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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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Recent Comments on this PageView All Posts
Jessica [11/16/2011 14:27]

This is an excellent tutorial and discription of harmonic tuning for a beginner. I have always found the difference to be amazing between tuning a guitar the standard way and the tuning harmonically. It just sounds so much cleaner. Thank you for this great website.

BlindGuyEars [08/09/2012 13:11]

I hate to say this, because I know your intention is to help people tune up easily. But, tuning by the method you describe produces inaccurate results. And, if people are going to insist on not using an electronic tuner, they need to use a reliable method. It's too much to go into here, but basically, the harmonics that occur in nature are not the same pitches used in the equal temperament tuning, the method underlying the western musical tradition since Bach's time. As it relates to the 5th and 7th fret comparison, the 7th fret harmonics will always be slightly flat, and this flatness is increased as you progress across each pair of strings! Geeky Details: When you use a 7th fret harmonic a pure overtone perfect 12th above the open string is produced. If you use this tone as a yardstick to tune some other string to, you will not be tuning properly to equal temperament. For example: The note produced from the 7th fret harmonic of your A string is exactly E = 330Hz. In equal temperament your E string’s 5th fret harmonic (remember that perfect octaves, not 5ths, are produced at the12th fret harmonic and the 5th fret harmonic) should be exactly E = 329.628Hz. The only harmonics to use when tuning are those which have an octave relationship to the note being tuned, i.e. 5th or 12th fret. Anything accept octaves or unisons will be slightly out of tune! For more on harmonics, check out a blog post I wrote just yesterday. ... harmonics/ If you want to tune by ear, I propose the following method, courtesy of Joey Goldstein's excelent book: Joeís Guitar Method Towards A Jazz Improviserís Technique: "My own tuning method is as follows. It assumes that your guitar is properly intonated so that fretted notes all across the fretboard are perfectly in tune: Tune your A string using a pitch pipe, tuning fork, piano, electronic tuner, or whatever. Fret your 4th string at the 7th fret (A) and adjust the tuning of the 4th string until there are no beats with the open 5th string. Fret your 3rd string at the 2nd fret (A) and adjust the tuning of the 3rd string until there are no beats with the open 5th string. Fret your 2nd string at the 10th fret (A) and adjust the tuning of the 2nd string until there are no beats with the open 5th string. Fret your 1st string at the 5th fret (A) and adjust the tuning of the 1st string until there are no beats with the open 5th string. Tune your low E string to the high E string so that there are no beats. (note you can use the 5th string harmonic on the 6th string for this comparison if you wish, since the notes are both E) This method gets one note in tune and then uses it as a reference, rather than getting the first note almost in tune, and then de-tuning across each successive pair of strings.

Stevo [12/07/2012 19:49]

The above spiel on the pitfall of tuning by harmonics is correct as confirmed by years of experience playing/tuning and setting up of good quality guitars. Also by the raw physics of 'equal temperament' tuning as per the exact frequency designation of each particular note. Another verification is the†professional piano tuner at work.†He tunes related notes within an octave by a counting of beat frequencies between these notes (the 'ripple' as referred to in core article). Contrary†to the instruction to tune for no ripple or waviness (zero beat frequency), certain intervals are to have a very particular, low frequency (rate) of beat ...a wahh ~ wahh ~ wahh ~ wahh sound of a certain rate that the tuner is trained to listen for. The greater the difference between the two notes, the higher the beat frequency, the closer, the lower the beat. And when the same, no beat (which is correct for tuning of octaves). The correct rate of beat frequency between harmonically generated intervals of interest can be calculated by subtracting the two resultant frequencies, as designated by the equal temperament tuning and the applied harmonic division. ie beat frequency, Fb = F1 - F2. If this method is used, it's important to approach the desired beat frequency from the correct side, relative to the reference string. This is because the same beat frequency results if F2 is a certain amount sharp relative to F1 or flat relative to F1.

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