In this article, you’ll learn how to tune a guitar.
We’ll cover what is called ‘standard tuning’ which is most common. There are plenty of other alternate tunings available, but for the beginner, this will suffice. Standard tuning is the default setting on most tuners too. This tuning is, E, A, D, G, B, E.
Here’s what we’ll cover.
The Four Main Ways
Note: Before we look at the four main ways, a general piece of advice is to use a guitar pick (plectrum) to sound the strings as you tune. When you use a pick you get a much clearer sound, which you’ll need for making fine adjustments.
1. Electronic Guitar Tuners
One of the most common ways is to use an electronic tuner. There are three types.
Vibration-based devices are the ones you clip on to the headstock of your guitar. They detect the pitch and name of the strings through the vibrations they create and usually have a screen with a digital dial that moves into the middle when it’s in tune.
Because they work using vibrations rather than sounds, they’re very handy in noisy environments when neither you nor the microphone can clearly hear anything.
Microphone-based tuners pick up the sound of your strings through a mic. For this reason, it’s essential that you’re in a quiet environment, away from background noise when you’re using one.
Like the vibration-based ones, they have a small screen and a dial or LED light system to tell you whether you’re in tune, or too high or too low.
Plug-in/pedal tuners are the best kind to use on stage or in a noisy area and take the form of a foot pedal. They work at the end of your pedal chain and can be activated at any time by a quick stomp. These pedals also usually bypass the output while you tune. This is extremely useful on stage when you need to adjust your tuning without disrupting the performance.
2. Online or Smartphone Apps
Of course, in this technological age, there are plenty of online tuners and apps for your phone.
These work in the same way as the microphone-based kind, picking up the pitch from your instrument using your phone or computer’s built-in mic. Likewise, they’re only really a sensible option in quiet surroundings. Too much background noise will completely throw them out.
In a quiet environment, they’re a great option for practicing and free (although many have irritating adverts, that only disappear when you pay).
3. Other Instruments
You can, of course, tune to another instrument.
The easiest instrument to use is a pitch pipe, which is a small woodwind instrument. Guitar-specific pitch pipes have only the notes E, A, D, G, B, E, while chromatic pitch pipes contain all the notes and are suitable for tuning other instruments.
To use one, you simply blow the note you’re aiming for, then loosen or tighten your string until the pitch matches the one coming from the pipe.
Lots of people also use a keyboard or piano. If you know where the notes are on the keys, it’s an easy and reliable way of tuning. You start with the E below the middle C on the keyboard, then make your low E string match. And so on.
4. Relative Tuning (5th Fret Technique)
If you’re playing by yourself, another option is simply to tune your guitar to itself by ear. It won’t work if you playing with others as you’ll be totally out, but it’s a straightforward technique, as demonstrated in the video below.
Top Tuning Tips
Ok, we’ve covered the most popular techniques. Here are some general ‘watch outs’.
Make it a Habit
It might seem like a chore to get your tuner out every time you’re about to play, but not only will this make you sound better, it will make you more efficient at tuning. In addition, a guitar that’s regularly tuned will be more likely to stay that way as the strings get used to being at the correct tension. So make it a habit.
Beware of Extreme Temperatures
The effects of excessive heat (humidity) are bad news for your ax. Extreme temperature affects wood and metal, so if you leave it in a hot room, or close to a radiator, the wood of your neck will get soft. This softened wood can then be bent by the strings, warping the neck and making it more difficult to play or to hold its tune. It can also have a detrimental effect on the tone.
When a guitar gets hot, even if it’s not enough to warp the neck, the softness of the wood alters the tension of the strings, making them flat. It’s best to keep your ax in a stable temperature, that you yourself would be comfortable in for a prolonged period of time.
Similarly, if you allow it to get too cold, the tuning shifts. The wood contracts in this circumstance, making the tension of the strings tighter which results in sharper notes. Leaving it overnight in a car or garage is a big no-no during freezing months.
Loosen before Transport
Loosening your strings before you take it on a trip will also help to prolong their life. This saves them from being affected by things like temperature change or even snapping in transit.
However, you don’t need to loosen them on a day-to-day basis, or before traveling a short distance. They’re built with tension in mind, so only do this when you’re traveling long distances.
Avoid Impacts, Big and Small
Take care not to bash your guitar too much. If it gets knocked, the neck can bend which will alter the intonation and tuning stability of the instrument.
Even when no long-term damage is done, dropping it or hitting it against something can send it out of tune. Even a small knock can move the tuning pegs or mess up the tension.
When strings get old, they can’t hold the correct tension as successfully. They begin to wear and the likelihood of their snapping increases. You can tell when it’s time to change them because your instrument keeps going out of tune, but it’s best not to wait until things are desperate.
Here’s the thing – changing your strings regularly, like once every three months, will ensure that you have the best possible chance of staying in tune, that your sound remains bright and it will also give you some practice at restringing and tuning your guitar.
If you’re likely to need a tuner that will work in noisy environments, a clip-on vibration-based or plug-in electronic will be best suited to your needs.
If it’s just for practicing, a microphone-based electronic one will suffice. As will an online or phone app.
You might like the thought of training your ears, by learning to tune to another instrument or using the fifth fret method. If so, go for it. You’ll be a better musician for it.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.