Zen Guitar Tips on Tuning

Level: Absolute Beginner

Philip Toshio Sudo

Dear Phil: I hope all is well. My wife got me a guitar for Christmas. Do you have any tips on tuning? I have always found that the most daunting part of it all--I have such a tin ear. Regards, Bart

Dear Bart-

That's a nice Xmas gift your wife got you. I'm happy to help you get on your way to playing.

First, I'm assuming that the guitar you got is acoustic and not electric. I'm also guessing that you've tried the pitch pipe approach and that it's too hard to match the sounds just using your ears. With that in mind, here are your "Zen Guitar Tips on Tuning":

Step 1: Read "Zen Guitar." It will help you, I promise. If you've already read it--reread it. It will help you, I promise.

Step 2: Don't be daunted. It's going to take a while to figure out how to tune the thing, so just be patient and accept the learning curve. A lot of beginners want to jump in and start playing right away, but tuning is really where it all begins. Take your time and don't get frustrated or discouraged--and don't ever, ever think that you can't do it, because you can. It's just going to take some time.

Step 3: Pluck one string and really, really listen to the sound it makes. Forget about the other five strings for now; just imagine you've got a one string guitar. If you pluck one string, you don't have to worry about getting the guitar in tune, because one string will always be in tune with itself.

I'd start with the lowest string (the thick one on top). It doesn't matter if it's tuned to E or Eb or whatever. Just pluck that one open string and whatever sound it makes, that's what it's tuned to. Just pluck it again and again. I call this the "Zen Guitar No Fingers Method," because you don't even have to put a finger on the guitar neck. Just use your pick to pluck the open string. That's all. And when you pluck it, don't be shy. The guitar isn't going to bite you; pluck it hard. Just let it drone on. Then start to pluck it like you're "ringin' a bell," as Chuck Berry says--insistent.

After a while, get into a basic, naïve rhythm:

pluck pluck, pluck pluck;

pluckety pluckety pluck

pluck pluck, pluck pluck.

If you keep playing that one note, pretty soon the sound of it will get ingrained in your ear. Then try this: Stop playing the note and listen for it in your head. Then play the note to hear it again. I'll bet you find that the sound you pluck matches the one you just heard in your head.

Step 4: Proceed to what I call the "Zen Guitar One Finger Method." Don't do anything but keep playing that one string. But this time, take a finger from your left hand (either the first or second, I'd suggest) and fret each note up and down the neck, keeping your thumb behind the neck for support. Again, pluck hard like you mean it, and listen to each note. Keep going up and down the neck, one note after the other. After a while, jump around on that one string a little bit--that is, don't just move up the neck fret by fret, but skip some frets so you start hearing the various note intervals. Stay on that string for a week if you have to--you're not going to be playing on stage in that time anyway. Try making up little "songs" on one string: Four plucks on one note, four plucks on another note, back to the first note for four plucks, then to a new note for another four plucks. Remember to include the sound of the open string, too.

If you're committed to learning the guitar, you're going to have to develop your ears. The four steps above are the easiest way to do it while avoiding the whole hassle of tuning. Trust me: If you stick to one string, after a while, your hearing will reach a whole new level. Then you'll be ready to tune all six strings with the pitch pipe. But don't expect it to happen now, or overnight. Put some honest time into it first. You won't hear a difference until you hear differently.

Now for the easy advice: If you do happen to have an electric, I'd definitely recommend an electronic tuner, which you can plug directly into. It gives you a reading like a regular level meter. All you have to do is twist the guitar pegs until the meter registers the musical note you want. It's very easy. In fact, it's designed for use in loud clubs where you're preparing for a gig and you can't hear your instrument, so it's perfect for people with a tin ear.

You can also use an eletronic tuner with an acoustic guitar (the tuner has a little microphone on it), but from my experience it's a little more difficult. You have to keep very quiet, strike the string cleanly, and make sure the tuner's in the proper position in order to get a meter reading. But if you do it right, at least you can rely on the meter and not your ears to get you in tune.

Hope that advice helps you out. Let me know if it gets you anywhere. In the meantime, all the best to you and your wife. Here's to the music.




Philip Toshio Sudo is the author of Zen Guitar..

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