Hello everyone! One of the things we want to learn is how to tune the guitar. It’s important that your instrument is in tune. If it isn’t, though your fingers may be on the correct frets, the songs you learn and play will not sound correct. This can also create issues with your ear training.
So with that in mind, I want to describe to you the process by which we tune our guitars so that you can learn and grow without any hindrances. I’m also going to be including a video at the end of this video in order to give you more tools for understanding. Without further adieu, let’s jump right in!
What you’re going to need
- A tuner
- Your guitar with strings on it and ready to go
- A pick or your fingers with which to pick/pluck the strings and make them vibrate so that the tuner can pick up the pitch of the string.
But we have some issues here right off the bat. Tuning the guitar can be tricky, especially if this is your first day learning music. The first thing we want to do is learn the names of the strings on the guitar. Once memorized, we can move on.
The standard six strings on the guitar
The standard six strings on the guitar are (from low to high) E, A, D, G, B, E. The lowest string is the thickest. The highest string is the thinnest. In this way, you can line up your strings side by side and tell exactly which note they are. Your string pack will provide you with a color code that tells you the note of each string. You will find that the ball-ends of guitar strings are usually color coded. If you’re holding the guitar against your body in the correct, upright position, the Low E should be closest to your face.
Different methods of tuning
There’s several different ways you can tune your guitar. First, you can tune it by ear. However, you need to have a developed ear for this to work. In other words, you have to be able to recognize pitches and the difference, or similarity between one pitch and another. This poses a problem for beginners. So for those just picking up the guitar, I suggest getting some type of electric tuner.
Even with an electric tuner, you have two options. One option is to use a tuner that loudly plays the individual string pitches so you can use your ear to match the string pitch to the tuner pitch produced. However, we still find the problem of beginners possibly not having an ear that is developed enough to tell the difference in pitches.
Your option two is to use the electric pitch detection of your tuner to display which pitch is being played. You can then use that prompting to adjust your string pitch accordingly. There’s two settings to this type of pitch detection and that is to use one that is entirely chromatic, meaning it picks up every single pitch on the spectrum of pitches, or use a setting that only detects the specific standard 6 strings on your guitar.
When tuning with an electric tuner, there will be an indicator that flashes back and forth on your tuner’s screen. In most cases, the indicator will point straight up and be a shade of green when you find the correct pitch. Again, there are variables to this as colors between tuners change and if you’re using a chromatic tuner, it will say you’re correct as long as you’re accurate on any specific pitch. Always remember that it’s important to verify which pitch your tuner is reading from your guitar. If it’s not the string you are tuning, figure out where you are in the musical alphabet and adjust accordingly.
The musical alphabet
But we hit another small hurdle here. We need to know that pitches go in a specific order and that they can repeat themselves over and over in things called “octaves”.
Very basically, the musical alphabet is as follows: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. See how we repeated back to A? Now, that is not the same A as the one at the beginning. The second recurring A is what we call an octave. To understand this, start by counting the first A as 1. Then, using that as 1, count up to the next A. A(1)-B(2)-C(3)-D(4)-E(5)-F(6)-G(7)-A(8). In music, an interval of an 8th is called an Octave.
Sharps and flats
There’s a wrench that can be thrown into our wheel here. There are sharps and flats involved. If a note has a sharp (#) or a flat (b) next to it, it is NOT the same as a pitch without a (#) or a (b). A is not the same as A#. This is important. Most tuners will not use flats(b). Most will use sharps(#). Either way, when you tune your instrument, make sure that the pitches displayed for your string tuning are without sharps or flats.
For you music theory buffs out there, when a scale is made up entirely of half steps, it includes sharps/flats and is called the chromatic scale. For reference and for tuning, here’s an example: A-A#-B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A. That’s the sharp chromatic scale. The chromatic scale that uses flats doesn’t change the universal pitches at all, but it changes the way it’s spelled. For example: A-Bb-B-C-Db-D-Eb-E-F-Gb-G-Ab-A. I only add this so that you can have a point of reference on which direction to go if your string is very out of tune.
The final issue here goes back to ear training. If you’re a beginner, it may be hard to tell whether or not you’re on the right pitch in the right octave. There are multiple “A” pitches on the guitar, and knowing which one your “A” string is can be tricky. This is why it’s nice to have a tuner that will tune chromatically, but also has a setting to detect only the specific 6 strings on the guitar.
What do I mean by this? Well, literally, the mechanics, or how to physically tune, your guitar. Guitar headstocks have tuners that have tuning machines pointing out of their sides. Standard 6-string guitars come in different configurations. “3+3” is when you have three tuners per side of the headstock.
“6 inline” is when all 6 are on the same side, and, you guessed it, in a straight line. Then there is “4+2”. No matter the case, you will use your fingertips to turn these tuners one way or another and therefore loosen or tighten the tension on the string. Which way you have to turn the tuner in order to tighten it will depend on which side of the headstock the tuner is on.
I just briefly want to mention that the reason strings raise up or down in pitch is because of loosening or tightening the string tension. This is accomplished by basically increasing the number of wraps a string has around the tuning peg, or decreasing the number of wraps around the tuning peg.
Often times, when the pitch adjustment is slight, you won’t need a full wrap in either direction because your string might not be too far out of tune. But there will be times when your string is so out of tune that you will have to make several turns in a certain direction in order to loosen or tighten the string enough to bring it to pitch.
The best thing to do is to use your ear along with your chromatic tuner to hear when a string is lowering in pitch, or becoming higher in pitch, and use that, along with the discussion on pitches and their order in this article, to bring your string up or down to the correct pitch.
I made this guide for any guitar with standard tuners, it will work for guitars with locking tuners as well. A word of caution: guitars equipped with locking nuts and Floyd Rose bridges require additional directions. Another article will cover that topic.
You are going to break a few strings before you figure out the entire tuning process. You’re new at this. Allow yourself some wiggle room to get it right. My students often break strings because they tune the guitar strings too high in pitch. My tip for that is to either wear a pair of protective glasses, or keep your head far enough away from the guitar to avoid injury. But don’t take that as a bad omen. Stick with it and you’ll quickly learn how to tune your guitar. Also, stock up on a few extra sets of strings. Trust me, you’ll never regret having some spares lying around just in case.
I hope this helps everyone, and happy tuning!