How to Tune a Guitar: Illustrated Step by Step Guide

Published Categorized as Tuning, Tuning Restringing & Maintenance

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.

Table of Contents

how to tune 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 guitar 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 a guitar properly, 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.

Reference Note

You are going to need a reference note to get started. Start by tuning one of your strings (either the low E string 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.

Internet

If you have an internet connection when you need to tune, there are plenty of online guitar tuners that you can use – and of course you can use these to tune each string rather than just finding the reference note.

jamplay online tuner

The free online guitar 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.

Piano

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.

No Reference

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.

tuning A string

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.

tuning D string

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.

tuning 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.

tuning B string

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.

tuning high E string

All done!

Go back over to double check that everything is in tune or use chord charts for drop tunings 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.

With so many different types of guitar tuners, tuning by tuner gets much easier and more accurate (assuming you have a decent tuner) for most people. Even if you normally tune by ear you may want to use a electronic tuner for live gigs or recordings.

The process

To use a guitar tuner, first thing you need to know is – 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).

Autotune

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.

guitar tuner led

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.

guitar tuner needle

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 guitar 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.

(Speaking of autotune, learn about autotune microphones on my blog)

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.

Polytune

There is a specific type of guitar tuner that can be bought by the electronics company TC Electronic. Of course, this tuner can be used like a regular old tuner, but it boasts a special future within its bounds that really sets it apart from a whole bunch of other similarly priced pedals with the same intentions.

TC Electronic POLYTUNE 3 MINI Tiny Polyphonic Tuner with Multiple Tuning Modes and Built-In BONAFIDE BUFFER

This feature is precisely what gives Polytune its name. This was something I was completely unaware of until I stopped one day to ask aloud why it was named a Polytune. Band practice had just ended and we were packing up, I looked down at my feet and for some reason or other found myself wondering aloud.

My bandmate informed me that it is because it has a function where you can play all of the strings simultaneously and the tuner can then tell you how far in or out of tune the entire set of strings is in relation to standard tuning (with A being 440 Hz).

Supposedly having revolutionized tuning, I was soon told that this feature is one that basically no one uses. The idea of playing a whole bunch of strings and the tuner telling you vaguely how in or out of tune the entire set is without going into the specifics of which string is or is not out of tune seems a little silly, no?

Thankfully, if potentially useless new technology is your bag but you are not into using pedals to tune your guitar, there is a clip-on tuner version to suit your purposes!

TC Electronic POLYTUNE CLIP Clip-On Tuner with Polyphonic, Strobe and Chromatic Modes and 108 LED Matrix Display for Ultimate Tuning Performance

Tuner Built-in

Of course, there are even some guitars with tuners already built into their very makeup. These will typically be present on acoustic guitars that are equipped with a pickup system.

Acoustic Electric Guitar - Slowhand Premium Electric Acoustic Guitar (Black Spruce Top, Rosewood Fretboard) - Electro Acoustic Guitars with Strings, Cable, Pro Capo, Picks & Bag (SH04 Black)

Electro-acoustic guitars like this, alongside the EQ functionality, will tend to come equipped with a tuner already built in. These will work just as a normal tuner does, but instead of needing to clip it on extra or turn on a pedal and deaden your signal, you can simply flick on the switch on your guitar and tune and then flick it off, safe in the knowledge that it always there and ready to go should you need it again.

I own an electro-acoustic Takamine New Yorker parlor guitar that came equipped with a pretty illustrious EQ section as well as a tuner. This is a tuner that I can safely depend upon whenever I choose to play acoustic guitar which is, granted, a rarity for me. The best thing about it, though, is that you do not need to be playing through an amp for it to be usable; it is always there if needed.

Kadence Frontier Series Acoustic Electric Guitar - High Gloss Finish Electric Acoustic Guitar- Electro Acoustic Guitars with 1 Pack Strings, Strap, Pickup, Tuner and Bag (Black)

Self-Tuning

You can even purchase guitars that come with technologies that mean they literally tune themselves!

This was the case for the infamous Gibson Firebird X, whose initial release was marred with delays and technical difficulties and who has now been completely destroyed.

