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Guitar Tuning Harmonics

It's useful to know guitar tuning harmonics if you want accurate tuning for playing alone (this doesn't work for playing with other, perfectly tuned instruments) and you don't have an electronic tuner at hand.

This particular method isn't used as much as the 5th fret method because it takes a little longer to master. But hopefully by the end of this lesson you'll be ready to use it for life.

Just like the 5th fret method, harmonic tuning tunes the guitar to itself almost perfectly (and tuning can never be perfect on a fretted instrument made of wood!). This is known as relative tuning.

Harmonic tuning uses the natural, open string harmonics of your guitar (also known as "natural harmonics"). You can tell a harmonic from its high pitched resonance. Take a listen...

Click to hear

We're going to be using these harmonics to tune our guitar, but first, if you don't already know, here's how to get the harmonic...

Getting the harmonic

So, let's try this at the 5th fret on the G string - what we will get is in fact a G note harmonic...

Position your finger as though you're about to fret the string, but instead of positioning it over the fret space you need to position it over the fret wire.

Now, instead of pressing down to fret the string, hold your finger over the string barely touching it. The top part of your finger should just brush over the top of the string.

Remember to keep your finger in line with the fret wire. The yellow spot in the diagram below is the spot you want here.

Now pick the string as usual with your pick hand, and as soon as you hit the string, immediately pull your fret finger away.

You should hear something like this ring out (click the diagram to hear)...

C harmonic


If you're hearing this  Click to hear

...then your finger is not quite touching the string enough or you're pulling away too soon.

If you're hearing this  Click to hear

...then you're not pulling your finger away quick enough after you've picked the string. Also, check it's positioned on the fret wire and not the space between the fret wires.

Tip: try and hit the string with the very end of your plectrum to get the sharpest strike possible - this will enhance the harmonic's presence.

I know it's trite to say, but "practice makes perfect". Seriously, the more you train your finger to position accurately as outlined above, the quicker you'll be able to throw out a harmonic when you need it.

Let's look at how to use these harmonics to accurately tune our guitar...

Tuning up the guitar using harmonics

Starting with the low E/6th string, this will be our base, as this method of tuning is about "tuning the guitar to itself", also known as relative tuning. It's useful, however, to know roughly what a low E should sound like (over time, you'll be able to get a closer approximation of perfect pitch).

So, at the 5th fret wire we're going to use the harmonic technique outlined above for the low E string. Once the harmonic is ringing out from the E string, play the A string harmonic at the 7th fret.

They should both be ringing out together, like this (click diagram to hear)...

tuning harmonics between the E and A strings

Now, when you've struck the harmonic for both these strings and it's ringing out for both at the same time, you will hear a kind of "wobble" effect, as if the note is oscillating. If it's already tuned perfectly, however, you won't hear this effect.

What you need to do is listen for this vibrating sound between the two harmonics and tune up or down until the vibration becomes slower and slower... until it stops.

Listen really closely to this next clip and hear the wobble!

Click to hear

Did you hear it? Turn your volume up and you'll hear me tuning the A string up until the harmonic vibration is straightened out. This occurs when the imperfect interval between the two notes becomes perfect (or at least perfect to our ears).

If the A string is tuned too high, it will have a similar oscillating effect, but you'll need to tune down and then back up (this is because tuning up helps to lock the string's tension, keeping it in tune longer).

Again, listen closely for the pitch and vibration effect...

Click to hear

So, once you get the harmonics of 5th fret E string and 7th fret A string nice and constant, the two strings should be tuned to each other perfectly, or at least almost perfectly!

What about the other strings?

Well, follow the same procedure with the A and D strings (tuning the D string up or down), and then the D and G string (tuning the G string up or down)...

The green square indicates the string you need to tune up or down to straighten out the harmonic vibration effect...

A and D string tuning harmonics

A and D string tuning harmonic

D and G string tuning harmonics
tuning D and G strings using harmonics

OK, stop here, because when you get to the B string the tuning intervals change. All we need to do is change the position of the harmonic. See the diagram below, then it's just a case of following the same harmonic procedure...

G and B string tuning harmonics
E string harmonic and open B string

And finally, back to the same as before with the high E string...

harmonic between the B and G strings

Practice makes perfect

You should now have a well tuned guitar! Strum a few chords and tweak as necessary.

Using tuning harmonics can be a very quick and accurate way to tune up your guitar, but it's not known by many guitarists.

Learning to play harmonics also comes in handy with lead guitar, as an interesting effect you can use, especially under high gain/distortion, so it's a good technique to master anyway.

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