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’re in tune.
If you’re just beginning to play the guitar, an out-of-tune instrument can be incredibly frustrating and make every note sound like a mistake. Knowing how to tune a guitar properly will ensure that you always sound your best when you play.
This guide will teach you exactly how to tune a guitar using several different methods so that you can play like a pro.
How to Tune a Guitar
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.
How to Tune Using Standard Guitar Tuning
Most guitarists tune their instruments to “standard tuning.” If you’re just beginning to play and aren’t sure which tuning to use, you should stick with standard tuning for now. As you get more comfortable with your instrument, feel free to experiment with other tunings to achieve different sounds with the guitar.
The strings on the guitar are numbered one through six, starting with the highest string.
Guitar String Tuning Notes
You’ll commonly name the strings in ascending order, starting with string six: E, A, D, G, B, E. Take a look at the following image to see to which note each string should be tuned. Note that your highest and lowest strings are both E, the same note spaced two octaves apart.
Each note corresponds to the pitch your string should produce when played open, without holding down any of the frets. When you’re tuning, it’s best to start with the sixth string and work your way down.
How to Tune Guitar with a Chromatic or Pitch Tuner
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, app, or another instrument. Each method comes with pros and cons.
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’re 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. Here’s a video to show what this process looks like:
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 easy to find a free online guitar tuner, such as this one by Fender. There are also plenty of “tune my guitar” apps available on your smartphone.
If you do decide to invest in a tuner or tuning fork, ask yourself if you’re a more visual person or if you’ve 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.
How to Tune a Guitar Without a Pitch Tuner
If you find yourself playing solo without a tuner, you can make a guitar sound decent by tuning it “to itself.” Check out this helpful tutorial or follow the steps below.
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 hear if the 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. If each string is tuned to the correct interval from the next string, your guitar will sound fine by itself.
How to Tune a Guitar by Matching Pitch with a Keyboard
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 instrument.
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. As a bonus, tuning this way can help you develop your note-seeking skills on the piano!
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 grasp of standard guitar tuning, it can be a lot 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. You can also tune down the E string until it matches the same pitch as the D string, but an octave lower. 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’re 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. This is a great tuning to explore if you’re interested in bluesy slide guitar!
This is another open tuning that is popular in blues music. Instead of tuning to a G chord like with Open G, DADFAD tunes your guitar to an open D minor chord. To change this tuning to a D major chord, simply tune the F note up to F# – you’ll then have DADF#AD. This tuning sounds great with open strings, so it’s a good option for those who don’t know any chords yet but still want to produce a powerful sound. If you know a child that likes to bang on the open strings, tune the guitar to DADFAD first!
How Often Should I Tune a Guitar?
Guitars are sensitive instruments. The wood in your guitar expands and contracts slightly due to changes in temperature and humidity. In turn, it can change the tension in the strings and cause them to go out of tune. You might notice your guitar going out of tune as you play it, 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 right. You will notice that even professional musicians occasionally need to take some time during performances to tune a guitar. New strings will also need to be tuned more frequently until they break in.
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. It’s also a good idea to wipe your strings down with a clean, dry cloth when you’re done playing to keep your finger oils from corroding the strings.
If you follow these tips but still have 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 up and down the fretboard. The most common example of bad intonation is when the open strings on your guitar sound in tune but fretted notes sound out of tune.
Intonation may be affected by wear and tear as you play your guitar or by the way your guitar was manufactured. Visit a guitar shop and ask them to take a look at your guitar’s intonation. They will be able to help you find the right solution to your tuning woes.
How to Tune a Guitar Step-by-Step:
- Step 1: Start by tuning the low E String.
- Step 2: Next, tune the A String.
- Step 3: Tune the D String.
- Step 4: Tune the G String.
- Step 5: Tune the B String.
- Step 6: Tune the High E String.
- Step 7: Play a chord to check that all of the strings are in tune.
- Step 8: If any strings sound off, retune them.
Free Online Guitar Tuners
There are several 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.
Now that you know how to tune a guitar, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals on the instrument. If you’re serious about taking your guitar skills to the next level, there’s no better way than with private lessons. The online guitar classes at TakeLessons Live make it easy to improve your playing from the comfort of your own home.
Whether you work with a teacher online or in person, the first part of the lesson will always be to tune up. You’ll then be ready to learn how to play different chords, new strumming patterns, and some of your favorite songs!