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Guitar Basics Before Learning Jazz: Tuning

The guitar as we know it traces its origins to older lute instruments from the Middle Ages and most of these grandfather instruments had one thing in common: They were designed as accompaniment instruments.

For this reason they were fretted to make it easier to play chords that were in tune with themselves. As any violinist knows, intonating multiple pitches on an instrument with no frets is far more difficult!

So the frets were a way to allow guitars to be in tune with themselves. The larger question is how to set guitars in tune with the world... But let us digress for some quick history.

bach - tuning innovator

In the early years of the European Enlightenment there were many tuning systems in use. They were all in tune with themselves but their differences caused problems when musicians attempted to bring groups of instruments together. For technical reasons these earlier tuning systems also made it impossible to play in different keys without first having to stop the song and retune the keyboard! So something had to give.

That something was Bach. Through his musical brilliance and shear will he championed the equal temperament tuning system which made it possible to play in all 12 keys equally without adjusting the tuning.

The famous "Well-Tempered Clavier" is a demonstration of how each major and minor key can sound perfectly in tune. The merits of the equal temperament system won out and all subsequent European music has used this system.

But let's get back back to guitars.

As a result of Bach's great contribution to the world of tuning, it became possible to tune a guitar so that it would work with any other instrument and in any key. Remember that in its original form the guitar was designed to accompany, so the "standard" guitar tuning evolved to make chords easier. This is why we have 4ths and that one pesky major 3rd.

Guitars are most commonly tuned from Low to High as: E, A, D, G, B, E.

It is amazing to think that all of the incredible melodic guitar soloists evolved from this "chordal" based tuning. So let us examine the various tuning methods in more detail to achieve the standard guitar tuning.

Tuning by Frets

We can use the frets to our advantage here. Because of the guaranteed intonation of the frets, we can count on one string to tune the string that is next in the series.

First we need a reference pitch. If you can find a tuning fork, an in tune piano or an electronic tone reference, strike a note. If you can start with the low E string it will be easiest but any pitch is fine.

Let us assume you can get an E. Match the low E string to this reference tone. Then find the A by using the 5th fret of the E Sting. Match the A string to the pitch of the E string 5th fret. Now repeat the process by matching the D string to the pitch of the 5th fret on the A string. Let us repeat this process one more time, matching the G string to the pitch of 5th fret on the D string. Next we have the one place where the pattern changes. Because of the difference in the intervals we need to match the B string to the 4th fret on the G string. Finally we match the high E string to the 5th fret of the B string. Check yourself by playing a few chords and if something sounds off, try to repeat the process from the low E string.

Tuning by Harmonics

We are going to apply the same concept as the frets but use the harmonics found on the 5th and 7th frets. Once the low E is in tune, we want to play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the low E string. Then play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the A string. Tune the A string so that these two high pitches match each other. You will hear a "wobble" between them if they do not match. Now repeat this process for the A, D and G strings. There is no harmonic tuning possible for the B string because of the intervallic difference. We have to use the fret method here. We can use the harmonics for the high E string by matching the 7th fret harmonic with the 5th fret harmonic on the B string. Once again check the whole guitar by playing some chords

Electronic Tuners

These work either by audio, or by electronic plug-in. Make sure that the tuner is calibrated to A=440, because this is the standard accepted reference frequency for all western instruments. (It is interesting to note that this reference has gotten steadily higher since the time of Bach. Some modern orchestras tune a little higher for artistic reasons.) As practice and ear training, try tuning using the frets or harmonics and then checking your success with an electronic tuner.

There is an entire universe of alternate tunings in the world, but the majority of jazz playing is most intuitively done on a guitar in standard tuning. Try these techniques to train yourself to get your guitar in tune and keep it in tune. Like any guitar skill, it takes practice to become faster and more accurate. Tune up, and jazz hard!

This article was written by Jake Hertzog, learn more at 

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