How to Tune The Guitar


This next lesson in our continuing series on How To: Guitar is on how to tune the guitar. The most important thing to remember about tuning a guitar: A properly tuned guitar allows you to play with other people and other instruments such as piano and horns and lets you play traditional arrangements of popular songs.

Standard Tuning

All guitars are typically tuned to what is known as “standard tuning.” This tuning is as follows: E-A-D-G-B-E from the lowest (thickest) to the highest (thinnest) open strings (not fretted). The lowest string in pitch (the thickest string) is referred to as the Low-E string. The highest string is referred to the High-E string. The guitar is typically tuned by using an electric tuner, a pitch pipe or by referencing another musical instrument (such as a piano or another guitar that is known to be in tune). Whenever tuning to standard tuning, it is crucial that the A string be tuned to A=440hz, which is the musical note A above middle C on the piano keyboard, and all other strings tuned to the proper relative notes.  You will need to understand the standard tuning in order to learn how to tune the guitar.  There are also other alternative tunings that we will get into more in future lessons on how to tune the guitar.

Guitar vs Piano

The guitar is peculiar as a musical instrument because the exact same musical note in pitch can be achieved in several positions and strings on the fretboard. Whereas the piano has one note of each pitch going from low to high in a linear fashion, the guitar has multiple repeats of notes across the width and length of the fretboard which is important to remember for how to tune the guitar. This is something we will come back to when explaining more music theory so it is not something to concern yourself now but definitely worthy of being aware of. For now, all you need to know is that these repeats of notes on the guitar is very useful for tuning the guitar to itself. Most people first tune the A string to a chromatic tuner or piano. They then tune the Low-E string to the A string by pressing the fifth fret of the E string and tuning it until the note it produces is exact same as the open-A that is sounded when striking the A string while not fretting a note. The following example demonstrates in guitar tablature (on the bottom) and standard music notation (on the top) that these two A notes are identical in pitch and useful for how to tune a guitar. I have also included the fretting to tune the rest of the strings in this example which you would do one after another after each set of strings in tune until all strings are in tune.

how to tune the guitar

Alternative Tuning Methods

There are a few different ways to tune the guitar including fretting and harmonics. I tend to tune by just plucking the open strings and tuning the open strings five notes away from each other which corresponds to the tuning lesson I just taught you. As a beginner, I would instead advise the method I just described because it is much easier to distinguish two identical notes than it is to judge two different notes.

Unison Resonance

When two notes are identical, and what you are trying to accomplish when tuning your guitar, is to have both of those notes sound exactly the same with absolutely no difference. If your Low-E string was out-of-tune and tuned lower than it should be when you judged it against the in-tune A-string that you referenced to a tuner or piano, you will hear a waiver in the sound of the two notes. As you turn the tuning peg tighter, you will begin to hear the two notes get closer in tune and the waiver will become faster and faster until it suddenly disappears. When you no longer hear a waiver in the two notes, the Low-E string is in tune. Likewise, if your Low-E string was tuned higher than it should be, you would have to loosen the tuning peg until the waiver disappears as above. The other strings are all tuned in a similar fashion. The D string is tuned by fretting the fifth fret of the A-string and judging it against the open-A string. The G string is similarly tuned by fretting the fifth fret of the D string and judging it against the open-G string. The B string is the only string that is tuned differently. It is tuned by fretting the fourth string of the G string and judging it against the open-B string. The High-E string is tuned by fretting the fifth fret of the B-string and judging it against the open-E string.  Unison resonance is absolutely essential when learning how to tune the guitar.

Start Jamming with People!

When you are finished with all the strings, your guitar should sound as good as any instrument in a symphony orchestra provided that you own a quality guitar with newer strings. As strings get older, they become harder to tune which means you have to replace your strings regularly, usually about once a month. And a guitar must have properly set intonation in order to be able to tune properly. I will test the intonation of your guitar when you come for your first or second lesson and if it is horrible, I will advise you get it set professionally at a local music store.

The Western Scale

Most of music in the world uses the western scale which utilizes twelve notes including sharps and flats and are laid out in a linear sequence from left to right on a piano keyboard (including black keys). This scale is also known as the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is sounded by playing every note in the western scale which are C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B starting with C. The # indicates that the note is sharp. A b indicates that a note is flat. As a tidbit of information to help in understanding music, a C# note is the exact same as a Db note. The sharp just means it is one half-step higher than a normal C note and a flat means that it is one half-step lower than a normal D note. If you look at the notes on the guitar, you will see that a C sharp and D flat are the exact same note just notated differently for various reasons, typically having to do with keys which we will be touching on later in the book. You will need this information in order to learn how to tune the guitar.

The Chromatic Scale

The following demonstrates one way to play a chromatic scale on the guitar starting with the Low-E and can be played on any string because each adjoining fret on the guitar is one half-step away from each other. This means that the two notes are right above or below each other on the musical staff and are the adjoining notes on a keyboard (including black keys):

chromatic in E

How To Tune The Guitar

I hope you have enjoyed this lesson on how to tune the guitar. Stick around for more lessons on How To: Guitar including introductory guitar lessons, beginner guitar lessons, intermediate guitar lessons and advanced guitar lessons.

For more information on how to tune the guitar, I would suggest checking out Wikipedia’s article on guitar tunings.

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