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Tuning the Guitar

Tuning the Guitar

by Ian Noyce

Originally published Guild of American Luthiers Data Sheet #56, 1977 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000

Because the guitar has fixed frets set to an even temperament, tuning it properly is not the cut-and-dried process that many people believe. And due to various factors that we’ll get to shortly, if the guitar’s bridge is placed exactly where the nominal scale length says it should be, the instrument may not play in tune at all.

The two most common methods of tuning are: (1) the 4th- and 5th-fret method and (2) the harmonic method. Both of these methods are often misunderstood through confusion regarding perfect (or Pythagorean) intervals and even-tempered intervals.

The 4th- and 5th-fret method. Theoretically, this is the simplest method as it simply involves tuning unison intervals. The A string can be tuned to an A tuning fork, then the bass E is fretted at the 5th fret and tuned in unison with the open A. The D string is tuned in unison with the 5th fret of the A, the G string is tuned to the 5th fret of the D, the B string is tuned to the fourth fret of the G, and the high E is tuned to the 5th fret of the B. In practice this can be difficult because any errors are cumulative. It’s also true that many guitars tuned this way will not play in tune in all keys.

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