As you will see in this video, the idea is that, once the tuning has been selected, the guitar will cut off its signal and then tune precisely to the chosen tuning before bringing the signal back in. There is a handy feature on the LED display on the back of the headstock which means that band members behind the guitarist will be made aware of when the guitar is in the intended tuning. Neat!

Tronical Backplate Type L | Guitar Contacting PCB for TronicalTune Plus

If you are left feeling a little disheartened that the Firebird X has been discontinued, fear not, for Gibson has released the tuning technology on its own and as part of other guitars in their range. There are even options by other manufacturers that do more or less the same thing, where you can install the tuning technology onto the headstock and let ‘er rip.

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.

FAQs How to Tune a Guitar

What are the steps to tuning a guitar?

Are there really any more steps than just tuning the damn thing? Step 1 would be to actually find the guitar and get it ready for inspection. Step 2 would be to choose your method of tuning – some like to use pedals for the job, whereas some still prefer the good old clip-on tuners; some are even inclined towards those old tuners you might get in a beginner’s acoustic guitar bundle, where you blow into 6 different holes to sound out a reference pitch for each of the 6 strings in standard tuning. Step 3 would be to use the chosen method to tune the guitar – if using a clip-on tuner, play out each of the strings individually and twist the tuning pegs left or right depending on if the tuner says that the string is too flat or sharp (respectively) relative to the tuning that you have opted for (standard tuning will be E – A – D – G – B – E from thickest to thinnest string.

What are the 3 ways to tune guitar?

There are far more than three ways to tune a guitar! If this question is asking about the methods through which to tune a guitar, then there are several that I can think of off the top of my head: using a clip-on tuner, using a pedal tuner, tuning by ear, using a reference pitch and/or using harmonics across the fretboard to tune from 1 string onwards, etc. If this question is instead asking about the different types of tunings that you might put the guitar, then there are far, far more than three. In fact, there are countless, for just about any random tuning you could put a guitar in would count as tuning of some sort; just ask Sonic Youth, whose guitarists have made it their mission to subvert the typical expectations of tuning, harmony, and tonality throughout their entire tenure as one of the most seminal underground rock bands.

How do you tune a guitar with a beginner tuner?

Presumably, a beginner tuner is simply one that you clip onto the guitar for it to work, in which case it is relatively easy for anyone to use, including a beginner. Step 1 would be to actually find the guitar and get it ready for inspection. Step 2 would be to choose your method of tuning – some like to use pedals for the job, whereas some still prefer the good old clip-on tuners; some are even inclined towards those old tuners you might get in a beginner’s acoustic guitar bundle, where you blow into 6 different holes to sound out a reference pitch for each of the 6 strings in standard tuning. Step 3 would be to use the chosen method to tune the guitar – if using a clip-on tuner, play out each of the strings individually and twist the tuning pegs left or right depending on if the tuner says that the string is too flat or sharp (respectively) relative to the tuning that you have opted for (standard tuning will be E – A – D – G – B – E from thickest to thinnest string.

How do I Downtune my guitar?

This will somewhat depend on how exactly you want to downtune the guitar. If, for example, you are simply wanting to use drop D tuning instead of standard tuning, then all you would need to do is tune the bottom E string down to D, for this is what drop D consists of. Of course, all of the strings might need to be tuned individually afterward, as the action and intonation will be changed as a result of any tuning up or down. This becomes more and more necessary depending on how drastically the tuning is being altered. I often tune down my low E string to A for a few songs in one of my bands and I always have to make sure to check the tuning of all the other strings, lest they be put out of whack by the drastic change from E down to A and back up again.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

5 comments

  1. What a Great Site! Will be forwarding it to my grandson who I think will be interested with it!

    Julie

    1. Hey Julie – thanks for visiting. Glad you like the site and I hope your grandson will find it useful – I assume he is a guitarist?

  2. Hi, as a massive music lover and musician I really love your site, you have put a lot of effort into the information and can tell you know what you are talking about, excellent stuff 🙂

  3. I am interested in a chord chart one could reference whilst in an alternate tuning. Obviously the Chord of “C” sounds pretty bad if you try to play it in the usual finger pattern unless you are tuned to standard. Does such a chart even exist? Why, yes…I am new at this, why do you ask?

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