As a beginner guitarist, tuning might be a bit of a foreign concept.
You may not even be able to hear different notes yet, let alone be able to tune one note to another.
Once you get the hang of it, you should be skilled at tuning your guitar(s). But getting to that point can take time.
In this detailed guide, we explore the importance of tuning as well as the exact step by step process you need to use to tune your guitar. Read on.
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Why Tune A Guitar?
If a guitar has strings on it, chances are it is somewhere in the ballpark of “in tune”.
But there are a few exceptions:
- If the strings are floppy and loose, it means no one has tightened the machine heads.
- If the strings seem especially tight and tense, someone has tightened the tuners too much (and, with that much tension, it’s probably a matter of time before they break).
- If there are no strings on it, they are likely being replaced, and a tech might be doing some work on the neck or frets too.
- If the guitar is missing a string or two, it likely means someone broke those strings.
Excepting these circumstances, the strings should be close to in tune because they’ve been sitting on the guitar for a while and have been “trained”.
But guitars don’t stay perfectly in tune and that’s one of the reasons they need to be tuned often.
I tune my guitars before every practice session, jam, rehearsal or gig. And, I recommend you do the same.
When a guitar is out of tune, it tends to sound bad relative to other instruments. Sometimes this is noticeable even to an untrained audience, who will think you’re an amateur if you don’t tune.
I’ve seen this play out in a band I was a part of before, and it was embarrassing.
Tuning is a skill you must master.
Why Hasn’t Someone Made Tuning Automatic/Unnecessary?
It seems like such a nuisance to have to tune a guitar. Why hasn’t someone invented a guitar that doesn’t require tuning?
The short answer is that there are already various solutions available, whether it’s the Roadie automatic guitar tuner, self-tuning guitars or otherwise.
Perhaps the most significant and useful discovery/invention, however, is the double-locking bridge.
On a guitar with a double-locking tremolo system, there are three screws and plates where a nut would normally sit.
The screws and plates keep the strings locked in place and mostly unaffected by the machine heads.
Likewise, the strings “lock” into the bridge to reduce tuning issues.
The reason the double-locking bridge was invented is because some guitar players wanted to be able to use their whammy bar without their guitar falling out of tune.
Before the double-locking bridge, there were various methods for keeping a whammy-equipped guitar in tune but none of them worked quite as well.
With a double-locking tremolo system, you can use your whammy bar to the nth degree without the guitar falling out of tune (if it’s a proper double-locking system).
Aside from that, it’s common for guitarists to use more than one tuning to play their own original material or someone else’s songs.
There are plenty of Nu Metal bands, for instance, that relied on dropped tunings for that heavier sound. And, many modern metal bands carry on that tradition.
So, for many guitarists, it’s important to be able to change the tunings of their guitar, sometimes on the fly, and sometimes in more relaxed settings.
A440 (440 Hz) is considered pitch standard and is typically how people tune their instruments.
There are other ways of tuning, however, such as 432 Hz. This requires fine-tuning but some electronic tuners have this feature built in.
Why you would want to tune to anything other than A440 is another conversation for another time, but it basically comes down to how a piece sounds and feels in a certain pitch.
How To Tune Your Guitar By Ear Without A Tuner
Tuning your guitar by ear is a good skill to have.
Now, unless you have perfect pitch, you will only ever be tuning the guitar to itself – not necessarily to the exact pitch it should be at.
But this can still be helpful in low-pressure scenarios where you’re practicing alone, playing for some friends at a party or campfire and the like.
There are two methods I’ll introduce here.
Method #1: Standard Tuning Method
The standard tuning method is almost universal among guitarists and it’s how most beginners are taught to tune their guitars.
The first thing you need to do is ensure that you’re happy with the sixth string E, because this is what you’ll be tuning the rest of your guitar to.
If you think it’s flat, tighten the string. If it’s sharp, loosen the string.
In this scenario, we don’t have anything to tune our guitar to, so we’ll be tuning it to itself.
