How to Tune Your Guitar
Tuning for the beginning player
I was talking with one of my “brand new” students about getting together and she said, “…well my guitar is out of tune again…” I am reminded that an in-tune guitar is a happy guitar and a happy guitar leads to a happy guitar-player… So let’s all get in tune!
There are many ways to tune a guitar
Being able to tune your guitar is basic to having fun with playing and beginning the friendship we all have with our guitars. It’s like brushing your teeth; It’s probably not what you plan your day around but your day and the days that follow go better when we do a good job with it (every day).
Keeping a guitar in tune trains your guitar to stay in tune. It will play better and sound better. I would argue that guitars that are kept in good tune have wood that resonates better and so, sound better. Stay in tune!
At first thought I can think of many ways to tune my guitar. I suppose I have my favorite but the truth is I have used all of them when I needed to. A quick list of how to tune would include:
- tuning to a tuning fork (old school and time-tested)
- tuning to a pitch pipe or piano (also, old school)
- Tuning string to string (still needs a note to tune to…)
- Tuning using octaves (also, starts with one tuning note…)
- Using a guitar tuner (modern technology with a lot of options)
- Using an online guitar tuner (even more-modern technology…)
As you can see we have a lot of options for getting in tune. Let me see if I can break this down and make some sense out of all this!
The tried and true tuning fork
The photo above links to amazon and is a fair representation of the tuning fork that I grew up with.
You lightly tap one of the tines of the fork and then place the ball at the bottom of the stem on the face of your guitar to amplify the sound. You can also place it against a hard table top or even the bone of your head to hear it.
For those of you that need all the facts: The tuning fork was invented in 1711 by John Shore, trumpeter and lutenist to H. Purcell and G.F. Händel in London. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9172630)
This fork produces a tone at 440 hertz which is a concert pitch “A” or A-440 as its generally called. This note is what most modern orchestras tune to, today. You can buy fancier or bigger tuning forks than this but for a reasonably, small investment, it can live in your guitar case giving you peace of mind that you will always have a note to tune to.
Tuning your guitar from one note
Tuning from string to string requires you get one good note from a source like a tuning fork, pitch pipe, a keyboard, or another guitar. To be successful you need to really listen to the source and exactly, match the string you’re tuning to the note you’re listening to.
The first string to string method I’ll show you is to tune an open note from another string playing the same note fretted. For example the note on the A string playing the fifth fret is a D. The D string played on the fifth fret is a G. And so on…
Please notice that if you start with open A you will need to tune the low E string fretted on the 5th fret to the open A. Also notice that the open B is tuned to the G string played on the 4th fret.
If you tune the open low E string to a pipe, keyboard, or guitar you can just tune the open A from the low E played on the fifth (5th) fret and then tune the rest of the strings as shown.
- Tune open A to a fork, pipe, keyboard, or another guitar.
- Tune open D to the A string on the fifth (5th) fret.
- Tune open G to the D string on the fifth (5th) fret.
- Tune open B to the G string on the fourth (4th) fret.
- Tune the open high E string to the B string on the fifth (5th) fret.
- Tune the low E string by matching the sound on the fifth (5th) fret to open A.
- You can also tune the low E string to a pipe or keyboard and tune the open A string to the E string on the fifth (5th) fret.
Tuning in Octaves
Another way to tune from one note is to tune octaves.
This still requires you get an A note from a fork, pipe, keyboard or guitar. Instead of tuning to the exact same pitch, you tune to a note an octave higher or lower. They have the same note name and when played together they will sound like an extended version of the note.
For this method you start again by tuning the open A string. Then tune the G string fretted on the second fret which is also the note A. Then tune the B string second fret to the A string 3rd fret. Next you tune the D string, open, to the B string third fret. Next tune the high E string to the D string, fourth fret and finally tune the low E string to the D String fourth fret.
It may be obvious, but it’s really important to remember which string you already tuned and which string you are trying to tune. It’s possible to keep retuning strings like a puppy chasing her tail, if your not careful.
I like to play a few chords to check that everything sounds reasonably in tune. Usually an E chord, a G chord, and then a D or C chord. These chord check various strings at different frets. Admittedly, some guitars do better with string to string than with octaves and some guitars really like octave tuning…
Tuning to a pitch pipe or keyboard
Any piano that is in tune or electric piano/organ/synth will provide notes for you to tune to. Know that middle C is basically the C note that is in the middle of the keyboard. The notes for the strings of the guitar are labeled on the keyboard below
Please excuse my old piano. It looks rough and needs tuning but every home should have one!
Pitch pipes for tuning guitars come in different looks; some with six notes some are chromatic, meaning twelve notes. They are meant to give a note for each guitar string to tune to.
The photos below show some options and will take you to Amazon if you want to see more or buy one for yourself.
Tuning with electronic tuners
If you are trying to tune in a noisy environment then an electronic tuner really helps get it done…
My first electronic tuner was the Korg CA-30 Chromatic tuner. I’ve used it a lot and carried it all over the US and it is still working fine…
An electronic tuner will usually have a mic so you can just play in front of it and it will hear the notes you are playing. Most also have an input to plug in your guitar, if you have a pickup or are tuning an electric guitar. There will also be a meter or lights along with a readout of what note you are playing. Like pitch pipes some are designed specifically for guitar (6-notes) and others are chromatic which will tune any instrument.
The only trick here is to make sure your tuning to the note you want. Below or to the left of center will be flat (too low) and above or to the right of center will be sharp (too high). If it’s too low tune your string up until it’s correct. If it’s too high bring your string down until it’s correct. Done…
You can click on the images above to see prices…
As you can see these tuners come in various sizes with different bells and whistles to suit your needs.
Another style of electronic tuners today are clip on tuners. These are handy in that they are not affected by room sounds and can just stay on your guitar, if you don’t mind seeing them while you are playing. I think the Snark tuner was on of the first of these; they are a bit big but work well. I have also used the D’Addario tuners. They are small, inexpensive and have worked well for me so far.
Again, click pictures to see prices on Amazon…
Tuning with online guitar tuners
Finally, the latest internet technology affords us the chance to us guitar tuners that can be found online.
I like the tuner at gieson.com. It has a nice “woody” look, with switches, buttons, and knobs to control the experience. It has over 50 different tunings to choose from. That many tunings is a little overwhelming but it’s certainly thorough.
This tuner/page has four different sounds to choose from including, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, distorted guitar, and sine wave. You have to match you your string tuning to the sounds, by ear, which is a little more work than the electronic tuners mentioned above. Again, you can check it out at gieson.com.
Tim Harden”s, “Reason To Believe”
So go tune your guitar!
As you can see, there are many tools to help you tune your guitar and options on how to do it. Using harmonics to tune is another technique that may be just a little beyond the scope of this article but I may address in the future. Many of these tuners will work for other instruments. Tuners with a mic make tuning almost foolproof and wicked easy…
Let me know:
- Which is your favorite tuning strategy?
- Do you have a favorite tuner?
- Are you old school or high-tech all the way?
Let’s keep this dialog going and let’s…
Keep those guitars in tune!