The goal of this page is to teach you how to tune a guitar. I will use pictures to illustrate to make it easier to follow. It’s not too difficult a process so you should be tuning your guitar with ease in no time.
I will demonstrate both how to tune with a tuner and how to tune by ear.
This article assumes that the reader knows nothing or very little about tuning a guitar.
Why is Tuning so Important?
It is really important that a guitar is in tune for everyone’s sake!
But it is especially important for beginners. A beginner needs to know that any errors being made are because of something they are doing wrong and not because the guitar is out of tune.
If you aren’t sure if it sounds bad because it is out of tune or because you made an error it is going to be a very slow learning process so you need to make sure the guitar is always in tune (those around you will thank you too!)
If you are just a beginner you are going to want to learn how to tune your guitar like it’s second nature. Guitars go out of tune for many reasons – simply playing it and changes in temperature and humidity being two of the main ones.
Tuning by Ear
First I will explain how to tune by ear. This may sound daunting to the beginner but it’s not too difficult and practice will definitely make you better.
And there are always those times when you won’t have your tuner around, or the battery runs out, and you need to tune your guitar.
You may still want to use your tuner before and during gigs and before and during recordings but learning how to tune by ear is a very important and useful skill to have.
But Don’t I Need Perfect Pitch to Tune by Ear?
Not at all. Having perfect pitch is a blessing and a curse in many ways. Even the slightest bit out of tune really bugs those with perfect pitch so they are constantly tuning and are more aware when listening to someone else playing that is even marginally out.
I’m sure those with perfect pitch (I’m not one of them by the way) will back me up that it’s not all sunshine and roses.
You can train yourself to become more tonally aware – you most likely won’t ever achieve perfect pitch but you can certainly train your ear to be better.
Only 1 in around 10,000 people have perfect pitch so don’t worry if you don’t have it you can still tune by ear.
You are going to need a reference note to get started. Start by tuning one of your strings (either the low E or the A string) based on a reference note. You can get your reference note from the internet, a piano, tuning fork, pitch pipe or a tuner.
If you have an internet connection when you need to tune, there are plenty of online tuners that you can use – and of course you can use these to tune each string rather than just finding the reference note.
The online tuner at the link above is the best one I have found. It allows you to play each string as a one-off sound or you can select it so that the string plays over and over again (either slow, medium or fast).
Also, as well as standard tuning it also gives you options for a couple of popular alternate tunings.
If you are in a room with a piano or keyboard then you can find the reference note on the piano and then tune to that – of course you could tune to all of the notes on the Piano and not need the technique below as well.
You may need to do this anyway if you are playing alongside a piano. If the piano is slightly out of tune and you try to play along with it and you have tuned to your tuner things aren’t going to sound very good!
It’s much more difficult and time consuming to tune a piano (you usually pay someone to do that) so you’ll need to tune to them.
Tuning Fork or Pitch Pipe
You can also tune to a tuning fork or pitch pipe if you have one around or want to get one.
If you have no way of finding a reference note then you just need to make sure that the guitar is in tune with itself (see below).
Tuning Your Guitar
Once you have tuned to your reference note (let’s assume it was the low E) or you are tuning the guitar to itself you need to go through the following process.
Step 1: Tuning the A String (the 5th string)
Play the 6th string (low E) on the 5th fret. This will give you the note A. After playing the E string on the 5th fret play the A string so that the two notes are playing at the same time.
If the A string does not sound the same as the E string played on the 5th fret then it is out of tune and needs adjusting.
If the string is too flat (sounds lower) then turn the tuning peg away from you (anti-clockwise on the bass strings and clockwise on the treble strings). This will tighten the string (assuming the strings have been put on correctly) and sharpen the tone.
If it is too sharp (sounds higher) then turn the tuning peg towards you (clockwise on the bass strings and counter-clockwise on the treble strings) to loosen the string and therefore lower the tone.
Don’t worry if you can’t quite tell at this stage if it is flat or sharp – overtime you should develop an ear for this. If you turn it one way and it goes further out of tune then you’ll need to turn it the other way.
