Tuning a Guitar Using Harmonics

Harmonics are sounds that you can make on a guitar that have a unique bell or chime like sound. You can use harmonics to tune your guitar. Harmonics occur in many places on guitar strings. The loudest and the easiest to play are the ones above the 5, 7, and 12th Frets. First of all you should learn how to play a harmonic. There are many ways to play a harmonic but we will just cover the easiest way.

How to Play Harmonics

Playing a harmonic on a guitarTo play a harmonic place your finger directly above the 12th fret on the 6th String (thickest string). Now lightly press the string with your finger, do not fret the string or push hard, just barely touch it. Use the picture on the right as an example. Now with your right hand, pluck the 6th string. You should hear a chime-like sound. To make a clearer and longer lasting sound, immediately remove your finger from the string right after you pluck it. After some practice you should be able to play harmonics fairly easily. Try playing harmonics on the 5, 7 and 12th frets now. If the harmonic doesn't sound clear or isn't loud, make sure your finger is directly above the fret you are playing, and try adjusting your finger slightly. Remember not to press to hard.

Now let's learn how to tune your guitar using harmonics.

Tuning with Harmonics

Tuning your guitar using harmonics is similar too how we tuned the guitar in our 5th Fret Tuning Method article, in the sense that we use notes on different strings as references for the string we are tuning. Use the picture below as a reference.

Tuning a guitar using harmonics

First of all, make sure your 6th string is in tune. The 6th string should be tuned to E, if you are tuning your guitar in standard EADGBe tuning. We are using the 6th string as the reference string so if your 6th string is off-key, then the rest of your strings will be off-key with it. It will be tuned too itself so it will still sound fine in relation to itself even if your 6th string is off key. This method comes in handy if you don't have a piano or tuner around.

Now, follow these steps:

  • Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 6th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 5th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 5th string until the 2 chimes match.

  • Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 5th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 4th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 4th string until the 2 chimes match.

  • Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 4th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 3th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 3th string until the 2 chimes match.

  • Play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 6th String and play the open 2nd string. To play it open means you do not fret or do a harmonic anywhere, just simply pluck the 2nd string. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 2nd string until the 2 notes match.
    Tip: Try not to play the open 2nd String too loud or else it might overwhelm the sound of the harmonic. Try to pluck it softly enough so the 2nd string matches the harmonic note in volume.

  • Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 2th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 1th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 1st string until the 2 chimes match.

Congratulations! Your guitar now should be tuned.

Tips: When matching the two harmonics together it should sound like 1 note is being played. If the tuning is off you can hear a "ripple" in the sound. It kind of has a wavy sound, sort of like vibrato. The farther away from the correct tuning you are, the faster the ripple sounds. The ripple sounds slower as you get closer to the correct tuning, until eventually it disappears when you are in perfect tune, and it sounds like one note. It is hard to explain, but you should begin to hear it over time when your ears get more practice.

Ask any questions below in the form if you have any and hopefully we can help you out.

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Comments (10)
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If you tune the A string to A440 using a tuning fork (or download an A440 mp3) and then tune the E string to the A and then continue on to the rest of the strings you will have your guitar tuned to concert pitch.

by John on

If you tune the A string to A440 using a tuning fork (or download an A440 mp3) and then tune the E string to the A and then continue on to the rest of the strings you will have your guitar tuned to concert pitch.

by John on

I think problem begins with 6 th string tuned to E. I have known many excellent guitar players, excellent meaning spot on at playing BY EAR. They have no idea if the 6th string is bottom Or top. Or where the E is. They may know terms like G, C, D etc. as chords, and can tune their guitar, but would would have trouble with this if fine tuning....

by Tracy on

Nice article but the word too means many, two means 2. You used too when it should be to. (your eyes rolling)

by Blake on

Theoretically, the harmonic method will not get you purely in tune, because the guitar is based on the 12 tone equal tempered scale, which has slightly flattened perfect 5ths. Tuning to harmonics based on the 5th of a string is tuning based on pure 5ths. I've also heard that harmonics will cause a string to go slightly sharp, which, I would think, would exacerbate the problem (your fifths may be slightly sharp rather than slightly flat, as they should be). Because of these issues, some will advocate tuning by the 5th fret to open string method. AT the end of the day, though, I've found through experimentation that I get much closer to an accurate tuning via the harmonic method, and so currently that is what I'm doing. Thanks for the article. :)

by Nick on

very educationnel thank you ff

by hibou on

Very informative, thanks a bunch!

by Will on

Tuning

How to tune Drop A??? I really don't know how it is?! ^_^ Thank you very much// :)

by MatthewSabangan on

Most excellent and understandable description. Thank you!

by Catherine on

Nice primer on playing harmonics. Good job.

by Scott on
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