Once you’re happy with E string, it’s time to tune the A string.
Place your index finger at the fifth fret of the sixth string and “fret the note” (this is an A note).
Ensure that your finger is curled and not touching (i.e. muting) any strings below it, especially the A string.
Now play the A note on the sixth string and the open A note on the fifth string in order.
Listen to the two notes and compare. Is the A string in tune with the A you just played on the sixth string?
If it’s flat, tighten the string. If it’s sharp, loosen the string. If it’s fine, leave it and move to the next string.
But if you don’t hear any difference right now, it’s likely because your ear has yet to develop. Don’t worry – you can get the hang of this with more experience.
But I digress. The process is much the same for the next string.
You’ll want to place your index finger at the fifth fret of the fifth string (this is a D note).
Now play the D on your fifth string and the open D on the fourth string.
For the third string – place your finger on the fifth fret of the fourth string (G). Now compare this G with the open G on the third string. Tune.
Second string – place your finger on the fourth fret (this is the only time you’ll use the fourth fret instead of the fifth) of the third string (B). Now compare this note to the open B on the second string. Tune.
First string – place your finger on the fifth fret of the second string (E). Now compare this E to the open E on the first string. Tune.
If you have a good sense of how each note should sound, you shouldn’t have any trouble tuning.
But as I already mentioned, it can take a while for your ear to develop. So, take your time with this.
Sometimes, guitars are a little “stubborn” and will need to be tuned multiple times to keep tune. Keep this in mind.
Method #2: Harmonic Tuning Method
The harmonic tuning method isn’t necessarily more precise or better, contrary to popular belief.
All tuning methods are highly dependent on your guitar’s intonation, and if it’s out of whack, it’s not going to make much difference.
But the harmonics method is still reliable, so I’ll show you how it works.
First, a crash course in harmonics.
As a beginner, you may have never played harmonics before so it’s important that we go over this.
Know it or not, your guitar can produce higher pitched tones, even at lower frets. When you play a harmonic on the guitar, you get a flute- or chime-like sound.
When playing a harmonic, you need to hold your finger(s) lightly above the target frets and pick the note as you normally would, with your picking hand.
There are harmonics all over the fretboard. But for now, all you need to know is that the harmonics at the fifth, seventh and 12th are the most pronounced and easy to play.
So, if you were to lightly touch any string above the fifth, seventh or 12th fret and pick the note, you should hear a harmonic.
If all you hear is a scratch or muted note, you likely need to lighten up on the pressure. You don’t need to press down on the strings at all to produce a harmonic. You just need to be touching the string and release after you pick.
Now for the tuning method.
As with the standard tuning method, we’re either going to leave the low E string alone or tune it up until it sounds right to our ears.
With that out of the way, we’re ready to tune the remaining strings.
First, we’ll play a harmonic on the fifth fret of the low E string. Then, we’ll play a harmonic on the seventh fret of the A string.
These two notes should sound alike. I find it a little easier to hear the variance in pitch because of how the strings vibrate when you play harmonics.
You may agree or disagree. Either way, you’ll want to adjust your A string until it sounds right to you.
If it’s flat, tighten the string. If it’s sharp, loosen it.
We can do this with the next two strings as well.
So, to tune your D, you can play a harmonic at the fifth fret of the fifth string. Compare this to the seventh fret of the fourth string. Tune.
Third string – play the harmonic at the fifth fret of the fourth string and compare it to the seventh fret of the third string. Tune.
Now, on the guitar, you’re always having to compensate for the B string, and that goes for tuning too.
We can’t just play a harmonic on the fifth fret of the third string and seventh fret of the second string and compare. Unfortunately, they aren’t the same note.
So, to tune your second string, you can play the harmonic on the seventh fret of the sixth string and the harmonic on the 12th fret of the second string.
In the picture, I'm playing the harmonic on the sixth string seventh fret. The other harmonic, if you remember, is on the 12th fret of the second string.
