Tuning by Ear - Without an Ear

Want to tune by ear but just can't quite hear when the pitch is right? Try feeling the pitch!

Ultimate Guitar
I can't tune by ear very well. I have to use an electric tuner most of the time or I have to get the pianist to tell me whether I'm sharp or flat. But once I've got 1 string in tune there's a cool way to tune without listening to it.

Yeah, really: "without listening to it"...

Starting form basics in Standard (EADGBE) tuning, if you play the 5th fret of a string it should be the exact same pitch as the string below it. The only exception to this is the B string which is tuned to the G string's 4th fret.

Now that's a pretty common way of tuning a guitar - you make sure your E string's in tune and then tune the others to that.

But I can't hear pitches well thus that method doesn't work for me unless the string is massively out. So...

Tune your guitar as accurately as you can with a tuner and play the 5th fret on the D string and an open G string at the same time. You should hear it sounds quite nice. Obviously.

Now play the 4th fret of the D string and the open G string at the same time. Apart from sounding horrible you should be able to hear a slight pulsating sound in the notes. It may be more obvious if you detune 1 of the two strings half a semitone out and try again from the 5th fret.

You'll hear that as the pitches get further from the same the pulsating gets faster and as they get closer to the same pitch that pulses get slower.

Experiment by detuning 1 string and then trying to get the pulsating sound as slow as you can by retuning it. If it starts getting faster again, you've overshot and need to turn the tuning peg the other way. When you're done, check with a tuner!

Now then, I said we'd do it without listening to it.

Once you've got the hang of it put some headphones on and play some music or white noise loud enough that you can't hear yourself playing. Hold the guitar relatively tightly in your left hand (or whichever you hold the neck with) and play the 4th fret on the D string and the open G string as you did before. You should notice the pulsating again despite the fact you can't hear the guitar - this time though you're feeling it through your hand rather than listening to it!

I personally find feeling it easier than listening to it but you may find it's easier the other way. If you can't hear the pulsating then try amplifying the guitar and as I said try slightly detuning the string over and over (not too far though) until you can spot the difference.

Thanks for reading and I hope it comes in handy when your audience is too loud!

