Tuning a Guitar

Tuning is one of the most important things taught in a guitar class. Developing intonation awareness is easier on a fretted string instrument than any instrument in a wind ensemble or orchestra, and it can be taught in a fun way without causing string breakage. Everything played in a guitar class is going to sound better if all students are in tune, which will encourage further practice and growth individually or as a large group.

Develop Tuning Awareness

Tuning awareness should start early on in the learning of guitar. Students must know the parts of the guitar and the open string names first and then they can learn how to tune.

Try this activity to develop tuning awareness. Make sure all the guitars are tuned before the class starts. Have students find the tuning peg that is connected to the low E string. Play an E drone on the classroom speakers (this is the YouTube video I use). Tell students to hum along with the drone so that they hear and feel what it’s like when they are in tune. Have them play the low E string and instruct them to turn the tuning peg clockwise one quarter of a turn to lower the pitch. Turn the drone off and have each student play their flat E string. Turn the drone back on and instruct students to tune up to the E string by going counterclockwise to make the pitch higher. Turn the drone back off and check each student’s pitch by having them play it out loud. There will be some students who are better at this than others, but this gives them the ability to understand how much movement is necessary to make a pitch adjustment.

Take five minutes at the beginning of each class to work on tuning by ear. Repeat the steps for the low E string for the A, D, G, B and high E strings. As you watch students detune and re-tune their instruments, call out students who are doing a good job of being careful with their adjustments to positively reinforce the fact that large movements can result in string breakage.

When students tune a string that is too high, instruct them to go slightly below the pitch and tune it up. This ensures that string windings in the tuning machine don’t slacken up, which could lead to the guitar going out of tune during playing. Some students tend to continually re-attack the string while tuning. Instruct students to play the string first and then make tuning adjustments. If students are re-articulating the string while tuning, it can cause the string to sound sharp which will result in inaccurate tuning.

Pitch Memory

I teach my students a song so they can memorize the intervals between the open strings. Turn on the E drone and sing the pitches of the open strings from high to low using the words “We Tune GuiTars By Ear.” Students can make up their own words to the tuning song, but the goal is for them to auralize the intervals from the strings from high to low. Have them sing the song against the drone while playing the strings of a tuned guitar so they can reinforce this connection between the pitches they are singing and the open strings.

You can gamify tuning by ear by having students split into groups of two have them detune each other’s guitars. The rule is that they can only de-tune a string by a quarter turn. When students have their guitars back, play an E drone so they can sing the song and check their strings. Have them identify which strings are out of tune and in which direction they are out of tune. Students must work together to get both guitars in tune to present to the class.

You can also model this by having a student come up and de-tune a presentation guitar at the front of the room while you check it and talk through the process of tuning it by ear

Using a Tuner

After guitarists have learned to tune by ear, I introduce them to a tuner. Students must know the letter names of the open strings and how the musical alphabet works before using a tuner. I put examples on the board and ask them which letter is higher or lower than string names to prepare them for strings that register as a different letter on a tuner. I like using Snark Clip-on tuners because they are inexpensive and do not require a microphone to register the pitch. in a large classroom with many players, it can be difficult to have students isolate their own instruments.

To use a clip-on tuner, connect it to the headstock of the guitar and play a string. See what letter is being registered on the tuner compared to the open string name. If the letter is higher or lower than the open string name, make large adjustments to the tuner to get it to the correct letter. You can always sing the tuning song to make sure you are tuning the correct octave. Once the letter that is being registered is the same as the string name, follow the visual cues to get the pitch into the center. Remember to remind students to tune below the pitch and then back up to the correct pitch to ensure tuning stability.

Instruct students to turn off their tuners when they are finished so they do not waste the batteries. I buy a few extra 2032 lithium batteries just in case the tuners die out. Have a location in the room where these tuners are stored. I use a music stand next to my board and have students clip them to the bottom of the stand.

There will be times when students are not able to use a clip-on tuner, in that case I require them to download a tuning app, such as the tuner from Yousician called Guitar Tuna, which can be accessed via a free app or online.

Tuning Mindfulness

Students ask me when they should tune a guitar. My general answer is: “When it’s out of tune!”

Some guitars will go out of tune quicker than others depending on the age of strings, the weather or how well the guitar is set up. Encourage students to develop mindfulness about their intonation while they play. Remind them to check tuning between songs. Model how to talk to each other about tuning in a supportive way and without being adversarial. This will help a class or ensemble stay in tune together without the need for instructor intervention. Give praise to students who are actively monitoring their own tuning or the tuning of the group, which will give these students a boost in confidence and remind the group of the expectations.

Things To Watch For

Some students may have learned tuning techniques using adjacent strings as reference points. The fifth fret of the E string should be the same pitch as the A string, for example. This works to get a guitar in tune with itself, but the guitar might not be in tune with a tuner. If you see students trying to tune like this, encourage them to at least check one of the strings with a tuner so that they can ensure that the guitar will be in tune with the rest of the class.

If a guitar cannot be tuned, change the strings. If you’re still having trouble with the instrument, , take it to your local music shop to get it properly set up. It could be an issue with the nut slots, the truss rod, the bridge saddle height or the bridge saddle intonation.

When I first started teaching classroom guitar, I was deathly afraid of allowing students to tune their guitars. With a scaffolded approach like this, it has offloaded my need to tune guitars, and it makes everything the students play in my classroom sound great!

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