Tuning the Guitar: In Praise of the Human Ear

When I started playing guitar (and later, when I started teaching guitar), there were no electronic tuners. If you wanted to be a guitar player, you had to learn to tune your guitar by using your ear.

That was many years ago and I have noticed that the technological changes that have come about over those years have initiated changes not only in our lifestyle and habits, but also in our perception and even in our physiology. The average student who comes to me for lessons today is completely dependent on the use of a tuner, regardless of how many months or years they may have played guitar. Although this dependency may initially seem innocuous, there are distinct disadvantages to completely abandoning the old-fashioned method of relative tuning in favor of the easy and efficient methods that are now available to us.

It’s true that by using a tuner, a guitar player will increase the chance of achieving accurate tuning and will be able to get to the business of playing more quickly than if he or she tuned by ear. Unfortunately, an alarming number of people end up with grossly out of tune guitars after using a tuner and they not only don’t realize it, they insist that their tuner “said it was right.” This can occur for a number of reasons, but the most common one is pilot error: the player neglects to look carefully enough at the tuner to ascertain that they are tuning to the correct note. When this happens they will typically tighten or loosen the string until they reach the closest note that the tuner reads and stop there, even if it is the wrong note!

Another less obvious but profound disadvantage of neglecting to habitually employ the relative tuning method is that the student misses an opportunity to passively and painlessly be introduced to the relationship of the notes across the strings when the guitar is in standard tuning. The mere act of observing the finger placement and hearing the pitches produced provides subtle insight into note recognition and interval shapes.

Perhaps the most disturbing drawback of using a tuner exclusively is that the ear is neglected. The daily ritual of tuning by ear is a simple way to exercise and hone pitch sense. Playing music, first and foremost, is about listening, so doesn’t it make sense to begin each practice session by listening?

If you haven’t yet learned how to tune using the relative tuning method, you can do so by following these instructions. Use this method daily to check the tuning of your guitar and while you’re doing it, think about the names of the notes you are playing. In time, you will notice an increase in both fretboard comprehension and acuteness of pitch sense.


  1. says

    Great stuff as always Charlotte! I took your advice with my student who happened to come in when I was reading your post. It had been a while since we talked about this skill but she remembered well, was able to find the notes on each string and able to hear the 'beats' as we worked low to high on each set of strings. Cheers to you – keep up the good work.

  2. says

    Thanks so much for this comment and for letting me step into your studio today in this small way. I always look forward to your posts on the dlp site. Your students are very fortunate to have you!

  3. says

    Your post took me back a few years to a time when my first instructor had a strobe tuner, it was colossal and definitely not the clip-on type that is available now.

    Sometimes the students may not know what to listen for regarding being in tune. I never had an instructor come out and discuss ‘beats’ directly, but an instructor should point out how to listen for the ‘beats’ and an explanation of it is helpful. And if the guitar’s intonation is off, I would recommend that they have it setup.

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