Every single guitar player on earth should know how to tune their instrument. It’s one of the most basic skills a guitar player should have, and yet many guitar players only know one or two ways to tune their guitars. Also, with the invention of the digital guitar tuner and smartphone apps for guitar tuning, many young guitar players don’t know how to tune by ear at all. What are you guys going to do during the Zombie Apocalypse??? Good news…we’re here to help.
WARNING: If your guitar is SUPER out of tune and you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t attempt any of this. Take it to a local guitar shop or to your guitar teacher or trusted friend and ask for help. We don’t want you to break a string on account of this article!
1. Tuning Your Guitar To Another Instrument
If you are near another instrument that sounds reasonably in tune, you can use the following method:
Tuning to another guitar is relatively easy. Let’s assume you have a friend. I know, it’s hard to imagine because you’ve been so hard at work practicing your guitar that you’ve neglected all social connections for years. OK, well your friend’s name is Fred and he has a guitar that seems pretty much in tune. Play the low E, the 6th string of Fred’s guitar, then play the same string on yours. Ask yourself which way your string needs to change in order to sound the same as Fred’s. Do you need to tune up or down in pitch to match his? Tighten your string to raise the pitch, or loosen it to lower it. As you work to match the pitch of the other instrument, you will hear a rub between the two different vibrational frequencies. In other words, there will be some dissonance between the two strings. As you get close to matching the pitch, this dissonance will slow down and stop completely when you reach perfect unison. Some people refer to these vibrations as “beats.” The more you listen for them, the more you will be able to hear them and figure out how far away you are from matching the pitch. Once you have your low E string in tune, move on to the next string and repeat this process until all 6 of your strings match the strings on Fred’s guitar. This method is also unpacked in our YouTube video, How To Tune A Guitar.
If there is a piano nearby, you can use it to play the pitches of open guitar strings (EADGBE) and tune your guitar to match them. For example, play an E on the piano, and tune your E string to match. Listen for the ‘beats’ to guide you in as you approach the matching pitch. There is a great resource for tuning your guitar to a piano online that shows you which piano keys to use for each string of the guitar. We also have a video you can follow here.
If you don’t have another instrument nearby, you’ll have to use a different method.
2. Tuning Your Guitar To Itself Using Fretted Notes
If you feel fairly confident that at least one of your strings is in tune, you can use this method. Hopefully, your low E string is close to being in tune and you can start there. This method will involve pressing down (or fretting) a string and adjusting the tuning of another string to that note (video). It uses the same ability to distinguish pitches that is outlined above in the “tuning to another instrument” section. To begin with, press down the 5th fret of the low E string. Listen to this pitch. Next, play the open A string. These should be the same pitch. If you hear any dissonance, or ‘beats,’ you need to adjust the A string. You are working off of the assumption that your low E is in tune, so do not change it … EVER, or the ghost of Jimi Hendrix will haunt you forever. OK, not really, but whatever it takes to remember: don’t change your low E after you’ve started this method. Tune your A string up or down until it matches the 5th fret of your low E string. Next, play the 5th fret of the A string. Listen to the pitch. Play the open D string and adjust it as necessary to match the 5th fret of the A string. Do the same thing with the D string and the G string. NOW WAIT A MINUTE. To tune the B string, you have to press down the 4th fret of the G string, NOT THE 5TH FRET. If you have a problem with this, take it up with whoever invented the guitar, not me. This one string causes the most problems for tuning, but allows the six strings to align in such a way that open chords are accessible and scale shapes fall nicely across the fretboard. And, finally, to tune the high E string, you’re back to the 5th fret. Play the 5th fret of the B string and adjust the high E to match.
Pro Tip: What I like to do at the end of this method is check my results by playing the low E string and the high E string. These notes are two octaves apart, but they are the same note, so there should not be any dissonance. If there is, you may want to run through your tuning one more time and find any strings that aren’t just right. If a couple of strings are even slightly out of tune, it can add up across the entire guitar and lead to some ugly sounding chords when you play. You don’t want that, do you? DO YOU?
3. Tuning Your Guitar To Itself With Harmonics
This one is really fun and will impress people. They’ll be like, “Oh man, Will must be really good at the guitar. I want to be his friend.” I will warn you that you’ll need more peace and quiet to be able to use this method effectively, so don’t attempt it on stage at a crowded bar.
