How to Tune a Guitar

So you bought the guitar (That was my last post.) Now you need to learn to tune it. 

Like violins, violas, or cellos, guitars go out of tune very easily. Guitars must be tuned every time they are played. (Indeed, during concerts, performers often stop between songs or movements to re-tune.)

The standard tuning for a guitar (both electric and acoustic) is, from the lowest note to the highest note: E-A-D-G-B-E. Using the piano as a reference, the lowest E on the guitar is 13 white notes below Middle C; the highest E on the guitar is the E just above Middle C.

Beginning players often use mnemonics to remember the names of the strings: Here’s one that many guitar students find easy: “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.”

Using a Tuner

The easiest way to tune a guitar is with a battery-operated electronic tuner, which costs a few dollars, and is available at any music store. Tuners attach to the guitar’s headstock. Simply play each string; a light display reveals whether the string is flat, sharp, or in tune. If a guitar string is flat (low) it needs to be tightened by slowly and gently turning the tuning peg corresponding to that string. if it is sharp (high), the tuning peg needs to be loosened.

Many tuners come with other features such as a metronome. In addition to making the actual process of tuning more precise, tuners are useful when playing with other musicians, all of whom may be making a racket as they, too, tune and warm up for a performance.

Using Another Instrument as a Reference to Tune a Guitar

If no tuner is available, or if you’ve lost yours, tune to another instrument or a pitch-pipe (assuming anyone still has one of those hanging around). This requires playing the note (or having someone else play the note), then playing the guitar string, then listening and adjusting the tension of the strings so they sound at exactly the same pitch as the reference instrument.

Using tuners is so easy that many guitar players don’t bother to tune by ear any more, but being able to hear matched pitches is an important musical skill. It can be difficult at first to hear the subtle differences. One technique is to hum the note the guitar string plays, then hum the note the instrument being tuned to is playing. It’s possible to feel whether the pitch is going up or down by whether the voice tightens or relaxes to match it. Another technique is to listen for “beats, which are slight vibrations that occurs when the two strings are almost in tune, but not quite. Get rid of the “beats” and the instrument is in tune.

Using Relative Pitch to Tune a Guitar

If no tuner or instruments are available, the guitar can be tuned to itself. That means that while none of the notes may be exactly right, they will be in tune with each other. (Of course, if another guitarist shows up to play, the two instruments then have to be re-tuned to match each other).

To tune a guitar to itself, start with the low E string, which has the least tension on it, and is most likely to stay in tune.

  • Hold down the fifth fret of the E string. This makes the E string play an A. That is the sound the next string should make. Tighten or loosen the A string’s tuning peg until the two sounds match.
  • Once the A string is in tune, put a finger on its fifth fret. to make a D note. Play the next string (the D string), and adjust the tuning until the two sounds match.
  • Once the D string is in tune, put a finger on its fifth fret to make a G. Play the next string (the G string), and adjust the tuning until the sounds match.. Be careful when tuning the G string. It’s one of the strings most likely to snap if tuned too quickly.
  • Once the G string is in tune, put a finger on its FOURTH fret., which is the B. Play the next string (the B string), and adjust the tuning until the sounds match..
  • Once the B string is in tune, put a finger on its fifth fret. to make an E. Play the next string (the high E string), and adjust the tuning until the sounds match..

It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times.

The above guitar tuning techniques are the basics: Tuning any instrument is actually an endlessly complicated subject. The mathematics of tuning an instrument so it can function in multiple keys require some compromises in the purity of intonation, and compromises lead to controversies. (See Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization by Stuart Isacoff, Vintage, New York, 2003).

Some guitarists additionally use advanced techniques such as harmonics (which requires gently pressing certain frets to create a ringing tone that sounds in harmony with the main string). Finally, some songs require guitars to be tuned to different notes in order to create special effects. But those are all issues for more advanced players. (You can find out more at guitarnoise,com, which has exhaustive resources for guitarists of all levels.).

For now, buy a guitar tuner and remember “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.”