The most important step you take with your instrument happens before you even start playing.


Full disclosure: I use & recommend the Polytune Clip for all acoustic fretted string instruments, and if you buy it on Amazon with this link, I’ll make a few pennies.


Achieving A State Of Harmony.

Yin Yang

Getting you guitar, banjo or ukulele properly in tune, involves getting each open string to resonate at a very specific frequency. This puts the sum of all the strings into a state of harmony, and eliminates tuning as a variable source of frustration. At least we know it’s not the tuning.

Tuning Is An Act Of Maintenance.

Maintenance

The first tip I always give new students is that you’re going to tune up a lot. Like a lot. Like every time you play – a lot. Probably more than once every time you practice or preform. So get in the habit of really listening to the over all sound of chords across the fretboard with a critical ear.

Tune up. Literally.

Rocket Equation

Tuning involves stretching your strings. The mass stays the same, but as you increase or decrease the tension, the pitch at which it vibrates goes up or down. This involves the string sliding over the nut & saddle. Unwound strings glide quite easily, but would strings can sometime get stuck on a microscopic level. If you start sharp, and tune down, and the string gets stuck, it can jump into place once you start playing, throwing it out of tune. A more consistent approach is to start flat, and gradually tune up to pitch. This allows the string properly settle into place, and stay put when you start strumming away.

In the old days, I walked to school up hill both ways in 10 feet of snow.

Saloon Piano

Just kidding. But I did learn to tune with a tuning fork ringing at A=440 hz. I also learned how to tune my Telecaster to the beer-soaked upright piano in the back of the saloon. Learning to tune by ear is less common these days because of technology – but not less important.

Relative tuning is the art of getting your instrument in tune with itself or another instrument from a starting pitch. For example, if the piano is out of tune, chances are you’re not going to tune the piano, but rather tune to it. The pianist can play the note of each open string and you can tune to them. Or if you’re with your trusty Polytune Clip in the middle of the woods, there’s no need to anchor your tuning to 440. Playing or practicing by yourself only require that you be in tune with yourself, and relative tuning allows you to achieve a higher state of harmony.

Harmonics

Harmonics

Listen to Jaco Pastorious’s ode “Portrait Of Tracy” and you’ll hear an electric bass making sounds never thought possible until Jaco devised a way to play melodies using the the resonant overtones of the super low bass strings. It turns out that these “harmonics” as their called provide a super accurate way to tune your instrument relative to itself. Guitarist Martin Taylor provides a great example of tuning with natural harmonics.


I hope these basic tips help you get tuned up & ready to play faster and more accurately. I always love sharing tips that Ive learned, and gear that’s helped me be more efficient and creative. If you have any questions or requests for topics to cover, leave them in the comments below.

Chris Conly

About the author: Chris Conly is a musician & educator. He is a Maine native living in the borough of Brooklyn. Forever fascinated by nature, design, music & learning, Chris shares his passions with the world via his website, and with private students.