How To Tune Your Guitar!

Now this topic has been covered thousands of times online but I wanted to write a lesson for my various students as a refresher.

What is Standard Tuning

The standard tuning of the guitar is E, A, D, G, B, E. This tuning and the strings intervals (distance between notes) will be the focus of this lesson. Many students use a mnemonic device to help recall the order of notes, here’s a couple to try out or try and create your own if neither helps:

  • Elephants And Dogs Get Big Ears
  • Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie

Each string gets progressively higher from the thickest (lowest) to the thinnest (highest). Standard tuning is used for the vast majority of the pieces in the guitars repertoire but there are countless other tunings you will undoubtedly encounter in your time playing. In this article I’ll be looking at several different tuning methods that I have broken down into two catagories: digital/analog guitar tuners and old school aural tuning methods.

TC Electronic - Polytune 2
My Trusty TC Electronic PolyTune 2

Use a Guitar Tuner

Now this may seem obvious but a digital tuner (or app) is the quickest and easiest method tune as it does not require any aural (listening) skills. I would always recommend using a tuner when staring to learn as it leads to less time tuning and more time playing.

  • Vibration Based Guitar Tuners – In the past decade I’ve seen the rise of small guitar tuners that clip onto the guitars headstock. These tuners pick up the pitch of the string via the guitars vibration through the neck. I’ve tried a few different tuners of this type including the Korg Pitchclip and TC Electronic Polytune Clip, but for sheer accuracy and affordability I continue recommend the Snark clip-on tuners.
  • Stomp Box Stage Tuners –  If you perform live regularly then a dedicated stage is an absolute must. Stage tuners allow you to accurately tune your guitar on a noisy stage completely silently. I currently use the TC Electronic Polytune as it is extremely accurate and has a super bright LED display, perfect for dark stages and studios (you can read a full review here). I’ve also used tuners such as the Boss TU-2/TU-3 and Korg Pitchblack and found them to be perfectly serviceable.
  • Guitar Tuner Apps – If you’re on a seriously low budget but own an android/apple device then you can download one of the countless free guitar tuners. My current favorite is the Roland Boss tuner which works well on my iPad and iPhone and plays nicely with students android operating systems. It should be noted that most DAW (digital audio workstations) such as Garageband (check review here) also have a built in digital tuner but you may need a device, such as the IK Multimedia iRig, to plug the guitar into it to get any really usable accuracy.

Old School Methods

Once you have developed an ear for what a guitar when correctly should sound like then it is worth spending some time learning how to tune by ear.

For all of the following methods you will need to tune your low E string before continuing. If you are jamming with another guitarist, simply ask them to play an open, E string and use it as a reference pitch to tune up to. If you ask a non guitarist for a reference note make sure its the right octave to make it easier, if it sounds too high ask them to go down an octave and if it’s too low ask them to go up and octave. Traditionally guitarists would use a tuning fork or pitch pipe to tune to. Some guitar tuner and tuning apps offer the option to play a tone (note) to tune to. It is usually the open A string (A 440Hz) as this is traditionally what and orchestra would tune too. If you are playing alone this is the best way to get a reference note. There are two commonly used aural methods still in use: the 5th/4th great method and the natural harmonic method.

  1. 5th/4th Fret Method – By fretting the 5th fret on the low E string you can then tune the A string to this fretted tone. Continue his method for the next two strings (5th fret A to open D, 5th D to open G). To tune the B string you will need to fret the 4th fret on the G string (as the interval changes from a perfect 4th to a major third). And finally for the high E string, fret the 5th fret on the B string. I would repeat this method and play some chords before beginning your practice session.
  2. Natural Harmonics – Assuming you are competent at playing natural harmonics you can also tune accurately with them. By playing the 5th fret harmonic on the E and 7th fret harmonic of the A you will create the same pitch. This will allow you to use your fretting hand to adjust the tuning peg. Repeat this method for the next two string (5th fret A to 7th fret D, 5th fret D to 7th fret G). For the B string play the 7th fret harmonic on the low E and open B string. And finally play harmonics on the 5th fret on the B string and 7th fret of the E string.

As you adjust the strings in tune the two notes with clash more and more creating a what is known as ‘beat’. As the two notes approach unison (the same pitch) the beats will get faster and faster until they reach the same pitch. This acoustic phenomenon will help you tune by ear and hear clearly when the correct pitch is reached of passed.

Some Other Thoughts on Tuning

  • Tune Up – This commonly used turn of phrase is literal. Tuning a string up to pitch is preferred as brings the necks tension up to pitch with it. Reducing tension on one string can reduce the overall tension on the neck causing other strings to slip out of tune. If you go past the correct pitch go back below it to re approach it gradually.
  • Silence is Golden – Contrary to many amateur performers I have seen live, no one wants to hear you tune. Don’t do it to your audience! Since the rise of digital tuners you rarely see a professional musician audibly tuning so investing in a stage tuner will make your set appear a lot more professional. If you change tunings a lot during a performance consider a second guitar for the other tunings. Better yet get a friend you trust to tech for you during the show and pass you each guitar as you need it and keep them properly tuned.
  • 440Hz? – The is the frequency to which most modern music is tuned to. 440Hz refers to the pitch of the open A string on a guitar in standard tuning. This frequency and the relative intervals are often referred to as concert pitch as is became the agreed pitch to which orchestral players would collectively tune. I would advise sticking with this unless a specific song requires you to change.
  • The Records Out Of Tune? – Often older recordings will sound out of tune with a perfectly tuned guitar. This is because they often predate the invention, accessibility and affordability of digital tuners and would have been tuned against a piano or a pitch fork. Once you have developed strong aural skills it is a good exercise to tray and tune to these records before playing along.

Final Thoughts

The importance of a correctly tuned instrument cannot be understated. Even if you had perfect technical ability and brilliant tone, an out of tune instrument will always undermine your performance. The more times you tune, the faster you’ll get at it and in turn the more of your practice time you will spend actually playing.

Hopefully you have this lesson interesting and useful. If there is something you think I’ve missed (perhaps you want information on some other tunings) or a topic you’d like me to discuss in future lessons please leave a comment in the section below.


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