In order to play guitar, your guitar has to be in tune. Notice I didn’t say to what it had to be in tune with! You can tune your six strings to a wide range of notes, and many people do. But in order to create chords or play with others, you have to be in tune to something that everyone can agree on in order to play. And your guitar’s strings have to be tuned to some real note value or you’re not going to sound like much more than a jumble of noise.
Most people use standard tuning for their guitars. Standard tuning is tuning each string of your guitar to a specific note. Doing so allows you to play the various chords in the same way that other people do.
From your lowest string (that’s the thickest one that should be closest to the ceiling when you hold your guitar properly) to the highest (that’s the thinnest one, which is closest to the floor), the strings are tuned to the following notes:
E A D G B E
There are all sorts of mnemonic sayings to help you remember this (Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good – Bye Eddie is a favorite) but it’s really easy to remember after even just a day.
Having a tuner is the easiest way to get and stay in tune. There are all sorts of tuners out there in the world, including online tuners that you can find at various websites. It used to be that most tuners had small microphones to hear the notes played and then to display the note and how on or out of tune you might be.
Nowadays, many people use tuners, usually clamped to the headstock, that pick up the note’s vibration through the body of the guitar itself. And there are even tuners that use lasers to calculate just how in tune a string is.
While they may look very different, most display their work in similar ways. When you pick an open string, you should see a note name and possibly also a string number (guitar strings are numbered one to six, with one being the thinnest, or highest, string and six being the lowest or thickest string) .
Most tuners will have a display screen where you can see how sharp (higher than the desired tone) or flat (lower than the desired tone) you are in relation to your target note. Simply turn the tuning knob of the string until you are on target for the note in question.
None of this is foolproof! Tuners can be temperamental and pick up vibrations from other strings. If they are microphone-style tuners, they can catch other incidental noise, making it hard to determine which note you’re trying to hit.
And the screens themselves may be tricky. If you’re not careful, you might miss seeing a “#” or “b” sign and inadvertently tune yourself to a higher or lower note than desired.
You also want to check to make sure the tuner is set to 440Hz, which is called concert tuning. It’s possible to knock your tuner’s setting off by accidentally hitting a button.
If you can get a reference note of any type, it’s possible to tune your guitar using relative tuning. The note of your open A (fifth) string is the same note you get if you play the fifth fret of the low E (sixth) string. The fifth fret of the A string is D and the fifth fret of the D is G. On the G string, you use the fourth fret to tune to B and then the fifth fret of the B string is the same note as the high E (first) string.
It’s always a good idea, whether tuning relatively or with a tuner, to make a quick run through of various chords, ideally one using four strings (like D), one using five (like C or A) and one using all six (like E or G). Doing so will give you a chance to immediately hear if any one string is still slightly out of tune, provided you’re not the one making the guitar out of tune by pulling on the strings instead of fretting them smoothly.