To start with, you’ll need to know what a harmonic is. Basically, it’s an overtone that is created when you pluck a string of the guitar with your picking hand while touching the string above a particular fret without actually pressing down with your fretting hand. If you’ve never done it before, touch your low E string above the 12th fret (above the fret, not in the middle of the space between frets) with your fretting hand and pluck it with your other hand. As soon as you pluck the string, release your fretting hand and listen to the angelic sounds of your first harmonic. OK, your first one sounded like crap? Try again, you’ll get the hang of it. The strongest harmonics are on the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets of each string.
To use these in tuning, play the harmonic of the 5th fret of the low E string, listen, then play the 7th fret harmonic of the A string. Adjust the A string until it is in tune with the low E. I like this method because you can play the two notes and adjust the tuning while they are both ringing, so you get real-time feedback and can match the pitches quickly. After you get the A string in tune, play the 5th fret harmonic on the A string, listen, then play the 7th fret harmonic on the D string. This will work for all of the strings EXCEPT THAT PESKY B STRING. For the B string, you’ll have to actually fret the 4th fret of the G string like in the previous method. The high E can be tuned by using the 5th fret harmonic of the B string and tuning the 7th fret of the high E to it. Confused? Check out our step-by-step video on how to slay this method.
4. Tuning A Guitar Using An Electronic Tuner Or Guitar Tuning App
Well, of course we have to talk about this. MOST of the time, you’ll have a tuner with you. We recommend the SNARK SN-8 for a great basic tuner that clips on and works really well for any stringed instrument. These tuners have a great display that guides you to raise or lower the pitch until your strings are in tune. My only complaint with these tuners is that they teach you to tune with your eyes, not your ears. If you become dependent on electronic tuners, it will severely limit your ability to tune your instrument in the absence of said electronic tuner, AND you won’t be able to tune your guitar to other instruments around you that may be slightly out of tune. DON’T GET ADDICTED TO YOUR TUNER. USE YOUR EARS, FOLKS.
That being said, I use my Snark all the time. Here’s video of how to use the Snark to tune your guitar. If I’m ever without it and need to be sure I’m tuned to A 440, I’ll use the Guitar Tuna App. It’s free, fun, and I’m a sucker for dumb puns. Tuna… Tuner… See what they did there? And the logo is a tuna fish. What’s the difference between a piano and a fish? Never mind…
Additional Pro Tips
Sometimes I’ll get the bulk of my tuning done using one or more of the methods above, but I’ll still hear a little bit of dissonance. In that case, I have a couple of other tricks to fine tune my instrument and take care of any variations between the true pitch of an open string and the pitch once it’s fretted. Especially on older instruments, this can be an issue, so I like to cross-check and use these additional methods to achieve more of an even tempered tuning so my guitar sounds as good as possible when played in various keys.
Fine Tuning Using Octaves:
First of all, I like to check my octaves. I’ll play the open low E string and compare it to the 7th fret of the A string. As with the earlier method, I’m assuming the low E is in tune, so I don’t change it. If I hear any dissonance, I’ll adjust the A string. Next, I’ll play the low E open and compare it to the 2nd fret of the D string. Again, the low E doesn’t need to change. If anything needs to change, it’ll be on the D string. Then, I’ll play the A string open and compare it to the 7th fret of the D string, then the 2nd fret of the G string. Don’t mess with the A string. If the D string sounds out of tune here, it’s important to split the difference so any change you make won’t throw it too far out of tune with the low E which you just tuned it to. Next, play the D string open and compare it to the 7th fret of the G string and the 3rd fret of the B string. Once you are happy with the G string, play it open and compare it to the 8th fret of the B string and the 3rd fret of the high E. Lastly, play the B string open and compare it to the 7th fret of the high E string. Watch a video of this method.
If you are tuning up for a recording session or for a live performance and you know you will only be playing a limited set of chords for your performance, you might also want to tune your guitar for a particular key. WHAT??? Well, have you ever tuned up and everything sounds perfect, and you play a G chord and you think to yourself, “ahhhhhh yes, the sound of a perfectly tune guitar,” but you play an E chord and think, “WHAT IN THE ACTUAL HECK HAPPENED? MY GUITAR WAS PERFECTLY IN TUNE .01 SECONDS AGO AND NOW IT SOUNDS AWFUL.” The culprit is usually WAIT FOR IT… the B string. SO, play through the chords you are using in your performance and adjust the B string until it sounds right for those chords, even if it isn’t perfect according to your tuner. For more fun discussion on this topic, read this forum on the subject, but be prepared to pull your hair out.
Well, that basically does it. Pretty exhaustive study on how to tune your guitar (I’m exhausted just from writing it). Use the comments below to let us know which one you prefer, and why. Or, if you hate everything we said, tell us what your to-go method is!