Perhaps the very first thing to master if new to the guitar is tuning. It’s the first thing you should do when picking up a guitar, as regardless of your playing ability if the guitar is poorly tuned it’s just never going to sound good.
Learning how to tune a guitar isn’t difficult, but there are a few traps to avoid ~ to save time, ensure tuning stability, prevent breaking strings, and even prevent injury (did I ever tell you about the time a broken high E string went right through the tip of my thumb 🙂
There are also those occasions when you may not have a tuner available. So, in the following article, we’re going to discuss the basics of tuning your guitar, (with and without a guitar tuner). We’ll also go over some lesser-known tips and tricks that help increase tuning stability and make you less likely to tremble with fear when tuning that high E string.
Guitar tuning – the basics
The order of the strings
Whether you use an electronic tuner or tune manually it’s essential to memorize the order of the strings E, A, D, G, B, E (from lowest to highest pitch).
It’s also useful to use an acronym to memorize the string order. Perhaps the most often used is Eddie Ate Dynamite. Good Bye Eddie.
The tuning pegs
The direction you turn your tuning pegs (aka machine heads and/or tuners) depends on the direction the strings are wound onto the tuning peg posts. But, in most cases, they are wound from inside to out, or clockwise, as this prevents the strings from coming into close contact with one another on the headstock.
Naturally then, to raise the pitch of a string turn the tuning pegs clockwise, and to lower the pitch turn counter-clockwise.
If you’re new to the guitar check out our article on acoustic guitar anatomy, it goes into more detail about tuning pegs, ‘gear ratio’, and the types available.
How hard to hit the strings
How hard you hit your strings when tuning or the attack you place on your strings should closely match the attack you would normally play with.
While it’s only marginal if you hit the strings harder you will raise the pitch ever-so-slightly. And, as more tension is placed upon the string, the string stretches more than it normally would, which raises the pitch.
How to restring a guitar
Lastly, you will need to restring the guitar. I’ll include a more detailed article in the future covering this, but for now, keep a couple of things in mind:
- When the bridge pin is in place pull lightly on the string to ensure the ball-end won’t slip when tension is increased on the string.
- If the ball end starts rising out of the bridge pin when tightening the string, hole hold the pin in place reasonably firmly while tightening the string.
- Always tune from inside to out e.g. turn clockwise to tighten the strings
- Maintain approx. 2 inches of slack in the string before you start winding
- Position each wind lower than the previous on the tuning post
- Tune up to pitch rather than down. Tuning down can result in the string slipping, especially if the nut grooves are tight.
- Stretch the strings, tune again and repeat.
Restringing in this way keeps the string lower on the post at the point of contact which increases the downward pressure on the nut and provides greater tuning stability. Stretching the strings is also well worth taking the time to do. New strings tend to go out of tune very easily. Stretching the strings first takes any potential slackness out of the strings and saves you re-tuning.
How to tune your guitar with an electronic tuner
Most people tune their guitars using an electronic tuner. And, if you have one available, use it, as you will be in tune with the rest of the world, not just your own guitar.
I’ve written a fairly lengthy article on guitar tuners, the different types, and how they work, but if you don’t have a tuner and don’t know what to get, clip-on tuners are a great, inexpensive, modern innovation.
Some argue that they’re not as precise as a pedal or strobe tuner but they tend to perform pretty well on tests I’ve seen and the difference in accuracy (if any) is well and truly accounted for in terms of practicality, and price.
In any case, regardless of the tuner, you will be using, pedal, clip-on or other, tuning your guitar using a tuner is simply a matter of turning the tuning pegs on your guitar until the pitch matches the pitch indicated on the tuner. Usually, this is in the form of a digital needle that oscillates indicating how close in pitch you are to the desired note.
Once in tune, the digital display will usually indicate you are in tune. In most cases, digital tuners will display a green LED button when you are in tune and red led lights to indicate that you are sharp or flat (see image above).
Which mode to use….chromatic or guitar?
Most electronic tuners will have different settings available including chromatic, guitar, and bass at the very least. In our case, when tuning a guitar you can use chromatic or guitar. The difference is that when selecting guitar mode, only the notes the strings are intended to be tuned to are indicated on the tuner e.g. E, A, D, G, B, and E.
