No matter how great you are as a player, if your guitar is out of tune nothing will sound good.
Knowing how to tune a guitar properly will ensure you always sound your best. And after this article, you’ll have everything you need to know.
Guitar Tuning Basics
Guitar tuning is done by turning the tuning pegs on the headstock. This will change the pitch of strings. Without a doubt you’ve already heard about Standard Tuning. This is how most guitarists tune their guitars. But what does it mean? Well, when you sit with your guitar in your lap and look straight down on it, the strings (if they are in perfect pitch) are as follows:
E Thickest string also referred to as 6th string
E Thinnest string also referred to as 1st string
There are several other types of tunings that are beneficial for certain styles of playing, but we’ll get to that later.
Tuning Theory & Tips
Now that you know what Standard Tuning is, it’s time we talk about the rest of the alphabet. It starts with the first seven letters, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. These are your available notes. Nothing more, nothing less.
Next thing on our list are Flats and Sharps, which are all the steps between these notes. So called half steps. The symbol for a flat note looks like a lowercase “b”, so for example a C flat written down in a tab would look this: Cb. The symbol for a sharp note looks more or less like a hashtag. So a C sharp would, if written down, look like this: C#
This means, that if you’re tuning your lower E string and you tighten the string, you’ll end up getting an E#. If you keep tightening it will become an F. If you’re loosening a string, the logic remains the same. Say you’re tuning your D string, and you loosen it, you’ll get a Db. If you loosen it some more it’ll become a C. Remember though, in standard tuning we stay away from sharps and flats.
In the beginning some people may struggle a little to remember the strings. Here is a list of acronyms I found that will hopefully make it a little easier to remember them:
Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually
Elvis Always Dug Good Banana Eating
Eat Apples Daily Grow Big Ears
How it’s done
There are a number of ways to tune a guitar and we will of course look at all of them, apart from using a tuning fork, as this equipment of wonder isn’t typically found in people’s homes nowadays. Unless of course you wanna go old school…
Most guitarists use electric tuners (or some app), another instrument or simply tune by ear. Regardless of which method you use, there is one general tip I would like to give: Always tune up to a note instead of tuning down to it. If your note is sharp, just bring it back down and tune up to it. Why is this important? The guitar stays in tune a lot longer.
When you start out, the easiest and most reliable way to tune your guitar is by using an Electric Tuner. First off, make sure it’s calibrated to 440 Hz. This is probably the default setting anyway, but just make sure. This is the standard tuning frequency, which is good to know. If you’re not tuned to that frequency you will sound a bit off.
They all pretty much work the same way. Switch it on and start plucking the strings one by one. Make sure the correct string name is showing on the display. Remember, the string can be way off, especially if you’ve just changed strings. Once the correct string is visible you can fine tune it and bring the needle exactly to the middle. The general rule of tuning up to the note applies.
There are 3 different types of electronic tuners:
The vibration based tuners clip on to your headstock, and measure the pitch through vibration. This is great if you’re in a noisy environment.
Equally accurate is the Microphone based tuner. Just know that since the microphone on the tuner must hear the guitar you need to be in a quiet room. Any noise will throw it off.
Plug-in / pedal-based
These are plugged in directly via cable into your guitar, just like a pedal or amp, and are super accurate. These are much more expensive than the other ones, but are abolutely fantastic.
This option works exactly like the Microphone-based tuner, and there are literally hundreds of them available for free. Many of them are decent, but I’m sure the quality varies a lot. Look around and see if you find anything you like. There are new apps and updates constantly popping up.
How to tune a guitar by using other instruments
If you have another instrument at home, or if you play with others, finding the correct pitch for your guitar is easy. If you don’t have another tuned guitar to go by, a keyboard or a piano will do nicely.
Tune your low E string to the E that is two octaves down from the middle C on the piano/keyboard. From there you can continue to match the next note on the piano to the next string.
How to tune a guitar by ear
Why not simply tune the guitar to itself? If you find yourself in a situation where you have no gadgets, instruments or friends to aid you, then you have to do it by ear. The good old fashioned way.
It’s not that hard, but just like when you tune up using another instrument, you use a reference pitch. And for this, a more trained ear will get you a more exact pitch. Here’s how it’s done.
Step 1 – You’re gonna use your sixth string as a reference to tune all the other strings. Perhaps your sixth string isn’t in perfect pitch, but since you’ll be playing on your own it doesn’t matter all that much. Start by holding it down on the fifth fret (which is an A), pluck it and then adjust your fifth string (A) to it.
Step 2 – When your open A string is in pitch with your fretted low E string, move on to the next string and repeat. So, fret your A string at the fifth fret, which makes it a D and bring your open D string to that pitch. Repeat this pattern for all strings, apart from one.
Step 3 – The exception here is the B string. To tune your B string, hold the G string down on the fourth fret.
That’s it, you’re done. If the guitar doesn’t sound good enough, just go through the process again. Maybe you missed a pitch. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect the first time, this is something you’ll gradually get better at the more you do it.
Alternate Guitar Tunings
Once you have a good understanding of standard tuning, it can be so much fun to experiment with alternate tunings. Many artists and bands have found inspiration for their songs using different tunings. They’ve come up with melodies and riffs that would otherwise be difficult, or downright impossible to play.
Here are just a few you can start playing around with.
Drop D Tuning
This one is awesome, and one of my favorites. Partly because of the sound, but also because it’s quick and effortless. Made popular by bands like Soundgarden, Foo Fighters and Alice In Chains, drop D tuning gives you that deep, resonant sound for your riffs. It is created by dropping your low E string to a D, and makes for a very easy and cool sounding power chord that can be played by barring the index finger across the three bottom strings.
Open G Tuning
Another popular tuning, in terms of it’s sound and relaxed feel, is the open G tuning. This means your guitar is tuned to a G chord, D G D G B D. Keith Richards in Rolling Stones has written many of their songs in an open G tuning, like Start Me Up, Brown Sugar and Honky Tonk Women. Try it out, and have fun.
Open D Tuning
This tuning, DADF#AD will give you a deep and warm sounding D major chord, with a drop D on the bottom three strings, and first-inversion major triad on the top three. The relaxed tension of this tuning makes it ideal for playing slide guitar. Play around with it, have fun, and let your inspiration flow.
How often shall I tune my guitar?
A poorly built guitar won’t hold the tuning even for one song, which can be extremely frustrating. But even well built quality guitars need regular tuning. I mean, sometimes you see guitarists on stage tuning their instrument after a couple of songs.
A good habit is to always tune your guitar before practice, and sometimes even during practice if necessary. You will hear when a bit tweaking is needed. If you have a new set of strings on they will go out of tune several times before they settle.
Change your strings often. If you change regularly you’ll keep your guitar in tune longer.
Stretch your guitar strings. When you do change strings, remember to stretch them a bit. Do this by gently tugging at them. This will make them stay in tune a lot easier.
Take care of your guitar. Store it in a bag or hard case where it’s fairly cool and dry. As we all know, changes in heat and humidity will cause the strings to go out of tune.
What to do next
A perfectly tuned guitar is a dream to play, it’s that simple. Once you get used to tuning your guitar regularly you’ll never even touch an instrument that is out of tune.
If you ever feel you get stuck in a rut, playing the same chords, the same songs and the same riffs, just go nuts and try out alternate tunings. It’ll open up your playing a lot more than think.
And why not pick up a few more songs to add to your list? Head on over to our guide on 21 super easy guitar songs.