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.