How Did They Tune Their Guitars in Old Times?
When Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a German lutenist and composer of the Baroque period, was once asked how long he had been playing the lute, he answered that it was about 10 years. Everyone who knew this 65-year-old man thought he had lost his mind as he was famed for having started to play the lute at the age of 10 already! The old man said with a smile: „I have played for 10 years, the rest of the time I have spent tuning the damn thing.“
To explain a bit: the baroque lute has up to 13 double strings made of animal gut and used friction pegs. Add to this the fact that the great stone castles where Weiss as the Dresden court lutenist performed were probably often damp and cold, and we realise that the tuning of that instrument couldn’t have been much fun.
Tuning a modern guitar is very easy in comparison – we now have nylon or metal strings with a laser-checked diameter and perfectly even tension, and oiled tuning machines. Only the human ear has remained the same, but it can be replaced by an electric tuner. You can even find self-tuning guitars. However, learning to tune your guitar by ear is not only a way of killing time. In addition to the fact that it’s the preferred way of tuning for many professionals, it will train your ear like nothing else. So let’s try.
Here’s One Way of Doing it
Start by tuning the thinnest (1st) string. The first string must be E (330 Hz). You will get the right pitch from here:
Play the open first string of your instrument. Listen if it sounds the same as the reference tone. In the beginning it is hard to tell the difference as instruments have different sounds and also the volume and the timbre change. When you are tuning your guitar the only thing that interests you is pitch.
If you manage to tune the 1st string, continue like this:
- Press down the V fret of the 2nd string. Now pick the 1st string and then the 2nd string (that has been pressed down at the 5th fret). If both strings are in tune, they should now produce an identical sound. If they do not sound the same then try to listen carefully if the 2nd string is higher than the 1st or rather lower and adjust accordingly.
- Now press down the 4th fret of the 3rd string and pick the open 2nd string and then the 3rd string (that has been pressed down at the 4th fret). Those strings should sound the same. If not, it is necessary to turn the knob of the 3rd string. Do not touch the knobs of the 2nd and 1st strings if you have already decided that they are in tune.
- Press down the 5th fret of the 4th string. It should now make the same sound as the open 3rd string.
- Press down the 5th fret of the 5th string. It should now make the same sound as the open 4th string.
- Press down the 5th fret of the 6th string and compare its sound to the open 5th string. The sound should be identical.
Did you notice that 3rd string was pressed down on 4th fret but all other strings on 5th? That’s an easy thing to memorize.
Now that you have done your best to tune the guitar by ear it’s time to check the result.
As both the 1st and the 6th string are the note E, they should sound very similar. It’s true that the 6th string sounds 2 octaves lower than the 1st string, but an E remains an E. Pluck the 1st and the 6th string alternately or together and listen. If it sounds very bad then you have been too imprecise in your tuning.
You can also verify with the electronic tuner on this website.
More tuning Tips
It’ll take a long time for you to learn to tune because it requires practice. Even using an electronic tuner requires skill. In general it would be good for you to occasionally try tuning by ear. Don’t play an instrument that is out of tune! If you are playing alone it doesn’t matter whether you manage to tune the 1st string precisely into a E note in the beginning – the main thing is to make sure that the strings are in tune with each other.
- Do not press the strings too hard and
- Place the fingertip close to the fret strip. The pressure and placement of a finger have a pretty big effect to the pitch of a string.
- If you cannot decide if a string sounds higher or lower then you can just start turning the knob of the 2nd string in either direction and listen if the sound is getting better or worse. If it is getting worse you are probably turning in the wrong direction 🙂
- If you have done everything correctly but the result still sucks then there are chances that your guitar setup needs care (strings too high, strings too old, octave point needs adjustment, bridge misplaced etc.)
- If you use a tuner that allows you to adjust the pitch of A it should be 440 Hz. At least until you know what is it for.
- You can get the right note to help you tune the 1st string also by using a tuning fork or a special pitch pipe. By the way, the sound your mobile phone makes when you are calling someone and waiting for them to answer the phone is close to A – it may vary in different countries, though.￼