to an A-440 tuning fork (remember tuning forks?) or cyberequivalent, and then tune each string to the 5th string as follows:

6th: 12th fret harmonic "E" to 7th fret on 5th string
4th: 7th fret note "A" to 12th fret harmonic on 5th string
3rd: 2nd fret note "A" to 12th fret harmonic on 5th string
2nd: open "B" to 2nd fret note on 5th string
1st: open "E" to 7th fret on 5th string (this one is an octave apart, while the others are unison, but it's usually pretty easy to hear)

John's reason for using this method is that each string is tuned to the same standard, avoiding some of the errors that creep in when one is tuned to the next and so on. Similar to the method already described.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Jeep man
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 10:13 PM

Mr MacLeod. I thank you for the tuning instruction. I just tuned my D18 using your method, and it is now sweeter than ever. Never been tuned so well even with an electronic tuner. Jeep

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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: catspaw49
Date: 13 Aug 01 - 10:16 PM

Thanks Murray. Now send it on to Tony as I know he has a lot of problems in this area.

Now I need to add this one to the other tuning threads. Good method in a quiet place....Could be a bit tough to hear at times, which is equally true of any harmonic method though.....and they are in general, superior.

Thanks for the thread.......Now let Tony know.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Murray MacLeod
Date: 14 Aug 01 - 06:39 AM

Excuse me Spaw, but Tony is probably the fastest natural tuner i have ever seen in my life. I have seen him go from DADGAD to open C in like ten seconds flat, every note spot on.

It is of course much easier to tune to an open tuning than to standard, and Tony never plays in standard tuning. Maybe you're right, perhaps he can't tune it right!


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Murray MacLeod
Date: 14 Aug 01 - 06:52 AM

Thanks, Jeepman, glad to be of help.

One of my pet gripes, regarding tuning, is the straight slanted saddle that all major manufacturers (other than Lowden) fit to their instruments.

This attempt at compensation just cannot work properly as long as the player is using a wound third, and although I know Martin owners would faint at the idea, the only way round this would be to rout out a wider slot for a thicker (1/4" saddle) and then carve each string breakover point individually.

Somehow I don't envisage too many pre-war D-45 owners submitting their instruments for this surgery, however.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: mooman
Date: 14 Aug 01 - 07:21 AM

Dear Murray,

I have performed this operation, i.e. cutting a wider saddle slot and then individually carving the saddle compensating each string, many times and it has certainly been the only way to get good intonation on some guitars.

However, compensation problems are related to several issues, e.g. scale length, string height above frets, weight of string, accuracy of fretting and general excellence of build and I have come across many guitars with the traditional slanted saddle that have been perfectly acceptable in intonation.

While generally welcoming repair work I would not counsel interfering with a "traditional" setup that seems to work satisfactorily!

Best regards,


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Murray MacLeod
Date: 14 Aug 01 - 07:55 AM

Mooman, I would agree that "acceptability" is attainable in 99% of cases with a slotted saddle.

However "acceptability" is not the criterion I work to on my own instruments, although I fully accept that for large scale manufacturers and professional repairmen "acceptability" is the only economically viable standard.

On an instrument with medium gauge strings, (perfect fretting, easy action, meticulously constructed) , and a slanted saddle, there is no way that the second string which measures .016" gauge, and the third wound string with a core of .012" gauge can possibly play truly in tune if the scale length of the third string is longer than the scale length of the second. I mean, it is a physical impossibility, period. Fortunately for manufacturers, most players ate not too bothered by the discrepancies. But some are.

It is all about economics really. The nice people at Martin are well aware that they SHOULD really construct their saddles differently, but why the hell would they, since they will sell the instruments anyway? Any more than they should complete a decent set-up job before the guitar goes out to the distributor.


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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
Date: 14 Aug 01 - 11:29 AM

J in K assume correctly.

Thank you for information regarding "bridge compensation." As Johnny Carson would've said, "I didn't know that."

As the ignorant deed has already been done, and the original set of strings has been discarded many many moons ago, there's nothing to do now but relegate my observation of 13-Aug-01 9:32AM to the category of "Things That Make You Go 'Hmmmm.'" Guess I could write Gibson, but it doesn't bother me: luckily my discriminant tastes are nowhere near professional grade.

Evidently the guy who did the set-up to accomodate the lighter guage strings on the guitar for me didn't know that either, because he made no mention of it. Or perhaps he didn't care, who knows? All water under the bridge now.

Thanks again.

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Subject: RE: Tuning the Guitar correctly
From: Bert
Date: 14 Aug 01 - 01:09 PM

Regarding routing out the saddle slot, wouldn't it be possible to take a wider saddle and carve the bottom of it to fit the existing slot?

And why don't those who find the equally tempered scale intolerable, just go out and buy a fretless guitar?

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