How To Properly Tune Your Guitar

There’s nothing as disappointing as the sound of a badly tuned guitar.

Even the world’s best guitarists will sound terrible when their instrument isn’t tuned properly.

They say the trick to mastering an art is to master the basics. Well, learning to tune your guitar correctly is the “basics” of the guitar world, but don’t worry, it’s not that hard to master.

Let’s take look at how to properly tune your guitar:

The mechanics of tuning

In case you’re not yet on a first-name basis with your guitar, we’ll need to have a look at the mechanics of a guitar [1].

That big thing at the top of your instrument with all the knobs on the side, that’s your headstock or head. The knobs are called tuning keys: we’ll get to those in a minute.

The long piece between the head and the body is your neck – it’s home to your frets (marked as sections), fingerboard and position markers.

The body of your guitar will house a sound hole and saddle, for acoustic guitars, or pickups, a pickup selector switch and tone and volume controls on an electric guitar.

The tuning keys are what you will use to tune your guitar. Tightening the string, by turning the tuning key away from you, will raise the pitch while loosening it by turning the key towards you will give you a lower pitch.

Ideally, you should tune your guitar every time you play, or while you’re playing if something doesn’t sound right.

That’s because guitars are sensitive to everything from movement to humidity, which affect’s the tension on your strings.

If you’re going to playing in a damp or dry environment, you may want to consider a guitar humidifier. Regularly changing your strings could also help your instrument stay in tune longer.

Here’s how your guitar string should sound when it is properly tuned:

Standard tuning

While there are all sorts of ways to develop your own “sound”, even Tony Iommi (lead guitarist for Black Sabbath) started out playing in standard tuning.

When you look down at your guitar neck, you’ll see your six strings are arranged from thickest to thinnest.

The first, thickest string is your E, followed by A, D, g, b, e (your thinnest string).

HowToTuneAGuitar.org have a clever little rhyme to help you remember the order: “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie.”[2]

When you start tuning your guitar, you need to start with “E”, your fattest string.

If you don’t yet have a tuner, you can tune your guitar by understanding the strings’ relationship to each other [3].

  • Your “A” (or second string) can be tuned to the same sound your guitar makes when you place your index finger on the fifth fret of your “E” string.
  • Your “D” string should sound the same as when you play the fifth fret on your A string and the same goes for the “g” string which should sound like the note you play on the fifth fret of the D string.
  • Your last string, the thin “e”, follows the same rule, playing the “b” string, but the “b” string itself is the only one that behaves a little differently.
  • Here, you’ll want the string to sound the same as the note you play while holding the fourth fret of the “g” string.

GuitarLessons.com points out that it’s important to make sure you’re using the correct tuning key for each string [4]. Not sure which is which? Simply follow the string up the guitar neck to its corresponding key.

A good way to check if your “E” is in tune without a tuner is to tune it until it goes from a buzzing sound to a ring.

If you want to play with other instrumentalists though you’ll need to make sure you user a tuner or tune to another instrument.

Using an electric tuner to tune your guitar

If you haven’t got much experience with tuning, you may want to invest in a chromatic or pitch tuner.

Whether you’re using a clip-on device, a pedal tuner, a handheld device or just a smartphone app, you’re only going to pay about $15 to 20 and the improvement in your instrument’s sound will be well worth the small fee.

TakeLessons.com suggests that those who are more visual may prefer a chromatic tuner which displays the pitch your instrument is tuned to.

A pitch tuner is better suited to players who have already developed an “ear” for music and will be able to match the sound.

You could also replace a pitch tuner with any other instrument that’s already in tune.

GuitarLessons.org add that you should calibrate your tuner to the standard “A 440 Hz” to make sure you sound like everyone else.

They also suggest tuning up to a note instead of down. In other words, if your note sounds sharp, come back down and tune back up. Less tension on your strings means your guitar will hold the tuning longer.

What if I still sound out of tune?

So, you’ve learned how to tune your guitar, the tuner says everything’s correct, but something still sounds wonky?

You could be playing too hard. Guitarist and teacher Tyler Larson says he often finds his students are not in control of their finger strength [5].

Larson adds that this is easily remedied by adjusting the force you place on the neck of your guitar while playing. Simply put: don’t push too hard on your strings.

Another reason could be your guitar’s intonation. Like we said before, the guitar is sensitive and normal wear and tear will affect its sound.

TakeLessons.com suggest taking yours to a music shop to have a technician check it out if you’re worried this may be an issue.

Lastly, make sure you’re playing on fresh strings. As they age, so does the tension on your strings, which ultimately changes their pitch.

If your guitar still needs tuning, check this video to help you out:

Conclusion

Now that you know the basics of playing guitar: how to tune your guitar and how to keep it in tune, you can go ahead and start playing.

We’ve put together a handy buyer’s guide to help you find your first guitar. If you’re looking to step it up a notch, check out their reviews of the best intermediate guitars on offer.

Stephanie Su
 

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