Why can't I tune the B string of my guitar?

I used to be pretty good at tuning my guitar by ear. Now, several years away from daily music practice and a pair of ear surgeries later, I have a lot of trouble tuning my guitar. I was never good at getting the B string just right and now I’m having trouble with G. I’ve never been satisfied with electronic tuners, just my ears.
I always seem to be just sharp or just flat. I can never find that perfect middle pitch with B. Am I going tone deaf or is there some quality about the pitch of B that makes it difficult to find?
How much do the age of the strings and the manner in which they are strung affect the ability to tune your guitar?

Dude, you really need to use a tuner.

AGe of the strings can have some effect on their elasticity and therefore on their ability to hold a pitch. This can be very evident if they’ve been ON the guitar for a long time.

The same applies to the rest of the guitar as well.

Though age can easily be a part of it. Ears lose some function with age.

Oops, posted too soon! You should have relatively new strings. You may also need to get it set up; if you tune it and it still doesn’t sound right, there may need to be an adjustment to the truss rods or the bridge thingies.

Hell, I’m 22.

Use a tuner. They’re cheap and effective, and I guarantee no one will laugh at you (no one laughs at me for using one, anyway).

Also, as others have said: get new strings. Take your guitar in to a luthier to have a once-over. I see you live in Nashville. Humidity can play havoc with a neck, especially a single piece neck. A luthier will check that out when he sets the guitar up.

It shouldn’t cost you more than about $60 for a set up, as long as all the parts of the guitar are in good shape. That’s cheap compared to the hell of being out of tune allatime.

It could be any of a number of things.

  1. The strings are too old.

  2. The strings are too new. New strings tend to go out of tune really quickly I find. Make sure you give them several good stretched out away from the fretboard when tuning.

  3. Your fretboard may be warped. But if it sounds off to your ears while playing open strings, it’s probably not your fretboard.

Are you tuning the strings by comparison with a neighboring string?

That’s an okay method, but by the time you get to the farthest string, you cold be out of tune with the others.

Try tuning by alternating playing an E major chord and a G major chord. Arpeggiate the chords slowly and carefully to hear which strings need adjusting. If you can get those two sounding pretty well in tune, that’s about as good as you can hope for.

When I play on my own I’ve always been able to tune my guitar easily, but I found that when I played with others I had a harder time doing so. A tuner worked wonders.

G to B = major 3rd. All other string diffs = 4th. Get a tuner. Trust it.

My fav mantra: Get over it. Move on.

Strike a harmonic on the low (pitch) E string at the seventh fret (that is, lightly touch the string at the seventh fret but don’t press down, then pick the string.) The resulting note is called a harmonic.) Tune the B string to match that note. Also, the Harmonic at the fifth (or 24th) fret of low E will be high E.

All harmonics except the octave (12th fret) are slight out of tune, but the fifth (7th fret) and second octave (5th or 24th fret) are pretty close.

Gah, could anybody even read that!?

The B string is the black sheep of guitar strings anyway and can cause headaches especially if you have a floating bridge. You should certainly change your strings if the guitar has been sitting up a while. If you can tune all of the other strings by ear and you are only having trouble with the B string, chances are, it isn’t you.

You might want to get the intonation checked by a Luthier in your area. The length of your strings from bridge to nut is a pretty precise dynamic, and if your intonation is off then you will have a difficult time tuning the guitar.

Take everyone’s advice here and get a tuner. Every guitar I have ever picked up that has been tuned by ear has been off at least a little (usually flat). This will also assist in nailing down your problem with the B string as if you cannot get it right with a tuner, then you have a problem with the instrument, not your ear.

I live in the hot south as well and humidity isn’t really a factor unless you are playing indoors and outdoors alternately and extensively. It isn’t the heat or humidity that is affecting the wood on the guitar, but the rate of change from one extreme to the other (coming inside a cool environment from a hot outside environment).

In short, get a tuner and try tuning the B string with it. If you are still having trouble, get the intonation checked.

Hope this helps,

Huh, I was having trouble tuning my bass (even with an electric tuner) and this thread gave me some ideas (mostly, get new strings). Just thought I’d say thanks.

While tuners are excellent and definitely have their place, I think that learning to tune by ear from a tuning fork or piano (or even the dial tone) is an important part of training your ear. YMMV.

I didn’t see anybody hit this question directly, but all guitar strings are tuned on inverted 5ths except for the B string, which is a major 3rd. The major 3rd interval is more difficult to hear than a 5th, although it is not the hardest interval to hear.

That is the short answer. There is also a much, much longer answer that I am not competent to explain, but it has to do with the fact that there is no perfect tuning interval. A number of different tuning methods have been tried over time… all of them are pure in some way, whether mathematically or tonally, but each also has its advantages and disadvantages. In modern western music we usually use the 12th power of 2, and this produces the major 3rd that most people believe they can “hear”. But this tuning causes problems for fretted stringed instruments, especially electrical ones. It can cause your chords to get out of tune depending on where they’re played on the neck, or even the location where you pluck the string. Every tuning scheme has problems that appear in different styles of playing.

As to why you have noticed problems lately, it could be a lot of things. Have you started playing pieces that use more different parts of the neck? Do you have a new instrument that you don’t normally play? Are you listening to different kinds of music? The best thing to do is buy yourself a quality guitar tuner and learn how to use it correctly. Tuning a guitar is a more complex task than most people give it credit for.

as a quick cheap test you can try this its uncrippled shareware, I just plug my bass into the mic port and tune away. Its as good as any physical tuner I have bought. Its supposed to work just as well using a microphone but I havn’t tried it that way.

The length of a string on an acoustic guitar determines, to a large extent, the intonation of that string. On acoustic guitars that length is the result of a compromise. Most acoustics have a slanted saddle that achieves this compromise. Many people do not like this compromise and employ various techniques to modify it. Some saddles are carved in such a way as to individually compensate the string (i.e. one string may touch the front of the saddle while another touches the back, slightly lengthening the string). Some luthiers will similarly compensate the nut. There is a proprietary system called the ‘Buzz Feiten System’ which does something like this. I have never really figured out why it is proprietary.

Some guitarists (e.g. Tony Rice) simply retune the guitar depending on what key they are playing in. Others (e.g. me) really can’t hear the difference.

Having said that, I will simply echo what the other posters have said & recommend you take your guitar to a tech & explain the problem. Also, get a tuner.

Long shot, but worth checking:

Some strings get held up a bit in the nut groove. (This is more likely with wound strings, and I usually notice it with the G string.) What happens is the string doesn’t move smoothly through the nut when stretching or relaxing, but jumps, moving in small steps as it were. So it goes from slightly flat to slightly sharp without ever being just right. While you’re changing strings, carefully inspect the grooves in the nut. Any that are a bit small/tight, rough, incorrectly angled, or have too sharp an edge (either front or rear) could be a problem. Reconditioning or replacing the nut would be the cure.

Thank you! This is awesome.