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How To Tune A Guitar: Use Your Ears Or A Tuner?

This is something I’ve been asked about so many times that I simply had to write an article on the subject. Should musicians, guitarists and bass players in particular, tune their instruments with an electronic tuner or by ear. Now there are several good arguments on both sides of the fence that are worth mentioning. So let’s get stuck into the pros and cons.

Tuning By Ear

An advantage of doing this is that it helps us to develop good ear training skills. Having a good ear is vitally important for musicians of any genre. If I realise that my instrument has slipped out of tune part way through a performance, I can’t really step on a tuner in the middle of a song because it would cut out the sound whilst I was tuning. There really are few things more disappointing than having instruments disappear in the middle of a song so the only option in this case is to rely on my ears. Also, if I’m recording to a song that has already been partly produced then the song may not be tuned to A 440Hz so I would have to use my ears again to tune to the track. In cases like these, electronic tuners aren’t so good because you are having to tune to something that the tuner can’t hear. Having good ears is vitally important for reasons exactly like the ones listed in this paragraph. However, there are times that we can’t rely on, or even use, our ears to tune.

Working With Tuners

During my career I’ve worked in several situations when tuning by ear simply isn’t an option. As good as it is to have a well tuned pair of ears, if I’m playing in the band of a theatre show I can’t really start making noise (whilst tuning) so I can hear if my bass is in tune. This is an example when an electronic tuning pedal is a must have. There are countless other situations like this. Whether you’re having to tune in between songs whilst the front man of your band talks to the crowd or you’re in a studio and you want to check your tuning whilst the other musicians talk and work out parts, being able to do this silently without bothering other people is crucially important. It’s an unspoken standard that you will be able to tune without making any noise. Also, if you tune using harmonics (by playing the fifth fret of one string and the seventh of the one above and matching the notes) then you aren’t actually in tune. Check out this video to find out why it’s a mistake to do this


What To Do With This Information

Personally, even though I do think having good ears is one of the most important skills every musician needs, I would still say a good tuner is an absolute must have. A good electronic tuner won’t trick your ears, they are reliable and they are usually good for gigging, recording and performance etiquette too. If you don’t know much about which tuner to get then you should take a look at this review of the TC Electronic Polytune that I posted a while back. It’s an excellent pedal that I have used on hundreds of gigs and I would recommend it to anyone that asks me. If you’ve found this article useful then leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

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