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How To Tune a Guitar

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In this lesson we’re going to take a look at how to tune a guitar. It seems so basic, but it’s a fundamental skill every guitar player needs to have and it’s one you should develop from the start. So let’s jump in and see why it’s important to keep your guitar in tune and different ways we can go about keeping it in tune.

Why Keep a Guitar In Tune?

Aside from the obvious reason of the instrument potentially sounding terrible when it’s played out of tune, there’s another important reason to always keep your guitar in tune. Whenever you’re playing the guitar, you’re training your ear how to hear relationships between notes being played. These notes can be part of a melody or harmony. In both cases, your ears are picking up on the nuances of how the notes should sound, whether they’re played one at a time or together.

In order to feed your ears good information, it’s important to keep your guitar in tune. Before you play a single note, always check the tuning on the guitar to make sure it’s in tune before you begin playing/practicing. Over time your ear will develop to a point where you can immediately pick up on tuning issues and you’ll be able to correct them on the fly.

Standard Tuning

When we talking about tuning a guitar, we’re talking about the process of tuning the open strings to specific notes. Although there are plenty of exceptions, standard tuning is by far the most common tuning.

Open notes on the guitar fretboard for strings 1 through 6

In standard tuning, the low E string (6th string) is tuned to E and each subsequent string is tuned a 4th higher, with the exception of the 2nd string (B), which is a major 3rd higher than the 3rd string (G).

  • 6th String = E
  • 5th String = A
  • 4th String = D
  • 3rd String = G
  • 2nd String = B
  • 1st String = E

Another common tuning is E♭. This is when you lower each string by 1/2 step.

  • 6th String = E♭
  • 5th String = A♭
  • 4th String = D♭
  • 3rd String = G♭
  • 2nd String = B♭
  • 1st String = E♭

Some bands that use this tuning include Guns N’ Roses, SRV, and Jimi Hendrix. A benefit to this tuning is it reduces strain on the voice for vocalists who sing in the higher octaves (Axl Rose, for example). It also lessens the tension on the strings, making the guitar a bit easier to play if you’re using higher gauge strings, like 10s or 11s.

Tuning a Guitar With a Tuner

Donner DT-1 tuner

There are several ways to go about tuning the guitar, the most obvious being the use of a tuner. There are all kinds of tuners available on the market, from clip-on tuners to those that fit inline on a pedal board, so there are plenty of options available to suit your specific needs.

The “industry standard” has been the Boss chromatic tuner. Polytune from TC Electronics is also a popular choice. Personally, I use the Donner Dt-1 tuner. It’s inexpensive, easy to read, and has worked really well for me. Plus, its small footprint doesn’t take up much space on the pedal board, which is a nice bonus.

How to use a guitar tuner

Regardless of whether your tuner is a clip-on or inline on your pedal board, the process is the same. You play an open string, typically starting with the low E (6th string). The tuner will pick up the signal and give you a reading. The reading typically includes the note, an indicator for flat, sharp, or right on, and a cent reading to show how much the note is off (whether flat or sharp). If the note is flat, you need to tighten the string to increase the pitch. If it’s sharp you need to loosen the string to lower the pitch.

Pro tip for correcting sharp notes. When you loosen the string to lower the pitch, you create slack in the string. To remove this slack and ensure your string stays in tune while playing, stretch the string to remove the slack. This will result in a flat note, but once you tune up to pitch your string will maintain its tuning better. This should also be done after changing strings in order to better stabilize the tuning.

Repeat the tuning process of each subsequent string, working from string 6 to string 1. Once you have all strings in tune, go back through each string to check that its tuning is stable. It’s not uncommon for strings to need to be adjusted slightly after tuning. Depending on how far off each string was to begin with, this can create a wide enough variation in tension on the neck to affect tuning.

Tuning a Guitar Without a Tuner

Without a tuner, you’re left up to your own ear to dial in your guitar. This highlights the importance of keeping your guitar in tune and training your ear to hear the notes properly. It makes tuning without a tuner so much easier.

Reference note

Without a tuner, you need to find a reference note which you can use as a starting point. This can come from another instrument or perhaps a song you’re familiar with. For years my reference note has come from Metallica’s Enter Sandman. The song came out my first year of learning guitar. The first note played is open E on the 6th string, making it really easy to lock in on. I’ve used this note so much over the years, it’s the first thing that pops into my head whenever I hear the open low E.

Once you have the low E string in tune, you can use this string to tune the rest. Recall that the guitar is tuned in 4ths (except the B string). If we take a quick look at the notes on the first five frets of the guitar, we see something emerge across the strings. The 5th fret of each string (except the 3rd string) is the same note and the open note on the higher adjacent string.

Tuning notes on guitar by string

This allows us to use the 5th fret as a reference for tuning the next higher string. On the 3rd string, the 4th fret is the same as the higher adjacent string (string 2) since the 2nd string is tuned to a major 3rd above the 3rd string.

You can also use an online guitar tuner that provides the pitch for each open note like below:

Low E (6th String)
A (5th String)
D (4th String)
G (3rd String)
B (2nd String)
High E (1st String)

Intonation

Once you’ve tuned your guitar you’ll want to check the intonation. Intonation is basically the variation in pitch between the octaves on each string. For instance, the open E of the 6th string should be the same sound as the fretted E (octave) on the 12th fret of the 6th string, etc.

Open and 12th fret notes on the guitar

If the notes are off, the intonation for that string needs to be adjusted until the notes are in tune. The intonation can be adjusted by moving the bridge saddles forward or backward. General adjustments work as follows:

  • If the octave note is sharp, the string length needs to be increased. Move the saddle back to increase the length of the string.
  • If the octave note is flat, the string length needs to be decreased. Move the saddle forward to decrease the length of the string.

There are several methods for testing intonation. Steve from GuitarNiche has a useful video explaining how he goes about testing and adjusting intonation.

Wrap up

Tuning a guitar is a basic skill every guitar player needs to have. It’s easy to dismiss its importance, but it becomes obvious over time when you start picking up on chords and scales that just don’t sound quite right. Make it a habit to keep your guitar in tune each time you pick it up and your ears will thank you in the long run.

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