Finally, the first string. You can simply play the harmonic at the fifth fret of the second string and seventh fret of the first string. Tune.
Again, neither of the two methods introduced are right or wrong. But there is a good chance you’ll develop a comfort level with one over the other.
How To Tune A Guitar With A Tuner
Tuning your guitar with a tuner is perhaps the easiest and most reliable method.
There are different tuners out there, and depending on what unit you’re using, the exact steps may vary.
In this example, I’m using a Korg tuner.
First, you’ll want to turn your tuner on. Regardless of what tuner you’re using, there should be an “on/off” button of sorts.
I’m using an electric guitar to demonstrate, so I’m going to plug my guitar directly into the tuner using a 1/4“ cable.
This is not obligatory, regardless of what tuner you’re using. Typically, you can use the tuner with or without an instrument cable. This is the case with the Korg, too.
Next, I will ensure that my guitar’s volume is up. If I don’t do this, my tuner won’t pick up any signal from the guitar, making it impossible to tune.
If you plan to tune using an instrument cable, you’ll want to do the same – make sure the volume is turned up.
Now we can begin the process of tuning.
Let’s start with the sixth string – the E note.
When I play the E note on the guitar, I’m going to see a hand moving from side to side.
If my guitar is out of tune (red light), I will see the hand pointing a little to the left (flat) or a little to the right (sharp).
The display should also show the note name, which in this case is E.
All I need to do to get that hand to center (green light) is to turn the machine head in the appropriate direction.
If it’s flat, I will tighten the string. If the note is sharp, I will loosen the string.
But if I’m sharp, I will first tune way down before scooping back up into the target note. This helps pick up any slack there is in the string, which can save you from having to tune all over again.
Now we can repeat the process for each string.
The fifth string is an A.
The fourth string is a D.
The third string is a G.
The second string is a B.
The first string is an E.
As you play each string and observe the display, you can determine whether you need to tighten or loosen each. In some cases, the string will already be in tune and you won’t need to do anything.
What If My Tuner Shows A Note Name Other Than What It Should Be Showing?
Now, we’ve identified each string for what it is, but there are times when you go to tune a string, only to find that the display is showing an unexpected note name.
Sometimes this is just a glitch and all you need to do is play the string again and ensure all the others are muted.
Sometimes your tuner is just on the wrong setting (e.g. you’ve added sharps or flats).
But at other times your string (or strings) are out of tune to the point where the tuner only recognizes them as something else.
This is where knowing the musical alphabet can be of huge help. Otherwise, you might be a little lost as to whether a specific note is sharp or flat.
This will be review for some and new to others. Let’s have a quick look at the musical alphabet:
So, there are 12 notes total in music.
First, we have what are called “natural notes”. For instance: A, B, C and so on.
Then we have the in-between “accidental notes”: C#, D#, F# and so on.
Note that all accidental notes go by two names. A# is also Bb. G# is also Ab. F# is also Gb. You get the idea.
The distance between notes that are one space apart is called a half step. The distance between notes that are two spaces apart is called a whole step.
So, let’s say, for instance, that you go to tune the sixth string, and your tuner shows a D (instead of an E as you would expect).
If you had to guess, would the string be sharp or flat?
I would say it’s a good bet it’s flat, because D is only a whole step below E. It would be wild if someone tuned your low E to a higher D, or if your guitar somehow got banged up to the point where your string got tightened to that point. Your string would probably be broken!
In this way, we can use our observational skills and deductive reasoning to come up with a good theory around whether the string needs to be tightened or loosened.
And, you should absolutely use your senses to assess the situation unless you want to break more strings!
Here’s one more example:
Let’s say you’re trying to tune the A string. But when you play it, your display shows A#.
Would the string be sharp or flat?
I would say there’s a good chance it’s sharp, because A# is only a half-step up from A.
If your string was flat, it would probably be floppy to the extent that it was barely playable.
