The guitar is such a simple and convenient instrument: just open the case and start playing. Well, it's not THAT simple. A good practice before playing the guitar is to tune it first.
Tuning the guitar prior to playing it will ensure that you create harmonious music; for each string has a specific note to play and if it goes out of tune, the sound will seem to be disarrayed. Note that some guitars may not need frequent tuning (well constructed / expensive), but if it is played (to the point of abuse, actually), then it may need tuning. Read on for an essential guide for guitar tuning.
The guitar presents a particular kind of difficulty in tuning because it has six strings, each of which has an individual pitch or a place in the musical staff assigned to it. The string numbers, as more popularly known, from top to bottom are 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, while their musical counterpart are mi, la, re, sol, si, and mi or E, A, D, G, B, and E respectively.
In order to tune the guitar correctly, you must have an axis or a reference pitch. You will need a commercially available pitch pipe or, better yet, acquire a tuning fork in case you don't have a reliable instrument at hand to give you an axis. Pitch pipes have the bad reputation of changing pitches after some time. Tuning forks are more reliable and easier to use.
First, make the fork vibrate by tapping it lightly on any hard object while holding the handle and then let the handle touch the guitar's soundboard below or above the sound hole while gently moving it toward the bridge. This will locate the spot where the resonance is at its loudest. You are supposed to hear a high pitched A (la) which should be the same as the sound produced by striking the first string while it is being depressed on the fifth fret.
Now that you have tuned the first string (E/mi), its open sound is the same as the sound of the second string pressed on the fifth fret. The third string on the fourth fret is equal to the open second string (B/si); the fourth string/ fifth fret equals open third string (G/sol); fifth string/ fifth fret equals open fourth string (D/re); and the sixth string/ fifth fret equals open fifth string (A/la).
In order to check the accuracy of your tuning, gently or lightly touch the fifth string directly above the fifth fret wire without pressing the string to the fingerboard. By striking the string in this manner, it should sound similar to that high-pitched tone produced by the tuning fork. Sounds of the string produced this way are called "harmonics."
Harmonic 5 (Harmonic on the fifth fret) of the sixth string equals harmonic 7 of the fifth string (which is also similar to the open sound of the first string). Harmonic 5 of the fifth string equals harmonic 7 on the fourth string; harmonic 4 of the third string is equal to the harmonic 5 of the second string and harmonic 7 of the first string. Incidentally, harmonic 4 may require lots of practice for some, so I suggest that harmonic 7 of the sixth string be used to tune the open second string. These pairs of harmonics, when sounded together, should produce only one steady tone. If the sound they produce clashes or seems wavy, they are not in tune.
These two methods of tuning must always go together. You may use the harmonics method first then check with the other or vice versa. If, after crosschecking, the strings do not agree with each other, you may have to repeat the whole process. If you still cannot get them in tune, your strings might be defective. If your strings are new, this may even be worse - your ears need tuning!
To avoid all the hassles of manual tuning, a costly electronic device called a strobo tuner is available. Just turn the dial to the string's name and it will pick the string's sound through a condenser microphone and tell you if it is in tune through a meter
Other conventional methods of tuning are through imitation of pitches from different musical instruments like the piano, flute, etc. You can even use that portable but silly investment, the pitch pipe. But you have been warned!
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