Why do you need to be familiar with more than one ways to tune your guitar? I am going to explain the best methods to tune your guitar in any situation.
The traditional tuning of a 6 string electric and acoustic guitar uses the following notes: E (thickest string), A, D, G, B and E (thinnest string). To tune your guitar, you can use android or iphone apps, software programs, a stand alone electronic tuner, or -if your guitar has one- a built-in tuner. However there is an other option, using your very own ears to tune your instrument. Let me show you the advantages and disadvantages of these methods.
You cannot always tune your guitar the same way. Depending on your surroundings, the instrument, and the tools available to you at the moment, you will benefit knowing several ways to achieve your goal. I decided to round up the best methods to explain how to tune in noisy environment, if you want to tune to other instruments such as an acoustic piano or an other guitar, tune to an online video or recording, tune on stage or in dark.
I added a pro tip to the end of this lesson: I show you which method I am using to tune my guitar most of the time.
Basics of tuning
Why guitars go out of tune?
Different things can effect your string tension, such as humidity changes, temperature changes, maybe your tuner keys were moved as you took in or out your guitar from the case. Of course when you change your strings, you must tune up your guitar from scratch.
How do you tune the guitar?
The headstock on an acoustic or electric guitar, mandolin, ukulele or banjo holds the tuning pegs, or the machine tuners. Tuning is basically changing the string tension -and with it the pitch as well- by turning these knobs until the strummed string gives you the correct note.
No matter what method you are using from below, you need to tune the strings up to the correct note to minimize the possibility of a string to slip out of tune. So, if a string is sharp (the string rings higher then the note needed), you need to turn down the string, passing the correct note making the string somewhat flat (too low), and only after that you tune up the string to reach the correct pitch.
When do you need to tune?
It is a good idea to check the tuning every day before start practicing, though probably your guitar will only need slight adjustment, nothing more. Some techniques such as practicing string bending can cause the strings to get out of tune more often. When you take the guitar to the road, especially winter time, it is most likely will need to be tuned up. Also if you want to practice with a video or audio recording you might need to tune your guitar to the song.
However, the most important time to tune your instrument is before your guitar lesson! Arrive 5 minutes early and tune up your axe. The universe will be thankful for your effort.
Step by steps guide to tune up a guitar
- Decide if you want to start with the low E string (thickest string) or with the high E string.
- Find the tuner key of the string on the head of the guitar, and hold on to it.
- Strum the string you want to tune. Make sure you are plucking the string which belongs to the tuner you are holding.
- While the note is ringing, take a look at your tuner. If it shows that the string is in tune, move on to the next string. If the string needs to be adjusted, then turn the tuner on the guitar head clockwise or anti clockwise. You can start with a quarter circle.
- The string needs to ring while you are tuning, so you might need to pluck the string over and over again. If the pitch doesn’t change, double check if you are plucking and adjusting the same string.
- Repeat these steps for each strings.
Now let’s take a closer look to the methods how to tune your instrument.
Using tuner apps
Using a tuner app is a convenient way to tune your guitar. You mobile phone will read and interpret the sound waves coming from your guitar and displays the readings and necessary adjustments on the screen. All you need to do is to start the app, follow the steps on the screen and strum the string you want to tune. After a few a seconds, the app will tell you if your string is in tune, or if it is sharp or flat. However, this method needs relative silence around you. You can turn down your TV and music, however once you start playing with others it is probably unrealistic to let them wait in silence while you are tuning.
Here are a few apps you can try
- Easy to use.
- Many of the tuner apps are free.
- Convenient, no need to use anything else but your phone and guitar.
- Cannot be used efficiently in a noisy environment especially with an electric guitar.
- The accuracy of these tuners are far from perfect.
- To unlock some features you might need to pay.
How to use electronic tuners or pedals
The electronic tuners give you flexibility, easy and precision at the same time. There are traditional electronic tuners, clip on tuners, and tuner pedals. These are all purpose built tuning equipments. They all have displays, and they can be used in a noisy environment. These tuners show you the calibration in three ways:
- They will tell you which is the closest musical note to the string you are strumming.
- They will show you with a moving needle how far away from the note the string is.
- They have usually green and red lights to show whether the note is too low (flat) or too high (sharp).
