Songs are not always in standard tuning. This brings about the problem of not sounding exactly like the recording when you play along with it even if you are in perfect tune according to your guitar tuner. Even for some songs that are about a step lower (tuned down) tuning exactly a step down to a tuner still won’t do it. Sometimes you have no choice but tuning by ear. This can be especially tricky for beginners.
An example of this is early Van Halen songs. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen books and tabs online that state that they are tuned one step down. Truth is they are not tuned perfectly one step down so if you tune to a tuner you still won’t sound exactly like it.
An example of songs being almost in tune are some Black Sabbath songs like “Iron Man” and “Paranoid”. They are tuned just a bit lower than standard tuning but not quite a half step. So again, tuning to them using a tuner is impossible.
Sometimes a song will be tuned just a hair higher than standard. One such song is “Melsissa” by the Allman Brothers. It’s just higher enough so that using a tuner doesn’t help.
Here’s s few tips to help you tune to a song by ear:
First start with your guitar in standard tuning. You can go either up or down from there. Chances are you’ll only need to move a step down or maybe a half step up at the most.
Part A) This is what I call the “tune to the progression” approach. This is for songs with open chords:
1) Find out what key the song is in. You can look online for tabs that will either say what key it is in or give you enough chords to derive the key from there. For more information on how to figure out what key a song is in check out my other articles or blogs.
2) Play the open string that corresponds to the key the song is in along with the song repeatedly. As you play it tune it higher or lower to get it to sound in tune with the progression. Note that it will sound better over some chords than others. However, when you get it into tune it will not sound particularly bad over the others, just a little different. When it is out of tune it will sound bad over everything.
3) Tune the rest of the guitar relative to the string you know is in tune.
Part B) Next is the “Follow the root” approach:
If the song is in a key that doesn’t have an open string or has bar chords it can be a trickier. In this case you will need to tune to the root notes of the chords perfectly.
1) Lets take “Iron Man” as an example. It’s tuned a little lower than standard. The first chord is “B”, a power chord. This note is on the 2nd fret 5th string. So you need to tune that note to the recording.
2) Problem is the note barely lasts a second and it kind of hard to tune to the note so quickly. Instead lets try looking up the tab for it and learn the first riff whether you are in tune or not, try to play it all on the same string. After learning the riff try playing it along with the recording, a little out of tune.
3) Tune the string just a bit lower or higher each time you play along until it sounds like the recording.
It helps to have a looper or some software to loop for this approach. Just make a loop of the riff and you can play it over and over until its right.
Part C) Last is the “Chord Loop” approach. This one requires some sort of looping software. This type of stuff is bundled with a lot of the computer interfaces being marketed today. My favorite to use is Sony Sound Forge.
1) Use the program to select just one chord of the song that you know is right. In some cases it may be only a second or two long. I selected the “A” chord when I was tuning up to make the “Eruption” (Van Halen) instructional video.
2) Loop the selection; it should play over and over without any breaks. It may sound a bit annoying to the ear but is a very effective way to tune to a note perfectly.
3) Tune to the selection.
Now its time for you to go tune up to your favorite song.
Good read ! I’ve been tuning to whatever is written for the particular song, using a tuner, without any thought to analyze the process. My pattern has been to tune from the inside strings, (D & G string), out to the E strings. I read somewhere that reduces some stress on the strings that goes with tuning from the outside strings and going in order: E,A, D, G, B, E. Could be another myth that you can clear up.
(Now quarantined in Arecibo, PR. Which is okay for now-2 blocks from the Atlantic with a daily sea breeze, fresh fruit, a bottle of Bacardi, & a guitar)
Sounds like a great place to be Quarantined… Glad you got a guitar with you!
Why does it have to be so complicated?
Thanks for the question… Tuning by ear, especially to a specific song you don’t know, is certainly a more advanced technique so there is no super easy way to accomplish it… However it is an EXTREMELY helpful ability to achieve so certainly worth the effort.
Another technique you can try with a tuner is to measure how many cents off a note is from standard tuning. Cents are a fine measurement of pitch and most tuners will show them in + or – 20 increments. So lets say your song is in the key of E.
If you play your open E string while the song plays you should be able to tune it up or down until you hear it come into tune with the song. When you do get it in tune, see how many cents off it is from standard tuning and then just tune all the other stings to the same difference and see how it sounds.