Mike Moxcey ©2005
While there is only one correct setup of the strings for any particular tuning on any particular instrument, there are several different ways to achieve that tuning. I call these “styles” of tuning. Most books only show one way to tune. That is good because it avoids confusion—if you give beginners too many choices, they just get confused. If you’re easily confused, just tune with style 1 or 2 until you get good on the instrument.
But I present all the different ways you can tune an instrument because some folks have different ways of understanding things, some instruments respond differently to tuning, and once your ear gets trained, you may hear something out-of-tune on your instrument and be frustrated with tuning. That’s when you need to try another approach.
Style 1: Tune each string to a standard pitch
If you have a pitch pipe or electronic tuner, this is probably the easiest way for beginners to tune an instrument. And it’s the easiest way for experienced musicians to get strings close to pitch. And if you’re tuning an autoharp or hammered dulcimer, then you’ll have to get an electronic tuner. You decide which note the string needs to match and then tune the string to that note using the dials on the electronic tuner or matching the pitch to the tone coming from the pitch pipe.
A pitch pipe is a small pipe on which you can blow a note or six.
Each of the different tones of a pipe matches a specific string on an instrument. You can get pitch pipes for violins (which match mandolins) and guitars. They are probably available for other instruments, too.
A Tuning Fork is a two-pronged bar which you strike against something to make a standard tone.
Don’t strike it too hard—if the prongs bend, then the note will be wrong. Tuning forks aren’t very loud. After striking, you can place the end you hold against the top of the instrument and it will be amplified.
An electronic tuner is a small electronic box that runs on batteries (with an optional plug) and has a dial or lights that show you which notes you are close to and will show when you are exactly on pitch. They’re very useful and not too expensive.
Style 2: Tune the strings to each other
With this technique, you choose one string to begin on, usually the lowest one, and then fret it at different places and tune other strings to it.
For example, on a guitar you could say the lowest string is an E. The next string up is an A so you’d fret the E string on the 5th fret (E, F, F#, G, G#, A) to get an A note and then match the A string to that note.
If starting from a higher string to get the lower ones, then you must pluck the string you’re tuning to, fret the next lower string and pluck it, then take your fingers off and tune it.
It’s a little more involved so most folks start with the lowest string.
For example, if our guitar’s A string was correct, then we would pluck it, fret the E string on the 5th fret and pluck it, then adjust the E string.
- When tuning to a low string, there are two approaches.
- One approach is to use the same string for every higher string. Fret the 6th string at the 5th fret for the 5th string, at the 10th fret for the 4th string, at the 15th fret for the 3rd string, and so on. The problems with this approach is that you can run out of frets on instruments with lots of strings and if the intonation (fretting) isn’t correct up the neck, then you aren’t tuning to the correct note. The advantage of this approach is you aren’t adding to tuning error like the next approach can cause.
The other way to tune is to move up each string as it gets tuned. On the guitar, you tune the 5th string, then fret it at the 5th fret to tune the 4th string. Once that’s tuned, you fret the 4th string and tune the 3rd string to it. This is the most common way of tuning strings to each other, but if one string is off, then the rest of them are also off.
Style 3: Combination Tuning
If you’re playing with other people, they have probably tuned their instruments to standard pitch. This is A = 440 Hz. Some symphony orchestras are tuning just a tad higher to 442 but the most common standard pitch is 440.
You’ve got to have your instrument at standard pitch. Get one string to standard pitch and then tune the others to it.
If you don’t have an electronic tuner, then you’ll need something to give you a basic note. You can usually find a note on a pitch pipe that will give you at least one note that works for your instrument. Or you can get a tuning fork or a harmonica or find something with a standard pitch. At one house, the refrigerator motor hummed at a perfect D. We’d leave the door open until the motor turned on and then tune up.