So, it’s relatively common to see unexpected note names on your display. Make sure you know a bit of music theory so you can deal with this situation without breaking strings.
How To Tune A Guitar With A Piano
Another common tuning method is tuning to a piano.
The piano is a popular instrument, and though not everyone owns a piano, it’s typical to see at least one keyboard instrument in every household.
Tuning to a piano is simple, assuming you know what you’re doing, and you’ve got a good ear for musical notes.
First, you must know your string names.
In case you hadn’t picked this up already, the string names on your guitar are thus, beginning with the lowest (thickest) string: E, A, D, G, B, E.
Now, we need to identify where these notes are on the piano.
If you’ve got a good ear, you don’t need to find the exact octaves, but just in case, I’ve taken some pictures to show you where the exact notes can be located.
Fortunately, if you know where the C note lives on the piano, finding the others is easy. We don’t need to play any black keys, because we won’t be tuning any of our strings to sharp or flat notes.
The first note we need, of course, is an E.
Once you’ve found where it is, all you need to do is play the key (or have someone else play it) and compare it to the sixth string on your guitar. Tune.
From here, we can go relatively rapid fire.
What we need to do now is find the next A note on the keyboard – the one closest to the E we just played.
Then, play the A key and compare it to the A string on your guitar. Tune.
In the same manner, we’ll move up to the closest D on the piano for the next string. Play the key and compare it to your fourth string. Tune.
Play the G key and compare it to your third string. Tune.
Play the B key and compare it to your second string. Tune.
Play the E key and compare it to your first string. Tune.
Note that pianos don’t always have perfect tune and even if you are in tune with the piano, you may not be in tune with other instruments.
That’s fine if you’re playing alone or with the pianist, but not so great if you’re playing with other players who’ve tuned to a tuner, for instance.
This is where keyboard instruments (as shown here) have a bit of an advantage, as most don’t require tuning and are automatically in tune the moment you turn them on.
How To Tune Your Guitar Relative To Another Instrument
There are plenty of other instruments out there, whether it’s harmonica, recorder, flute, tuba, violin, cello, bass or otherwise.
I’m not going to get into specifics here, because the exact method for tuning to another instrument is essentially the same as a piano.
Unfortunately, you may not know how to play the instrument you’re thinking about tuning to.
If you have a friend or family member that can play the instrument, then get them to play whatever note you’d like to start with.
If they know their way around their instrument, they should be able to play you an E, for instance.
And, once you have one string in tune, you can tune the rest using the methods introduced earlier. It’s not necessary to get more than one note from another instrument to tune up your guitar, although you can if you want.
Should You Tune Your Guitar By Ear Or With A Tuner?
This is generally how people think about tuning using these two methods:
- By ear. A shotgun approach. You may come close to proper pitch tuning by ear. If you have perfect pitch, you may even get it spot on. But most people will only be ale to get the guitar in tune relative to itself or to another instrument, which is insufficient for professional use – on stage or in the studio.
- With a tuner. A sniper approach. You can tune with more accuracy and precision using a tuner. Notwithstanding, this doesn’t mean your tuner’s always right. Some guitarists have found their tuners to be unreliable and imprecise. You should always know your own gear inside and out.
For solo practice sessions and casual performances, you’re welcome to tune by ear. Assuming it’s just for fun, you probably can’t do any harm (assuming you don't loosen or tighten your strings too far).
For recording, gigging and any professional engagement, you should always use a tuner.
How To Tune A Guitar For Beginners, Final Thoughts
Tuning a guitar can take practice, so take your time and don't get discouraged.
Remember to tune up your guitar every time you use it, as that will help you gain plenty of experience over time.
Even if your guitar holds great tune, never assume that it’s always in tune. Going on stage with a detuned guitar comes across amateurish, even to untrained audiences.
Once you’ve mastered this skill, you should never need to refer to this guide again. So, go over it as many times as you need until you’ve got this under lock.