Friday, January 25, 2008

Tuning a Guitar

“You kids have it so easy today.” That’s the battle cry of my generation. “When I was young, we didn’t have these fancy chromatic digital guitar tuners: we had pitch pipes and we where darn glad we had them.”

Obviously, the easiest way to tune a guitar is to use an electronic tuner, and most digital multi-effects have them built in. Most are automatic, so after you plug your guitar in, you simply pick a string and turn the tuning key while following the LED lights or needle on the meter to get the string in tune.

Once the tuner indicates the string is the note you want to tune it to, for example if your fifth string registers as A flat, you’ll need to tune it up to A for standard guitar tuning. Then, if the needle or LEDs are to the left of center, the string is flat and needs to be tuned higher; or if the indicators are to the right the string is sharp and needs to be tuned lower until the needle and/or LED are straight up/lit up and BAM! The string is in tune.

But every guitarist also needs to know how to tune a guitar when they don’t have the luxury of a digital tuner.

A guitar can be “tuned to itself”, meaning all the strings are in proper relative pitch to each other and the guitar doesn’t sound out of tune when played unaccompanied. But if the guitar is to be played with another instrument (other than drum) it’s important that the instruments are in tune with each other.

The best way to do that (assuming no digital tuner is present) is to tune to a reference pitch. Without going too deep into the how and why here, it’s fairly universal to use an A note to tune to. Since that is common practice and what you’ll most like encounter in real world situations, it is good to get use to tuning to an A as described below.

Most tuning forks are “in” A (it is usually stamped on the side), and every pitch pipe has an A, and while they may not be the same octave as the open fifth string of the guitar they can be successfully used as a reference to get that string in tune. If you’re using a piano or synthesizer to tune to: the A one octave below middle C is the exact pitch you want to tune your fifth string to.

Once the fifth string (A) is in tune, simply fret that string at the fifth fret. Picking that string produces a D note, which is what you use as the reference note for the open fourth string (D). Simple turn the tuning key for the fourth string till it matches the pitch of the fifth string fretted at the fifth fret.

This procedure is repeated using the fourth string fretted at the fifth fret (G) and tuning the open third string to match that pitch.

There is a quirk on the guitar which slight alters this procedure for tuning the next string. This time, use the third string fretted on the fourth fret (B) and turn the tuning key for the second string to match that pitch.

But then the procedure returns, so the second string is fretted on the fifth fret (E) and the open first sting is tuned to match that pitch.

The only string left to tune now is the sixth string, the low E. The procedure for this string is a slight variation of the method above. Pick the sixth string fretted on the fifth fret, and then the open fifth string (A). This time, turn the tuning key for the sixth string to make the pitch of the fretted sixth string match the pitch of the open fifth string.

The guitar should now be in tune, or very close…

In some cases, such as when the guitar was extremely out of tune or had just been restrung, the procedure above might need to be repeated (starting with the reference tone) to make some micro-adjustments due to the difference tension each in-tune string exerts on the neck of the guitar.

Now the guitar should be it tune: Play and have fun!

Here’s a tip: After you tune using a digital tuner, use the procedure above to train your ears to listen for the slight variation in tone between the fretted string and the open string playing the same pitch. Tuning without the tuner will then almost become automatic.

I encourage you to look at the
guitar lessons offered at, where you can learn to play guitar and find the great guitar lessons for yourself or the guitarist in your life.

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