43 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    So.....harmonic tuning? I think a small explanation of the science behind it might help people understand the phenomena better.
    Jam Jar00
    I'm not a scientist unfortunately so I can't really explain it. It's a phonomenom called 'beating' apparently (thanks Ehhhh_name) so have a look at that if you want to know more Sorry I can't help much
    It's phasing. Apparently that's the same thing as 'beating'. Or more specifically, the two notes are slightly out of phase with each other, meaning that as they both play, the waveforms move in and out of time in a combination of cancelling each other out a little, then adding to each other. This gets slower as you get closer to the intended pitch, because the wavelengths are similar (as a result of similar frequency) and thus they slip in and out of phase at a slower rate.
    Let me append to and clarify some part of what you explained: All electromagnetic waves (like sound) have a frequency which is unique to that wave. eg, The high pitched E on a standard tuned guitar corresponds to 329.63 Hz. Now supposed two waves reach a point (i.e your ear) at the same time (which they will since all electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed (3x10^8 m/s)), they interfere. And if there is a small difference between the wavelength of the two waves, then you will get a pulsating effect (Which is the beating which the person above me referred to) Now here's the cool part: Suppose there are two waves: One is 420 HZ and the other is 423 Hz, and if the above process takes places, you will hear 3 beats per second! The number of beats you hear per second is the difference between the frequencies of the two waves! Thus, as the difference of frequency between the waves decreases, so does the number of beats per second. When the wavelengths are the same, the frequency difference is 0 and thus no beats are heard. This technique is very useful because if you learn to do it, you are scientifically in tune down the exact frequency :-p Nerdy stuff. Cool thing is, when I learnt the concept in school, I actually applied it to my guitar tuning by myself, which is why it holds a special place in my heart :-p It's damn effective when you're on a distorted channel. Also, you can use natural harmonics to get a clearer effect.
    Just nitpicking but sound isn't an electromagnetic wave, it's caused by vibration of air molecules travelling as longitudinal waves, not by radiation travelling in transverse.
    Sorry, I mixed the points with that of light interference. I apologize.
    You're correct, but in adding to what I said, you're failing to mention why you get that effect (which is what I was saying) The phase relationship between the two waves creates this cancellation and summation of the waveforms which create an additional tone (the difference between the two) and this phasing is the pulsing you hear. Rather than being 'beats', I think pulsing is a better term because they aren't defined or staccato beats, but swelling pulses. Also, bit of trivia, but the same (albeit at a more severe level) phase manipulation is how guitar effects like Chorus or Phasers work, except that chorus is created by playing back a delayed repetition where the delay is varied (this does cause the same perceived effect, however)
    OK so phase relationships are tricky to discuss but its important to note this is not purely a phase relationship phenomenon. There needs to be a frequency difference for this pulsating to be heard. Otherwise its plane old interference. What you call this only matters from the point of view that other people will understand it and not confuse it with something else.
    Arfing Thumb
    When tuning a bass guitar with harmonics you really feel the vibrations in its neck even more.
    Basically what you explained is tuning BY EAR! Hearing two notes (nearly same pitch) together and cancelling out the overlapping frequency is tuning by ear, because if the notes are perfectly the same frequency their amplitudes (let's say volume) adds up and you hear the one pitch louder. But then, FEELING the "pulsing" coming to a stop (when tuning one string that's off against a target note) through the neck and especially body of the guitar (mainly e-guitars, as they are mostly solid-body) is using that same method without hearing. I do it naturally, by "instinct" if you will xD And yes, with a bass guitar the effect is even stronger, as the strings are way heavier and the frequencies smaller, so you really can feel the "woop woooop wooooop"
    The problem with tuning one string, and then the rest of the strings relative to that string or any other string, is that when you tune each of the five subsequent strings, the tension on every other string changes slightly, so your reference note is actually changing as you tune (it will become flatter if you are tuning your other strings up, or sharper if you are tuning down)! The end result is that you'll be close to being in tune, but not actually in tune. So, unless you have absolute pitch, or can otherwise tune by ear perfectly, you should not use this method to tune your guitar. Trust your tuner, everyone - and make sure your tuner's good enough to trust - because your guitar bends more than you think!
    Jam Jar00
    I agree but my ear isn't good enough to notice it being out If I do concerts I natuarally use a tuner but just for daily practice or changing tunings where it doesn't matter too much this is so much easiler.
    Because I'm a scientist by day, I feel the need to be a d**k and correct those calling this method 'harmonic' tuning. This 'pulsating' is not cased by harmonics but by overtones. Its a phenomenon called 'beating' for anybody wanting to look into it.
