It all starts with being in tune (and in time, but that's another article for another day). And yes, I'm aware that basically every mobile phone can also be a tuner, that clip on tuners are cheap and ubiquitous, that tuners are built in to every modelling amp and multi FX.. I'm just – old. Indulge me.
Anyway, if you've got any experience tuning by ear you're probably familiar with the “fifth fret” method – match the pitch of open higher string to the fifth fret note on the lower string (except for the G and B strings where you tune the B to the fourth fret of the G) – and the harmonic method, whereby you match the seventh fret harmonic on the higher string to the fifth fret harmonic on the lower one, excepting the G and B strings.
Both these methods are flawed, however, and for one simple reason. They tune in pairs, E to B, B to G and so on. This means that any slight flaws in tuning will be picked up and amplified as you go across the strings, meaning that by the time you're finished tuning the whole thing can be just out by enough to set your toes curling.
So, a better alternative? One that doesn't require batteries – we're being purist here. Well yes, and the idea is incredibly simple – tune everything from ONE single reference point. We can also cross reference to ensure good intonation (ensuring that the guitar is in tune all the way across the fretboard).
Start with the high (in pitch) E string. Get this one roughly right and we'll go from there. We usually find higher notes easier to hear, so it makes sense to start at the top.
To tune the B, match the 5th fret to the open E string and then cross reference using the 12th fret harmonic on the B matched to the 7th fret on the E.
For the G, match the 9th fret to the open E and cross reference with the 12th fret G harmonic with the 3rd fret E.
For the D, you want the 14th fret note matched to the open E and cross reference with the 5th fret D harmonic with 10th fret E.
For the A, pitch the 19th fret note against the open E and cross reference with the 5th fret harmonic on the A string against the 5th fret top E.
Lastly, for the low E, the simplest reference is to check the open string, 12th and 5th fret harmonics against the open top E.
The result? Perfect tuning with a side order of intonation accuracy too. Check the whole thing with an open G chord – it's instantly recognisable sweet melodic sound will reveal any inconsistencies, and the fact that the voicing covers all six strings means that there's nowhere for any sour notes to hide!
Learning to tune by ear will also help you to control your bends better, and highlight any technical errors (for example, a common mistake is a poor thumb grip causing strings to be pulled down towards the ground when the player plays a barre chord, causing the notes to be pulled ever-so-slightly sharp... just enough to put the listeners teeth on edge!
So, here's wishing you accurate intonation and perfect tuning until next month!