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Simple Guide To Tuning A Guitar

No self-respecting guitarist can make do without a tuner.

Ok, it's true that as you advance as a musician, your ear for what’s in tune and what isn’t will improve, but even so, you're doing yourself a big favour by trusting your tuner to keep your instrument 100% in tune.

Don’t get me wrong, I can impress myself (and sometimes others) by having a quick rough tune before using the tuner, and finding there’s very little adjustment to make...but there’s always some difference.

You (and your audience) won’t fully notice until you start playing just how bad a “nearly tuned” guitar sounds.

In this article we’ll have a look at the type of tuning there are:

  • a 'real' or physical tuner
  • tuning apps
  • tuning by ear

Ok, let's dive in...

A 'physical' guitar tuner, made of plastic, metal or whatever, are still a must-have accessory for any guitarist in my opinion. 

There are several types of tuner out there, the most common being:

  • chromatic
  • non-chromatic
  • clip-on
  • pedal 

For a great review of the different types of 'physical' guitar tuners, check out Dawson's website

2. Use A Guitar Tuner Online

online guitar tuner

Smartphone and tablet technology now allows us to have the functions of a tuner readily available on our mobile device and many are free. What's not to like! 

Is a guitar tuner online as good as an actual tuner? Well, in my experience you’ll be surprised at how accurate and easy to use they are.

My Snark clip-on tuner goes wherever my guitar does, but I have an app on my phone as backup just in case. Friends of mine are happy to rely on their phone, especially in more informal situations and if you’re aware of their limitations, there’s very little not to like and a lot to be impressed by.

Check out this article from Musician's Friend about the top 10 guitar tuning apps​

​3. Tune By Ear - The 5th Fret Method

Ok, I know I called Joe a Muppet for trying to tune his guitar by ear, but learning how to tune a guitar relative to itself is a good idea. 

What on earth is relative tuning?

Simple. Relative tuning is half way between tuning by ear and using a guitar tuner. You basically get one string (usually the bottom E string) in tune, and then tune the other five strings relative to that one.​

This is a good skill to be familiar with. Otherwise we run the risk of letting our gadgets take control and not listening to what being in tune sounds like.

Here’s how to tune a guitar string by string, from our friends at howtotuneaguitar.org

You still need a reference note, so here’s what the notes should sound like:

Is there a difference between an acoustic guitar tuner and an electric guitar tuner?

Most if not all 'physical' guitar tuners allow you to tune both acoustic and electric guitars. 

A guitar tuner online (or via an app on your phone or tablet) however​ will only give you the sounds. With no plug input, you can't plug in an electric guitar as you can with a 'physical' guitar tuner.

Common Tuning Mistakes​

Here are some classic tuning mistakes I come across (many I have done myself, so I'm no better!)

  • Thinking you don’t need to tune “I tuned it last week, dude”
  • Make sure your volume is up if using a plug-in tuner
  • Not tuning to 440 frequency (concert pitch)
  • Watch out for the # : a chromatic tuner will let you tune to any note
  • Not letting notes ring out while tuning
  • Tune up to the note, not down
  • Check the guitar again after tuning the 6 strings!

Standard Guitar Tuning vs. Alternate Tuning

Your guitar is designed in such a way that in standard tuning (EADGBE) you can play standard scales and basic chords with reasonably simple fingering in the first four frets, with the four fingers of your left (fingering) hand.

Alternative or alternate tuning is basically any open-string arrangement other than EADGBE. There are hundreds of these tunings, but the most common ones are variations of “dropped” or “open” tunings that make chord fingerings even simpler.

Ever tried to play along to a song you really like and find you just can’t find the chords? Chances are the musician you’re listening to is using alternative tuning.

The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell are among the many musicians who frequently break free of the “constraints” of standard EADGBE.

Keith Richards uses open G tuning on a 5 string guitar, so he turns GGDBGD into GDBGD for “Honky Tonk Women”, “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up”

In this live video, amongst all the shenanigans and inflatables, Keith can be seen playing without using his left at all, thanks to his open G...effortless - for him anyway!

And it’s not a sixties thing...Jack White, Ed Sheeran and The Stone Roses all have famous songs you won’t be able to get near to covering unless you change your tuning.

The slide guitar on John Squire’s Led Zep-inspired “Love Spreads” is made possible by using open D tuning- DADF#AD

Finally, here’s a fantastic compilation of tunings and songs in those tunings- enjoy!

Summary

I said it at the beginning and I’ll say it again now: you need a guitar tuner. You should learn to tune your guitar without one, but you should never perform in front of anyone without tuning.

Nor should you ever even practice one song or scale without first tuning up, unless you really have no way of doing it.

In this case, you can still tune up roughly using the 5th fret method.

There you have it...Turn On. Tune Up. Rock Out!

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Djangology’ and when he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his Campervan.

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