The clip on tuners are using the resonance of the instrument body, making an great choice for both acoustic and electric instruments. The electronic tuners and tuner pedals need a cable to tune the instrument with high accuracy, so those can work the best with acoustic guitars with on-board pre-amplifiers or with electric guitars. Once the tuner is plugged in or attached to the instrument, just turn on the tuner and pick the string and watch the needle on the display.
Here are a few tuners I use:
I bought a Korg GA-30 about 20 years ago and I bought an other one a couple of years ago because I still like them. Accurate, light, battery lasts long.
I got a couple of popular brand clip-on tuners and I was disappointed about the precision. I tried the AW-2. The accuracy is good, and the needle is precise. I use it all the time.
A very good and accurate tuner pedal, with a small footprint, and an easy to read display in dark. Ideal for stage.
- Can be used in most situation and in noisy environment.
- Accurate tuning, especially the pedals, and the mid-high range electronic tuners.
- Clip-on tuners are easy to use, they don’t need cable.
- Obviously these are not free. The super cheap tuners are usually pretty useless.
- Using the cable is a bit cumbersome. Clip-on solves the problem, however clip-on tuners are the least accurate ones and they are the most sensitive to noise among these tuners.
- One more gadget to carry around.
Tuning using your ears
STEP 1 – Low E String: For this tuning method, the E string must already be in tune. You can use another instrument, a recording, or a phone app to find E pitch to tune to. However. If your goal is to practice on your own, and the E string is “sort of” in tune, that is good enough. The important thing is that the strings will be tuned well relative to each other.
STEP 2 – A String: Go to the 5th fret on the low E string, which is the A note. The A string should sound exactly like the note on the fifth fret of the E string. Pluck both strings slowly after each other, but adjust only the A string if it is needed. You tune the A string to the E string not the other way around.
STEP 3 – D String: Next string in line is the D string, and the 5th fret of the A string is a D note. Once again, adjust the D string to sound just like the D note on the A string.
STEP 4 – G String: To tune up the G string, follow the same method, but use the 5th fret of the D string.
STEP 5 – B String: For the B string you need to use the 4th fret instead of the 5th. Everything else is the same.
STEP 6 – High E String: For the high E string, you need to use the 5th fret again.
Check Your Tuning: Once you think the guitar is in tune, play an A minor, E minor, C, and G chords and listen how they sound. If they sound funny, then you might need to go over the tuning again. Over time your ear will develop and you will tune faster and better.
- Your ears are always at hand!
- Using you ears, you can tune to a recording or online video, or to other instruments such as a piano or a guitar.
- Tuning by ears will improve your aural skills over time.
- You cannot really tune in a very noisy environment, especially if other instruments are playing or warming up around you.
- There is a learning curve, and it needs practice to master it. Oh my.
Pro Tip: How do I tune my guitar?
Depending on the situation I use different tuning methods. When I am teaching I tune by ears using chords to the student instrument, simply, because it is the fastest way. When I use my pedal board, I tune with my tuner pedal, when I play jazz, I use a clip on tuner. But, regardless what equipment I use, I don’t just tune to open strings, I always tune to specific notes up on the neck, in the area where I will actually play the solos, and again in the section where I will play the rhythm. In this way I can compensate for the imperfection of the instrument. Let me explain this a little bit deeper.
Guitars are not perfect. In some area of the neck maybe the notes are sharper, some parts of the neck they play slightly flatter. Strings are also not perfect, as they get older, they tend to go out of tune. There are some way to compensate for this on the bridge on some electric guitar, but the fact is a fact: the intonation will not be perfect on any guitar. The combination of these factors cause that generally speaking, the further you play from the area where you actually tune the instrument, the more chance that the guitar will sound slightly out of tune.
This is the reason where I tune each strings in the area I plan to play most often. For example, if I play in a jazz orchestra, I will use the low strings mostly around the 5th to 7th fret, so I tune the E6, A and D strings in that area. When I play solos many times I am using frets 8 to 14, so I tune the G, B and E1 strings to be perfectly tuned in that area. This way I minimize the distance between the frets where I tune and play. I can play solos up high and rhythm guitar around the middle of the neck and both will sound great.