How to Tune a Guitar

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A Quick Guide to Tuning a Guitar

Man tuning electric guitar in music shop, plectrum in mouth
Holloway/Taxi/Getty Images

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of learning guitar is that it initially seems impossible to play anything that sounds good. While it is true that it takes some time to learn the techniques needed to play songs well, the real reason most new guitarists sound bad is because their guitar isn't in tune. Here is a guitar tuning tutorial that, with a little practice, should allow you to keep your instrument in tune.

How Often Should I Tune my Guitar?

You should tune your guitar every single time you pick it up. Guitars (particularly cheaper ones) tend to go out of tune quickly. Make sure your guitar is in tune when you begin to play it, and check the tuning frequently while you're practicing, as the act of playing the guitar can cause it to go out of tune.

How Long Does Tuning the Guitar Take?

At first, it may take you five minutes or more to get your guitar in tune, but the more familiar you are with tuning, the more quickly you'll be able to do it. Many guitarists can get their instrument roughly in tune in about 30 seconds.

Let's move on to learning the process of tuning the instrument.

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Tuning the Sixth String

tuning guitar to a keyboard

In order to begin tuning the guitar, you'll need a "reference pitch" from another source. Once you've found a source for this initial pitch (it could be a piano, a tuning fork, another guitar, or any number of other options), you'll be able to tune the rest of your instrument by using that one note.

NOTE: Without a reference pitch, you can tune your guitar, and it will sound fine on its own. When you try and play with another instrument, however, you will probably sound out-of-tune. In order to interact with other instruments, being in tune with yourself isn't enough. You'll need to make sure that your E note sounds the same as theirs. Thus the need for a standard reference pitch.

STEP 1: Listen to this recording of guitar tuning notes played on a piano.
Tune your low E string to this note. Repeat the audio track as many times as you need to, in order to try and match the note perfectly.

Tuning to a Piano

If you have access to a piano, you can alternately tune your low E to the same note on the piano.

Look at the black keys on the keyboard of the image above, and notice that there is a set of two black keys, then an extra white key, then a set of three black keys, then a white key. This pattern is repeated for the length of the keyboard. The white note directly to the right of the set of two black keys is the note E. Play that note, and tune your low E string to it. Note that the E you play on the piano may not be in the same octave as the low E string on your guitar. If the E you play on the piano sounds much higher, or lower than your low E string, try playing a different E on the piano, until you find the one closer to your open sixth string.

Now that we've got our sixth string in tune, let's move on to learning how to tune the rest of the strings.

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Tuning the Other Strings

Now that we have our sixth string in tune, we need to get our other five strings tuned to that note. Using just a little bit of very basic music theory, we can see how we'll do that.

We know, from lesson two, that the names of the six open strings are E A D G B and E. We also know, from lesson four, how to count up a string, and find the names of the notes on that string. Using this knowledge, we can count up the low E string (which is in tune), until we reach the note A, on the fifth fret. Knowing this note is in tune, we can use it as a reference pitch, and tune the open fifth string until it sounds the same as the sixth string, fifth fret.

Because this string is in tune, we can assume that this note, A, on the fifth fret, is also in tune. So, we can play the open fifth string, also an A, and check to see if it sounds the same as the note on the sixth string. We'll use this concept to tune the rest of the strings. Observe the graphic above, and follow these rules to fully tune your guitar.

Steps to Tuning Your Guitar

  1. Make sure your sixth string is in tune ( use reference pitch)
  2. Play the sixth string, fifth fret (A), then tune your open fifth string (A) until they sound the same.
  3. Play the fifth string, fifth fret (D), then tune your open fourth string (D) until they sound the same.
  4. Play the fourth string, fifth fret (G), then tune your open third string (G) until they sound the same.
  5. Play the third string, fourth fret (B), then tune your open second string (B) until they sound the same.
  6. Play the second string, fifth fret (E), then tune your open first string (E) until they sound the same.

After you've tuned your guitar, check it against this MP3 of a fully tuned guitar, and fine tune it if necessary.

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Tuning Tips

Often, new guitarists have a very hard time tuning their guitar. Learning to listen to pitches very closely, then fine-tune them, is a skill that takes practice. In teaching situations, I've found some students can't easily listen to two notes, and identify which is higher, or which is lower - they only know they don't sound the same. If you're having a similar problem, try this:

Listen to, and play the first note. While the note is still ringing, try humming that note. Continue to play the note, until you've managed to match the pitch with your voice. Next, play the second note, and again, hum that note. Repeat this - playing and humming the first note, then follow that by playing and humming the second note. Now, try humming the first note, and without stopping, moving to the second note. Did your voice go down, or up? If it went down, then the second note is lower. If it went up, the second note is higher. Now, make the adjustment to the second note, until they both sound the same.

This may seem like a silly exercise, but it does often help. Soon, you'll be able to recognize the difference in pitches without humming them.

I hope this has helped. As previously mentioned, it's extremely important to tune your guitar every time you pick it up to play it. Not only will it make your playing sound a whole lot better, but the repetition will allow you to conquer tuning your guitar quickly. Good luck!