An out-of-tune guitar can make even the best musician sound terrible.
If you’re just beginning to play, an out-of-tune guitar will 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 basic mechanics of tuning a guitar are simple.
To change a string’s pitch, turn it’s corresponding tuning key on the head of the guitar (hint: check out 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.
Notes to Tune a Guitar
Most guitarists tune to what is called “standard tuning.”
If you’re learning how to play guitar and aren’t sure which tuning to use, stick to standard tuning. As you get more comfortable with the guitar, feel free to try out alternate tunings to keep your practice fresh.
However for now standard tuning will be the best way to get the right sound out of your guitar.
Your guitar strings are numbered one through six, starting with your thinnest and highest pitched string. You’ll commonly name the strings in ascending order, starting with string six: E, A, D, G, B, E.
Note that your highest and lowest strings are both E, the same note spaced two octaves apart.
When you are tuning your guitar, start with the sixth string and work your way down. As the sixth string is the thickest, it tends to be better at holding its tune, giving you with a better foundation for a well-tuned guitar.
How to Tune a Guitar
When you’re learning how to tune a guitar, you need to have a reliable method of finding the right pitch.
Most guitarists either use a guitar tuner or tune their guitar to itself or another instrument such as a piano. Each method comes with pros and cons.
How to Tune a Guitar with a Tuner
When you’re new to playing guitar, using a tuner is the simplest way to find the right pitch and get your guitar in tune.
Tuners come in a several different varieties.
Chromatic tuners have an internal microphone to pick up the note you’re playing. They also display the pitch your string is currently tuned to.
You will be able to see if your string is sharp or flat, and also see when you’ve adjusted to the correct note.
Pitch tuners sound the pitch for each string and you must match the notes by ear. Pitch tuners can be a bit more challenging for beginners.
Or you can use a tuning fork, which you strike to produce the correct pitch for your guitar string.
When choosing a tuner or tuning fork, consider 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 have an easier time with a chromatic tuner, and over time can develop a better ear for music by using a tuner as a guide.
If you feel confident in your ear for music (or if you like a challenge), choose a tuning fork or a tuner that plays pitches.
How to Tune a Guitar By Ear
If you can tune your low E string by ear, you can make a guitar sound decent by tuning it to itself.
Start by holding your sixth string 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 helps to hum the correct note as you tune your open string, so you can better hear if your string is tuned too high or too low.
Next, tune your D string to match the note played at the fifth fret of your A string. Continue tuning each string to the fifth fret of the string above it, except for the B string.
To tune your B string, match the pitch to the note at the fourth fret of the G string.
How to Tune a Guitar With a Piano
If you don’t have a guitar tuner but you do have a piano, you can use the piano to tune your guitar.
Match your sixth string to the E on the piano two octaves below middle C.
Once you have the sixth string in tune, you can tune your guitar by ear to itself or continue to match each pitch to the right notes moving up the keyboard.
Free Online Guitar Tuners
There are a number of great free online guitar tuners you can use to help you tune your guitar. Here are a few of our favorites:
8notes.com – You can use this tuner to hear the correct pitch, or activate your computer’s microphone to enable pitch detection.
JamPlay – This free online guitar tuner from JamPlay also allows you to tune by ear or use your computer’s microphone for pitch detection.
GuitarTricks – This tuner uses real guitar tones so you can match your instrument to its sounds.
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
Want to learn more about alternate guitar tunings? Check out this article to see how they can boost your guitar skills:
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 much you play, you should change your strings anywhere from once a month to once a week. When you’re not playing, keep your guitar in a hard case in a cool, dry room to avoid changes in humidity and heat.
If you follow those tips but still have persistent issues with your guitar going out of tune, there may be an issue with your guitar’s intonation.
Intonation refers to your guitar’s ability to hold pitch. Intonation may be affected by wear and tear as you play your guitar or the way your guitar was made.
If you suspect an intonation issue, visit your local guitar shop and ask them to take a look at your guitar. They should be able to help you find the right solution to your tuning troubles.
There are also devices on the market, such as Keep Tuned Original, that can help your guitar stay in tune longer.
Photo by Pabak Sarkar