    Hadn't heard it called 'beating' until I looked it up just; I'd always refer to it as phasing, but fair enough lol.
    Suppose its just depends on what viewpoint you're coming from. Music vs. science. Same shit happens in science all the time.
    Jam Jar00
    Cheers man! I didn't really know why it did it (guessed at it being superposition of the waves) but looking at beating I get it now
    Pretty sure harmonics are the same thing as overtones
    They pretty much are except for the definition. Its a technicality but harmonics are whole number multiples of a fundamental frequency whereas overtones are non-whole number multiple of a fundamental.
    Chris Zoupa
    Really cool article dude. With distortion the pulses and frequency shakes get more obvious! Also disregard all negativity and lame comments. This site/forum is a breeding ground or "hive" if you will for pompous and pretentious douchebags. 10/10 man well done.
    Guns N' Chains
    Interesting. I tune by ear by playing chords/riffs of songs that I am familiar with....or sometimes with a tuner. Examples: Paradise City (Guns N' Roses) - the first strum of the G chord at the beginning. Flat Top (Goo Goo Dolls) - the entire verse chords Hells Bells (ACDC) - No need to explain There are other, but those are off the top of my head. If it sounds like the song, we're good. If not, continue to tune and so on and so forth.
    Jam Jar00
    I quite often do that by just playing all the notes in a simple E and G chord, you can hear which strings need tuning desperately straight off
    Well done. It's certainly one information you find useful one day. I think I should try this cos most times, when I play in church, the congregation gets so loud making it difficult for me to hear the notes.
    I tune it by doing a couple of Seth Chapla songs, I can't get no (satisfaction) and then just tune the lower E string with the A string
    Natural harmonics are both a purer tone and sustain themselves without fretting, I find it's much easier to hear the fluctuations at a higher frequency as well. Use the 7th fret of the tuned string and use the 5th fret of the string below. Obviously this doesn't work for the B and G strings since their 4 semitones apart instead of 5 but I find it helps tremendously, It's much less obvious in a live show if you don't have immediate access to tuner.
    Hearing a pitch is like feeling the vibration frequency, cause ya know, they both frequencies. I can't do it WITHOUT listening though, my guitar is a classic acoustic guitar.
    I do this a lot with my instructor. He tunes his guitar with an electronic tuner and then we both try to get my strings in tune by listening to the wavelengths on my guitar strings. They will either vibrate fast if I'm too off, or slow if I'm getting close.
    The way I do it: tune with harmonics on fifth frets and then with normal hitting of the note, and finally I play D, E and a C chord to hear if the intonation is good or if I have to compromise. Have the flu so my mind is a bit fuuked. Cheers.
    I just tune by playing a G5 chord (3x0033) and E5 chord (022x00) (no thirds because a major third on a 12 TET instrument is a bit sharp - fifth and octave are the easiest intervals to hear if you are in tune or not). You can hear that "pulsating" sound if the strings are not in tune. Then I just try to hear which of the strings is not in tune (I may try to play them two at once). Well, I have a good ear and hear if something is not in tune. But when you are not in tune, you'll always hear that "pulsating" sound. You just need to learn to hear it. And that's how you tune by ear. You hear the sound and when you don't hear the pulsating sound, you are in tune.
    I tune my electric guitar by ear playing musics that I know very well, it's very easy to tune like this.Example: I play a lick of the solo from Fade To Black in Standard Tuning which have the B note in 1ยบ string 7th fret, to tune a half-step down I "move (down tune)" the B note from 7th to the 8th fret, then I tune the other strings by following that rule that you wrote; "if you play the 5th fret of a string it should be the exact same pitch as the string below it. The only exception to this is the B string which is tuned to the G string 4th fret." It's easy to do it, but damn hard to explain.
    The "science" is simple: You have two sound waves that are nearly the same in pitch, but not close enough, working against each other, like ocean waves running into each other. A much more purer way to tune by vibration is with actual harmonics. You're going to hear slightly different pitches with differents frets, but harmonics is a consistent, pure tone to tune with vibrations.
    I have a tuning dilemma. Any help is welcome. I have an acoustic 6 string with steel strings. I just tuned with an electronic tuner, and the strings sound a bit out of pitch when I cross check against the 5th fret tuning technique. Its significant too. Out of curiosity, I tuned the A string electronically, then the low E, D, G and e strings by ear on the 5th fret; B tuned to 4th fret. (The tuner is set at 420hz.) There is a huge difference. Is there an explanation for this? Do I trust the tuner? Or do I trust my ear?
    Read up about setting intonation. I think your saddle needs some work.
    Jam Jar00
    The only things I can think of are that your strings have had it/are crap or your guitar has warped slightly :/ If I were you I'd restring it with some good quality strings an dsee if that helps, also stick a straight edge next to your fretboard to check As a side note your tuner should be set at 441hz (I think) not 420hz. Wont solve your problem but it might put you in tune with the rest of the band