If using chromatic mode you will see the next nearest note of the chromatic scale, which are all the notes used in western music and not limited to just the strings on your guitar. The disadvantage of this is you only know how close in pitch you are to the nearest note, not the next closest note on the guitar’s open strings (E, A, D, G, B, and E). The advantage is if you want to tune down half a step, tune to drop D or try an alternate tuning you are not limited by standard tuning.
You may have also heard the term polyphonic tuning, which means rather than tuning each string individually the tuner will detect the frequency of each string individually when strummed together. While only a fairly recent development, at least for guitars (consider the shape of the Fender Stratocaster has remained the same for almost 60 years) a number of electronic tuners now include this feature, including some clip-on tuners.
How to tune a guitar without a tuner
There are a few different ways to go about tuning your guitar without a tuner, but two, in particular, are most commonly used. Relative tuning, also known as the 5th fret method, and tuning using harmonics. We’ll cover both in more detail shortly, but before we can do that you will require a reference note to ensure you are tuning to concert pitch.
How to find reference notes
To tune your guitar without a tuner, you will need to use a reference note. This means you will need to match the pitch of a note from another instrument or device, and then use your ear to tune the corresponding string on your guitar to the same pitch. Then use the newly tuned string as a reference note for the rest of the guitar.
It’s not really, but it can be made more difficult if you are trying to tune to a reference note that isn’t within the same octave, as our ears have more trouble when notes are further apart (have wider intervals) on the musical spectrum despite being the same note.
Tuning forks are a good option here. They are essentially a two-pronged steel fork that vibrates at the frequency of the reference note when struck. Most are designed to vibrate at 440Hz which equates to middle A in pitch. However, there are also tuning forks available that vibrate at approx. 329.6 which equates to middle E.
If you are referencing a piano, E is always the note on a white key, two keys to the left of the first of the three black keys.
Once you have a reference and have tuned one of the strings of your guitar to match the reference note you can then tune the rest of the guitar using either the 5th fret method or using harmonics. We’ll discuss tuning by harmonics next, but first, we’ll cover the 5th fret method aka relative tuning as this is the most common.
How to tune a guitar using relative tuning (the 5th fret method)
In the diagram above, you will notice red lines extending from the open strings to the fifth fret on the next lowest string, on all strings except the B string (the second thinnest string).
On the guitar’s fretboard, you can always match the note of any open string by playing a note on the 5th fret of the string lower in pitch, with the exception of the 5th string (B) which matches the pitch of the 4th fret of the G string.
- To begin, turn the low E string’s tuning peg clockwise to raise the pitch of the string (or counter-clockwise if you need to reduce the pitch relative to the reference note). Once you have matched the pitch of the reference note, move on to the A string.
- Tune your A string by fretting the 5th fret of the E string (A) and adjusting the tuning peg of the A string until in tune.
- Repeat this for the 4th and 3rd strings.
- Play the 4th fret of the G string and turn your B (second thinnest string) clockwise or counter-clockwise until it matches the pitch of the 4th fret G string.
- Play the 5th fret of the B string and match the pitch of the open high E string.
- Play an open chord e.g. EMaj and listen for any strings in tune. It can be useful to play an arpeggio to hear a greater separation of the notes.
This is how relative tuning works. But, keep in mind unlike using a tuner, you are going to need to rely on your ears. Getting things wrong initially can be much like building on poorly planned foundations e.g. if tuning your A string based on the 5th fret of the low E string and you are out fractionally, this will lead to the next string being out of pitch and so on, exaggerating the impact with each string you tune.
This is why I would always recommend an electronic tuner where possible, especially if just new to the guitar but as this isn’t always possible it’s helpful to learn relative tuning.
How to tune your guitar using harmonics
You can also use natural harmonics to tune your guitar. If unaware, if you gently press above the 5th, 7th, 12th, or 19th fret wires on your guitar’s neck and pluck the corresponding open string you will create a harmonic.
A harmonic is a multiple of the fundamental (the predominant frequency and also the lowest frequency of the waveform).
In simple terms, whenever you play a note the most prominent sound heard is known as the fundamental. However, the string also vibrates in different ways. This produces additional frequencies, referred to as overtones.
