You have your guitar. You want to play your guitar. Pretty basic right? Only one obstacle is in your way. You have to tune your guitar. Playing the guitar when it’s out of tune will make it impossible to play the notes you’d like and it won’t sound good at all.
This is really one of those basic skills that all musicians need to know how to do as they learn to play an instrument. Stringed instruments especially will need adjustments from time to time to make sure they sound their best.
In this article we’ll dive deep into when and why you will need to tune a guitar, the basics of it, and different items, electronics and gadgets to help you learn how to tune your guitar!
When Should You Tune your Guitar?
There are many reasons your guitar may need a tune, a few of which are:
1) You just bought a new guitar
2) You have been playing a lot, or heavily, which may cause deformation
3) After you change your strings
4) Your guitar is bumped around or undergoes significant temperature or pressure changes.
Basics of Tuning a Guitar
There are several ways to tune a guitar so it will play better. You can use an electronic tuner, with a piano, by using a tuning fork or pitch pipe, from another guitar that you know is in tune, relative tuning, by harmonics, or from an Internet source or phone app.
Regardless of which method you decide to use you should always start from the lowest string and work your way to the highest one. For standard tuning on a six-string guitar, this will mean you start with the low E (thickest) string and work your way to the high E string (thinnest).
The standard tuning for a six-string guitar is, started at the thickest string, tuned to the notes E A D G B e. There are a lot of ways that you can remember this acroynm, we’ve included 3 below. Use one of these or make one up yourself!
- E – Eddie
- A – Ate
- D – Dynamite
- G – Good
- B – Bye
- e – Eddie
- E – Eddie
- A – Ate
- D – Dynamite
- G – Good
- B – Bye
- e – Eddie
- E – Elephants
- A – And
- D – Donkeys
- G – Grow
- B – Big
- e – Ears
The first E is at the top of your guitar but is called the bottom string. This can be confusing but it is named that way because it produces the lowest notes. It is the thickest string and is sometimes referred to as the 6th string. The A string is the next string. It is the second thickest and is called the 5th string. D is the 4th; G the 3rd; B the 2nd and the high E is at the bottom of your guitar but called the top string or string #1.
Methods Used to Tune A Guitar
1. Electric Tuner
The best and most accurate method by far is to tune a guitar with an electronic tuner. These can be purchased at prices from $10 to $50 and in analog form (with a moving needle) or digital. We recommend a tuner from Snark or this one, from AxeRig. Acoustic guitar owners will want to be sure that the tuner has a microphone so that it picks up the sound of your guitar.
If your guitar is electric you can shop for a tuner that you can plug your guitar directly into. It is worth noting that many professionals feel that the tuner with the physical needle is more accurate that the digital tuners.
When using the analog and all good electric tuners they’ll have a needle that will sway or ‘light up’ in both directions around a center point. The objective is to have the needle hover on top of the needle to exactly tune to the note.
The picture to the left shows an E chord that is too sharp. Meaning it’s not quite true and as more and more of the yellow bars light up you’ll get closer to an F chord. If only red bars were lit up the note would be too flat.
Using an electric tuner is simple because all it requires is the knowledge of your open string notes that we already covered. After that, it is simply picking out each note until it’s perfect! Even with an electric tuner make sure you’re starting from your thickest string and working your way down (it’s a good habit).
If you have a piano that you know is in tune you can use the keys and tune each guitar string to its corresponding piano key. This is, of course, only as accurate as your ear’s ability to match the two. With practice, it is possible that you can become very accurate using a piano. This tuning method also allows the 3, 4, 2, 5, 1, 6 order to be used (string order).
3. Relative Tuning
Relative tuning is a method where you tune each of the strings to match the sound of the previous string. You can tune a guitar completely by this method and it will sound good as long as you are by yourself. If there is another guitar playing with you, however, you may not blend with the other guitar.
If this is the case you will want to tune one guitar and then tune the other to match. To be truly accurate with the relative method you must have a reference point from which to tune. The reference note is often the A note on the open 5th string and can be done with one of the methods described below.
The common way to do relative tuning is to employ the 5 5 5 4 5 method.
For example, if we play the fifth fret of the 6th string we will get an “A” note. So if we play the 6th string from the fifth fret we should have the same tone as the 5th string played open (with no fret). Assuming your 5th string is tuned correctly (or close) you can match the two notes. If they don’t sound the same simply adjust the 6th string until playing them together produces a single note.
Next, if we play the 5th fret of the 5th string and strum a “D” note will result. This is the same note as strumming the 4th string open (no fret). If they are not in tune you can adjust the 4th string since we know that the A string is already in tune. This will make sure your D string matches with the 5th and 6th.
To tune the 3rd string we can repeat the same process.
When we get to the 3rd string we need to strum at the fourth fret and the 2nd string open to produce matching “B” notes
To tune the final string we’ll return to playing the 5th fret of the 2nd string and the open 1st string. This will produce an “E” note that is one octave higher than the low E produced on the 6th string.
For a visual representation of what we just explained check out the video below!
4. Tuning by Harmonics:
Learning to tune a guitar by harmonics is a fairly difficult way of tuning the guitar and not something we recommend for beginners. If you’re interested in learning this method Get-Tuned has an in-depth article on it!
5. Tuning by Harmonics and Electric Tuner
This method is easiest if you tune in the 3, 4, 2, 5, 1, 6 string sequence. You can speed up the tuning process by doing it this way because natural harmonics carry the note for a considerable time after being played. To tune with this method you’ll want to use the 12th fret for all six strings.
6. Tuning Fork or Pitch Pipe
A benefit of using a pitch pipe or a fork designed for tuning is that they can be purchased for less than an electronic tuner. A tuning fork or pitch pipe for the note “A” has a frequency of 440 (vibrations per second.) The drawback here is that you must tune the 5th string, A, to the fork or pipe and then tune each of the other strings by ear in order.
7. From Another Guitar
If you learn how to tune with a piano, tuning with another guitar is fairly similar. If you have another guitar this way can be pretty easy as long as you know the other guitar is in tune. This is a really good way to tune if you’re going to be playing in a band or with multiple other instruments so they all will ‘match’.
8. From an Internet Tuning Source
There are sources that, one at a time, give you the tones of each of the six strings. If you have a good set of speakers on your computer you should be able to do a respectable job of tuning your guitar. Check out 8notes and ProGuitarTuner for two of our favorites!
9. Your Telephone
Yes. There is an app for that.
Guitar tuning using one of the methods above is easy, and with the price, availability, and size of electric tuners there is very little reason why one shouldn’t be readily available in most situations, but it’s nice to learn one or two of the other methods listed here just in case! Remember, it’s impossible to sound good if you’re not in tune!
Tuning Your Guitar – Final Thoughts
Eventually tuning your guitar will be as simple as playing a G chord. You’ll likely learn several different ways and many musicians I know are able to do it by ear they have so much experience with it. Practice a few different methods once a week or so, even if your guitar doesn’t need it you’ll get good practice out of it!
A ukulele player pretty much from birth, Edward has gone on to play banjo, lead guitar, and bass for a number of bands and solo projects! Edward loves talking, teaching and writing about music!