How to tune your guitar using Harmonics

Author: Ian Bush  Date Posted:16 November 2020 

So we have all been there. you’re at a friend’s house and they have a guitar and it’s terribly out of tune - but they don’t have a tuner.

What can you do? 

Tune with harmonics!

So what is the best way to tune a guitar using harmonics and how does it all work?

I learnt this great little trick about 20 years ago, one of the guys I was working with showed it to me and I have never tuned a guitar the "old way" since.

Firstly, you need to know how to play a harmonic. This is pretty easy. What you need to do is if the harmonic is the 5th fret, place your finger on the 5th fret, but don't press the string down. When you now play the string, you will hear a note ring out, this is what's called a natural harmonic

Your low E (6th string) has to be reasonably close to tune. If not your whole guitar will be tuned to a different note. Sometimes it's good to be able to know roughly what an E note sounds like, but if you can't tell you can always use a tuning app on your phone, or some sort of reference to the note E. I commonly use a piano or keyboard if I don't have anything else available. As long as the string is roughly in tune, you can still tune it and get something playable out of it, albeit if you're going to play with someone else, you should probably just get a tuner. 

what harmonics you need to play, and how to tune them. 

Low E, 6th String, 5th fret harmonic = A, 5th string, 7th fret harmonic. This means you need to play the 5th fret harmonic on the 6th string, and then tune the 5th string, 7th fret harmonic to be the same sound.

When you tune using harmonics, there are 2 frequencies to listen to. If the notes don't match, you will hear the sound “wobble” and it will be obvious that these two sounds are not the same. What you then do is change the pitch of the string you're trying to tune to get it to work. If you make that “wobbling” sound go slower, you're getting closer. You want to keep going until there is no difference between them, that's when you know the string is in tune. 

Here's a quick list of what strings and what harmonics to use:

E 6th String, 5th fret harmonic = A 5th string, 7th fret harmonic.
A 5th String, 5th fret harmonic = D 4th string, 7th fret harmonic
D 4th String, 5th fret harmonic = G 3rd string, 7th fret harmonic
E 6th String, 7th fret harmonic = B 2nd string, open
A 5th String, 7th fret harmonic = e 1st string, open


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