Tip 1: Listen for oscillations between the notes. When the strings are out of tune there will be very fast oscillations and as they come closer to being in tune those oscillations will slow down. Eventually they’ll slow down to a point that the oscillations are no longer audible – that is when the string is in tune.
Tip 2: Turn the tuning pegs with your right hand (or left if you are left handed). After you have played the notes with your right hand (or left if you are left handed) leave your finger holding on the 5th fret and reach over with your right hand to tune. This will allow you to still hear both notes and be better able to pick up the oscillations – rather than relying on memory of how the first note sounded.
Tip 3: Using harmonics. If you know how to play harmonics, then play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the E string and the 7th fret of the A string. Getting these two to sound the same will also result in the string being tuned. And also allows you to tune with your left (or right if you are left handed) hand and still hear the notes ringing as you tune.
Step 2: Tuning the D String (the 4th string)
Repeat the process in step 1. Accept this time play the 5th fret of the newly tuned A string (which is a D) and then (with the 5th fretted A string still sounding) play the open D string. Adjust the tuning peg until the D string is in tune.
Step 3: Tuning the G String (the 3rd string)
Repeat again but now you are playing the newly tuned D string on the 5th fret and the open G string.
Step 4: Tuning the B String (the 2nd string)
The B string is slightly different in that you now want to play the newly tuned G string on the 4th fret rather than the 5th fret. The 4th fret on the G string is the note B so this is what you want the 2nd string (the B string) to be tuned to.
Step 5: Tuning the High E String (the 1st string)
Finally we tune the high E string. For this we go back to the 5th fret. So play the 5th fret of the newly tuned B string and the open E string and tune until they sound the same.
Go back over to double check that everything is in tune or play some chords to see if it sounds right.
You may find this difficult at first but you can train your ear to become better at doing it.
Tuning by Tuner
Now that the hard stuff is out of the way, let’s get onto the easy stuff.
Tuning by tuner is not only easier, it is more accurate (assuming you have a decent tuner) for most people. Even if you normally tune by ear you may want to use a tuner for live gigs or recordings.
Check out the different types of tuners available at the link below.
Most tuners have the option of autotune or manually tuning each string. They also usually have the option of plugging in or using the built in microphone to pick up the sound – depending on if you have an electric-acoustic, acoustic or electric.
It is often easier to plug in (if you have a guitar that has electronics) if you are in an environment with a lot of other sounds going on (e.g. before a band practice or at a lesson with multiple other players).
Once you are plugged in, or have the tuner set up somewhere close to the soundhole of your guitar, select auto tune and play the first note (easiest to start with the Low E). If the tuner’s autotune works well (and assuming you are somewhere close to a Low E!) the tuner should pick up that you are playing an E.
Different tuners have different ways of showing that you are out of tune.
Some will show red led lights when it is out of tune and a green led light in the middle that will light up when the string is in tune.
The red lights will light up to the left of the green light if the string is flat and to the right of the green light if it is sharp. There will be a number of red lights to show how far flat and how far sharp the string is.
Some have a needle (like on speedometer on a car) that points to where the note is that you are playing. When the needle points to the middle the string is in tune.
When it points to the left of the middle the string is flat and you need to tighten it (by turning the tuning peg anti-clockwise for bass strings and clockwise for treble strings) and when it points to the right the string is sharp and you will need to loosen the string (by turning the tuning peg clockwise for bass strings and counter-clockwise for the treble strings).
Manually Tune Each String
Most tuners also have a function that allows you to select each string individually. This often works better in a noisy environment or on a cheaper tuner that doesn’t have a good autotune function.
Simply select the string you want to tune and tune it. Before tuning the next string you will need to select that string manually and then you can tune it.
There are different types of guitar tuners you can get. Check out the page at the link below to learn about the different types.
Thanks for reading
Thanks for reading and I hope this page has helped you to with your guitar tuning.
If you have any questions or comments about tuning your guitar please leave them in the comments section below.
I have tried to be as detailed and unassuming as possible but when you have been playing for a long time there can be things that you take for granted and forget to explain, so if there’s anything I’ve missed just ask below – there’s no such thing as a stupid question.