How overtones are emphasized is what gives instruments their own voice, or timbre. Harmonics are simply overtones that are multiples of the fundamental tone. E.g. a second-order harmonic vibrates at twice the frequency of the fundamental.
The advantage to tuning by harmonics is you don’t need to keep your hand on the fretboard, as harmonics will continue to ring out even after removing your hand. It’s also true that when fretting a note you are stretching the note slightly which can affect tuning.
Tuning by harmonics
Much like relative tuning, there is a pattern to follow when tuning by harmonics.
- Play the harmonic at the 5th fret on the 6th string (the thickest string) and then take your hand away
- Play the 7th fret harmonic on the 5th string and compare. When the two frequencies are far apart you will hear a pulsing sound, technically known as a ‘beat’. As you begin adjusting the A string the pulses will become shorter until eventually, they are indistinguishable from one another, signifying the strings are now in tune.
- Repeat this process for all strings on the guitar until you reach the 2nd string (The B string).
- To accurately tune the 2nd string to pitch, play the 7th fret harmonic on the 6th string and match this to the open B string (You won’t need to play a harmonic here).
- As you have previously, begin adjusting the 2nd string until it matches the pitch of the 7th fret harmonic on the 6th string.
- Repeat the process from earlier and tune the 6th string (the high E) referencing the 5th fret harmonic on the 5th string to the 7th fret harmonic on the 6th string.
Why do we tune a guitar to standard tuning?
It’s important to keep in mind we are referring to standard tuning in the examples above. I’ve written a number of articles on alternate tunings if you are interested, but I’d avoid venturing into new territory until you have a better understanding of standard tuning and concert pitch.
What is concert pitch?
Concert pitch is a standardized pitch reference. It’s based on the frequency of the A (above middle C) being at 440Hz. This serves as a reference and allows all instruments tuned to concert pitch to be in tune with one another. It has been a standard since the 19th century. In case you are wondering (guitarists don’t often refer to middle C after all) middle C is the C located in the middle of a standard 88 key piano, also referred to as C4.
Tips for Keeping your Guitar in Tune
Be mindful of humidity
Changes in relative humidity can do strange things to guitars. Being an organic product, the wood of your guitar once losing its initial moisture content tends to match the relative humidity of the environment it is in. If the relative humidity is high the wood will have a higher moisture content and expand, stretching the strings and raising the pitch of the strings.
Alternatively, if humidity is low wood contracts, introducing slack to your strings and causing them to lower in pitch.
Be careful about leaning your guitar
A friend once explained to me that if you are going to lean your guitar against a wall, lean it inward e.g. with the strings facing the wall to counter the tension the strings are already placing on the neck.
Perhaps an even better idea is to just use a guitar stand, as leaning your guitar against anything will increase the chances of it brewing bumped and hitting the floor.
Should you loosen your strings before traveling?
There’s an argument to be made that taking the tension of your strings will allow the guitar to more easily adjust to changes in cabin pressure and relative humidity when flying. But, considering almost all manufacturers ship their guitars in tune it’s a 50/50 call at best. Perhaps just avoid United Airlines if traveling 🙂
Change your strings
Don’t be stingy about changing your old strings. Older strings won’t stay in tune and won’t sound anywhere near as good as a set of fresh strings. If you are unsure as to how often to change your strings, it mostly depends on how often you play and how well you maintain your strings. This article explains things in more detail.
I remember when I first started playing guitar how difficult I found tuning to be. I would regularly break my high E and sometimes B strings due to over-tightening as my ears weren’t up to the task of detecting if the string was sharp or flat, which was frustrating considering the nearest music store was over half an hour away and I was too young to drive.
Hopefully, the information above helps you avoid this kind of issue.
Keep in mind while relative and harmonic tuning can be useful to learn, I wouldn’t recommend relying on either method when first starting out unless checking with an electronic tuner. As you become more accustomed to the guitar you will begin to recognize by ear if the individual strings need to be raised or lowered in pitch. Just remember to raise the note to pitch when tuning and always stretch your strings when first installed to take the slackness out of the strings rather than have the strings regularly go out of tune when new.