Tuning a guitar is the single most important concept for a beginning guitarist to learn. At the same time it is often their first stumbling block. If your guitar is not in tune, you will never sound good. Rather than having your friends tune your guitar for you all the time you should learn how to do it for yourself. This lesson contains instructions for a beginner to tune a 6 string guitar to standard tuning.
I get questions by email like the following all the time:
I have just bought a cheap acoustic guitar from a pawn shop because I have little or no money. I don’t know much about playing the guitar. How do I tune this thing? Are there any pages to help me out?
While I consider the task of tuning a guitar one of the most basic things for a guitarist to learn, explaining it so a complete beginner can understand is difficult. So I am forever rewriting this particular lesson in an effort to simplify things.
What you should know right away is that tuning a guitar is the single most important concept for a beginning guitarist to learn. At the same time it is often their first stumbling block. If your guitar is not in tune, you will never sound good. Rather than having your friends tune your guitar for you all the time you should learn how to do it for yourself.
This lesson contains instructions for a beginner to tune a 6 string guitar to standard tuning. For more experienced players, there is a lot of detailed information compiled on the Guitar Tuning page. There you will find lessons on 12 string guitars, open tunings, alternate tunings, harmonics and more.
To begin there are some important things to keep in mind when tuning your guitar:
- You should get into the habit of tuning your guitar every time you pick it up.
- Always “tune up.” You want to increase the tension of the string until it reaches the desired tone. If you go too far, loosen the string tension and tune up again.
- The goal of tuning is to put your strings in tune with each other. In “standard tuning” your strings should be tuned to the following notes (low-to-high): EADGBe.
The easiest way to get into tune and stay there is buy an electronic tuner. These small and inexpensive devices can save you a lot of trouble. While an electronic tuner is a great addition to your guitar case, they come in really handy in live situations and noisy environments, you should not rely on them exclusively. Do not neglect learning the skill of tuning for yourself as it is great for developing your ear.
The First Step
The first thing you need to do when tuning your guitar is get a reference pitch. You should start with the low E string, also known as the sixth string. You can get a reference pitch by using another guitar that is in tune, a piano, a tuning fork, an electronic tuner or even a midi file on your computer.
Your goal is to tune your sixth string to sound exactly like the low E sound. To do this, play the pitch, then slowly adjust the tuning peg of your sixth string until the pitch of your guitar sounds exactly like the file. Remember to tune up by increasing the string tension. If you tune too far give the string a lot of slack and start the process again. It is best if you eliminate all other noise from your area. That means turn off radios and anything else that may distract your ears. Once your sixth string is tuned to E you are ready to tune the other strings.
Next you are going to tune the fifth string A. To do that you must match the tone of the 6th string with the tone of the 5th. This is done by playing the same note on each string, one after the other. Place your the index or middle finger of your left hand just behind the 5th fret of the 6th string. Using your right hand play the 6th string at the 5th fret. Immediately after play the 5th string open – that is, no fingers on any fret. Listen to the two tones. As the two notes are still ringing use your right hand to adjust the 5th string’s tuning peg. Remember to tune up. Once both strings sound exactly the same your fifth string is in tune.
You are going to do the same to tune the 4th and 3rd strings. Once the 5th string sounds good, fret it at the 5th fret, and play the 4th string open. Adjust the 4th string’s tuning peg to match the notes. Keep going to tune the 3rd string: fret the 4th string on the 5th fret, and play the 3rd string open, and match the notes. When it comes time to tune the 2nd string, you have to fret the 3rd string on the 4th fret (not the 5th), and play the second string open, and adjust the 2nd string’s tuning peg. Tune the first string by fretting the 2nd string at the 5th fret, and play the first string open. Match the two tones, and you’re done.
If you are really new to playing music you may have problems hearing if the sounds actually match. New guitarists tend to break a lot strings by tuning too far because they just don’t know. There are ways to avoid this.
As mentioned earlier, the best way to make tuning really easy and painless is to buy an electronic tuner. Guitar Noise recommends the MU30 – Chromatic Tuner/Metronome by Ibanez. The metronome feature makes this particular tuner an essential piece of inexpensive equipment.
Sometimes people who believe they are tone deaf can tune a lot easier using a harmonic tuning method. If you want to learn how to tune your guitar using harmonics see our lesson Harmonic Tuning.
Some other places you can find a reference pitch include:
- After the early morning BBC2 Open University transmission the test card with the young girl and blackboard has a 440Hz “A” tone. Useful tuning reference, providing you wake up in time.
- The French telephone dial-tone is also at 440Hz.
- You can dial up 440Hz to tune your violin in Vienna, Austria.
If you want to learn how to tune a 12 string guitar see the answer to the FAQ What if my guitar has 12 strings?