Tune it or die! You can find this message two guitar players written on T-shirts, mugs and bumper stickers. As a guitar player bangs and bends their strings, it will eventually go out of tune. Sometimes you go out at home, in practice or on stage. Every guitar player has been there. So turn on that handy electric tuner, clip it to your guitar, tune it and tune often. Your band mates and your audience will love you for it.
But sometimes your tuner does not work, you forgot it back stage or that roadie left it in your car? It can be nightmare while they wait for you to just start playing. The truth is that the guitar should be perfectly tuned every time you play. And it is crucial for you to know how to do it. (Unless you have your own guitar tech to hand you a fresh guitar every time you go out of tune.)
If you have a smartphone, there is an app for that. In fact, there are dozens of apps that you can use. Yes, it is less lame to fumble with your phone on stage, but not in tune is a worse sin. “Now everyone be quiet, I have to tune.” If we had the clip on tuner it would pick up the vibrations and you all could talk, but the phone is going to pick up the sound from the mic.
In case you didn’t bring your phone on stage you are going to have to do this like your grandfather did – by listening.
So grab your ear and get a reference tone. Any other player that can get you a good reference note. We are looking for E. Ask your keyboard buddy to give you an E. But the sax and clarinets are transposing instruments in either Bb or Eb. Make sure they play the E in concert pitch. Then get that string in tune.
If you get just one string in tune you actually have enough information to get the whole instrument in tune. But there is no simple solution to this. You must get to the point where you can hear you’re your instrument is in tune. It is difficult at first, but the more you do this the better you become.
Now that you have a 1st string tuned you can go further. Place your finger on the 5th fret of the second string and play the note. Then play 1st open string. Adjust the second string to be equal to the 1st. Listen carefully and make it as perfect as you can. Both notes should have exactly the same pitch. Do the same thing with 3rd string, 4th fret vs. 2nd open string. Then go with 4th string, 5th fret vs. 3rd open. Next is 5th string, 5th fret compared to 4th open. And the last one – 6th string, 5th fret vs. open 5th. Do it with high attention to detail as all string pitches depend on each other. Every little mistake could cost you going back to where you first did it incorrectly.
Tip: It is good to memorize that all fingered strings have the finger on 5th fret except 3rd string (4th fret).
It is a matter of experience to gain the speed. Do it 10 times, or better 100 times. And you will get to the point where it takes less than a minute to tune all your strings like a pro.
At last glance: you never know what’s going to be the case: tune your instrument by ear or bring two tuners. So better go with both.