What’s the first thing you should do every time you pick up a guitar? Resist the urge to shred for a moment, and make sure you are in tune. Knowing how to tune a guitar properly will ensure that you always sound your best when you play.
An out-of-tune guitar can make even a virtuoso sound terrible. If you’re just beginning to play guitar, an out-of-tune instrument can be incredibly frustrating and make every note sound like a mistake. Learn how to tune a guitar like a pro and pretty soon you’ll be playing like one, too.
The mechanics of tuning a guitar are simple. To adjust the pitch of a string, turn the string’s corresponding tuning key on the head of the guitar (hint: here’s our guide to the parts of a guitar). Turning the tuning key away from you will tighten the string and raise its pitch. Conversely, turning the tuning key toward you will loosen the string and lower its pitch.
What is Standard Tuning?
Most guitarists tune their instruments to “standard tuning.” If you’re just beginning to play and aren’t sure which tuning to use, most likely you will want to stick to standard tuning. As you get more comfortable with your instrument, feel free to experiment with other tunings to keep your practice fresh, but for now standard tuning will be your best bet to get the right sound out of your guitar.
The strings on your guitar are numbered one through six, starting with your highest string. Take a look at the image to the left to see which note each string should be tuned to. Each note corresponds to the pitch your string should produce when played open, without holding down any of the frets. Note that your highest and lowest strings are both tuned to E, just two octaves apart.
When you are tuning, it is best to start with the sixth string and work your way down. You will find that because the sixth string is the thickest, it tends to hold tune better, providing you with a better foundation for a well-tuned instrument.
Finding the Right Pitch when Tuning Your Guitar
When you’re learning how to tune a guitar, it’s very important to have a reliable method of finding the right pitch for each string. Most guitarists either use an electronic tuner or tune their guitar to itself or another instrument. Each method does come with pros and cons.
How to Tune a Guitar with a Chromatic or Pitch Tuner
For most beginners, using a tuner is the simplest way to find the right pitch for your guitar. Tuners come in a few different varieties; chromatic tuners “hear” the note you are playing and display the pitch your string is currently tuned to. You will be able to see if your guitar is sharp or flat, and also see when you’ve adjusted the string to the correct note.
Pitch tuners play the pitch for each string and you must match each note by ear. You can also get a tuning fork, which you strike to produce the correct pitch for your guitar string. If you happen to be near your computer when the need to tune arises, it’s also easy to find a great free online guitar tuner, like this one by Fender.
If you do decide to invest in a tuner or tuning fork, ask yourself if you are a more visual person or if you have developed an “ear” for musical notes and intervals. Visual people and beginning musicians will benefit greatly from the use of a chromatic tuner, and over time may begin to develop a better ear for music by using a tuner as a guide. If you feel confident in your ability to hear and distinguish pitch (or if you like a challenge), you might be happier with a tuning fork or a tuner that plays pitch.
Tuning a Guitar Without a Tuner
If you find yourself playing solo without a tuner, you can make a guitar sound decent by tuning it to itself. Start with your sixth string held down on the fifth fret. You’re now playing an A on your E string. Adjust your fifth string, the A string, until your A string played open matches the pitch of the E string played on the fifth fret. It can be helpful to hum the correct note as you tune your open string, so you can better hear if your string is tuned too tight or loose.
Next, tune your D string to match the pitch of your A string played on the fifth fret. You can continue tuning each string to the fifth fret of the string above it, except for the B string. To tune your B string, hold the G string down on the fourth fret. As long as each string is tuned to the correct interval from the next string, your guitar will still sound fine by itself.
Tuning a Guitar with a Piano
If you don’t have a guitar tuner handy, but you do have access to a piano, you can use the piano to find the correct pitch for your guitar. Tuning to a piano or keyboard is a great way to get the right pitch for your guitar, and is especially useful if you will be playing along with a pianist or other instruments.
Just tune your sixth string to the E two octaves below middle C. From there, you can tune your guitar to itself or continue to match each pitch to the right notes as you go up the keyboard.
Alternate Guitar Tunings
What do Joni Mitchell and Black Sabbath have in common? It’s all in the tuning! Both artists often used alternate tunings to get unique sounds from their guitars. Once you have a good idea of how to tune a guitar, it can be lots of fun to experiment with alternate guitar tunings. There are hundreds of possible alternate tunings for the guitar, but two of the most common alternate tunings are Drop D and Open G.
Drop D Tuning
Tuning your guitar to Drop D is pretty simple. Start with your guitar in standard tuning, and just tune your sixth string down a full step from E to D. Famous songs in Drop D tuning include the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence”, Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”, and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”.
Open G Tuning
If you love Keith Richards’ guitar playing in the Rolling Stones, you are already a fan of Open G tuning. In Open G, your guitar strings are tuned to the notes of the G chord, so when you strum open you’re already playing a complete chord. Starting from the sixth string, tune to the following notes: D-G-D-G-B-D
How Often Should I Tune My Guitar?
Guitars are very sensitive instruments. The wood in your guitar expands and contracts slightly due to changes in temperature and humidity, which changes the tension in the strings, and causes them to go out of tune. You might even notice your guitar going out of tune as you play it, particularly if you tend to play very hard or frequently bend pitches.
Due to the guitar’s sensitivity, it’s best to tune at the start of your practice, and again any time you sense that it doesn’t sound quite right. You will notice even professional musicians occasionally need to take some time during performances to tune.
How Can I Make My Guitar Stay in Tune Longer?
Keep your guitar in tune longer by changing your strings regularly. Depending on how often you play, you might want to change your strings anywhere from once a month to once a week. When you’re not playing, store your guitar in a hard case in a cool, dry place to avoid changes in heat and humidity.
If you follow those tips but still have persistent issues with your guitar going out of tune, there may be an issue with your instrument’s intonation. Intonation refers to your instrument’s ability to hold pitch. Intonation may be affected by wear and tear as you play your guitar or the way your guitar was manufactured. Visit a local guitar shop and ask them to take a look at your guitar’s intonation and they should be able to help you find the right solution to your tuning woes.
-Megan L. TakeLessons Staff Member and Blogger
Now that you know how to tune a guitar, be sure to check out our other great resources to help you learn more about your instrument. If you’re really serious about improving your guitar skills fast, the right guitar teacher will be the best resource you can have. Visit TakeLessons to find your perfect teacher today!