The Beginner’s Guide to Guitar Tuning

Let’s run through a common scenario. You’re at a house party and someone passes the guitar over, hoping for a flawless rendition of ‘Kumbaya.’ Then you see grimaces and awkward frowns emerge as what emerges from your guitar isn’t beautiful music, rather, it’s a cacophony of ugly noise.  

That is what we call being out-of-tune. Being able to tune your guitar is a skill that takes practice but provides immense value once you master it. It can help develop your musician’s ear. Besides being able to recognize when your guitar sounds like mud, tuning brings you closer to understanding what makes your guitar sound amazing. Once you get an understanding of what notes you need to tune to, you can better hear pitch alterations and know when you happen to be playing flat or sharp. You’ll be able to catch mistakes with your tuning before your friends do. 

Plus your guitar will sound great. Did we mention that? Like really great. Once you start playing, you’ll likely not be able to stop. How could you not want more of that?

Below, you’ll find an explanation of everything you can do to keep your guitars sounding great each time you bring one out to play. 

How Does Guitar Tuning Work?

To tune your guitar strings, you'll need to make use of the tuning keys on your guitar headstock. Each guitar string corresponds with a specific tuning key, starting with the thickest string on your guitar and working your way down until all six guitar strings correspond to a specific tuning. 

We'll go into more specifics about tunings next time but standard tuning is used by most guitarists, tuning your guitar strings to the following notes: EADGBE.  Each note will correspond to the sound each guitar string plays when you play it open (without holding down a fret with a finger). Starting with the tuning key closest to you, you'll tune the thickest string to the pitch of E, then tune the following string to A, and so on and so forth until you've tuned all six strings to EADGBE.

Turning the tuning key to the right (away from you) will tighten the string and raise its pitch while turning the key to the left (towards you) will slacken the string and lower its pitch.  You can use this system to help you determine if you need to go up or down in pitch for each string when tuning. When tuning, you’ll want to stay below the pitch you want by loosening the string, then tighten it to hit the right pitch. This keeps the string from going flat during a performance. 

Tightening a string will pull the head of the guitar and affect the tuning of your other strings as the tension increases. One way to mitigate this is to tune your strings in a specific order. For example,  you can tune the top E string, then the bottom E string, then the A string, the B string, the D string and finally the G string before fine-tuning each one in succession. 

5 Different Ways You Can Tune a Guitar

There are many ways you can tune your guitar now, making any excuse that you don’t have a tuner handy obsolete. In 2020, there are plenty of options you can use to keep your guitar in tip-top shape. Let’s go over a couple!

1. Chromatic Tuner

For most beginners, this may be all you will ever need. Chromatic tuners work by hearing the note you’re playing and comparing it to the pitch your guitar string should be tuned to. This lets you know if your string is sharp or flat, allowing you to make adjustments quickly. Chromatic tuners are accurate and often allow for alternate tunings and frequency choices. Plus these tuners are often available on the Internet and on smartphones.  One free example you can use is Tuner-Online - it uses the microphone on your device to gauge how accurately tuned your strings are before playing back what it should sound like. 

Chromatic Tuner

2. Tuner Pedal

If you’re someone who plays in a band, you can spring for a tuner pedal that you can plug your electric guitar into. Just like your handheld chromatic tuner, these tuner pedals let you know the accuracy of your tuning with one major change: they allow you to mute your sound and tune in silence  – perfect for gigs and rehearsals. 

Guitar tuning pedal

3. Clip-on Tuner

These tuners attach to the headstock of your guitar and use its vibrations to detect the correct pitch of each string. Clip-on tuners are great for acoustic guitars with no pickup or electric guitars that aren’t plugged in and are generally very affordable and easy to learn. 

Clip on tuner

4. Piano

This will require you to know the notes on a piano, but it’s a great technique if you happen to have a piano handy! Simply play a note, play the same note on your guitar and compare the pitches. Adjust the tuning on your guitar to match that of the piano. Pianos and keyboards are tuned to a frequency of A440, equivalent to standard tuning, making them an excellent reference to use.

Piano Guitar Tuning

5. Relative Pitch

If you don’t have a tuner handy and have one string that's already in tune, you can tune the rest of the guitar strings by playing a fretted note on the lower string and tuning your open string to that note. Let's say you already have your thick E string tuned. So you can tune your fifth guitar string to A by matching the A note you play when you fret the fifth fret on your thick E string. From there, you can match the pitch of your fourth string (D) to the D note you play on the fifth fret of your fifth string. Next, it's a matter of tuning the third (G) string by playing the same note on the fifth fret on the fourth string (D). 

Two strings left! For your 2nd string (B), you'll play a corresponding note on the fourth fret of the G string. Finally, play an E on the fifth fret of the B string and you can tune your high E string and you’ll have successfully tuned your guitar.

Relative Pitch Tuning

Keeping Your Guitar in Tune

Unfortunately, tuning isn’t something you can only do once. There are plenty of factors that influence just how often you’ll need to tune your guitar. 

Humidity and temperature play a huge role in guitar tuning. When the temperature changes, the wood in your guitar reacts by expanding or contracting. This leads to changes in length and tension. Tune a guitar in a warm room and bring it to a cooler one and your strings will go sharp. Playing outdoors in the summer heat can have your strings loosen out as you play. Keep this in mind as you play in different weather conditions. 

Here’s a tip to keep your guitar strings in tune longer – when changing them, don’t forget to give them a stretch! The elasticity of a new set of strings makes keeping a stable tuning a proper challenge. New strings that haven't been stretched will go flat and stay out of tune as you play them. To stretch guitar strings, simply grab a string while holding your guitar in the playing position and give it a nice yank away from the guitar, making sure to tune it once completed. You'll want to repeat this process for each and every guitar string you have. Stretching strings can help spread out the tension across the entire neck of the guitar, keeping your tuning more stable and preventing your strings from snapping easily. 

Take your guitar to a tech at a local guitar shop to get it properly setup. A guitar that has been properly intonated and set up should give you perfect sounding notes all across the fretboard but a guitar suffering from poor intonation may fool you into thinking it’s in tune and sound awful once you start playing. 

Lastly, don’t forget to switch out your guitar strings! As guitar strings age, they build up a combination of oil, dirt, dead skin and sweat which lead to a massive drop in pitch and tone. At that point, the only cure is a new set of fresh strings. Depending on how often you play guitar, you'll want to change your strings every couple of months or whenever your strings start to lose their tone – whichever comes first!

If you keep your guitar well-maintained and tune often, the instances where it can go out of tune will be kept to a minimum. But tuning is only half the battle to making your guitar sound great. The other half is you, the player! So invest some time with AI Music Lessons to learn fundamental skills and techniques to get your best sound.