WHO IS THE LESSON INTENDED FOR
Everybody needs to know how to tune their guitar regardless of skill level. If you have a guitar with a Floyd Rose tremolo, you will need to wait for me to put up a new lesson specifically for your guitar because there are additional steps required. If you have a guitar with one, let me know so I can put the lesson higher on my priorities list.
Basic understanding of guitar tablature
The purpose of this lesson is to teach you a few different methods you can use to tune your guitar. Playing a guitar that is out of tune not only sounds bad, but can negatively affect your playing.
THE DIFFERENT METHODS
There are a few methods to tuning the guitar. The one you use depends on your skill level and equipment.
- Electronic guitar tuner
- Listening to a recorded note
- Listen to a piano or keyboard
- ‘Fifth fret’ method
- Harmonics method
THE NAMES OF THE STRINGS
Before I go into the methods, I will just mention the names of the strings. Try to memorise these names as it will help you out later on.
The string names are (starting from the lowest or thickest string): E A D G B E.
There are other notes you can tune your guitar strings to, but the one above is the ‘standard’ tuning for guitar. So get used to tuning to these notes before you try any alternate tunings.
ELECTRONIC GUITAR TUNER
This method is the easiest to follow because the tuner does most of the thinking for you. You can buy tuners like the one below from guitar shops. They range in price is wide from cheap simple models to expensive models with heaps of bells and whistles. Most guitar multi-effects pedals have inbuilt tuners.
Most tuners will have three LEDs with two red and one green. These lights tell you if the string you have just played is in tune or needs to go higher or lower. For acoustic guitars, the tuner will use an inbuilt microphone. For electric guitars, there will be an input jack that you can connect your guitar into.
Some tuners (like the one above) will display a letter and/or a number to let you know what string you are tuning to. If it displays 5A (like the one above) it means you are playing a note that is close to the fifth A string. This is important to know because if the string you were playing was the sixth string E, it means you have tuned the string way too high. Make sure the number or letter is what the string is supposed to be.
When tuning the guitar, use the following method:
Pick the string. Then look which direction it needs to go for the light to turn green. Then pick the string again and slowly turn the tuning peg in the right direction while you can still hear the note. It is important that you hear the note while you turn the peg just in case you are turning it the wrong way or turning the wrong peg. As soon as the tuner or you can’t hear the note anymore, pick the string again. Continue this process until the light turns green or the line on the screen is vertical.
LISTENING TO A RECORDED NOTE
For those who do not have a guitar tuner, another way is to listen to a ‘reference tone’ and match the string to that tone. Once I figure out how to upload sound files here I will so you can listen to them.
First off, listen to the lowest E note. Then play the sixth open string on your guitar. Listen to both notes and think to yourself which one sounds higher and which is lower. This may be hard for you to do at first but with practice it will be a great skill to have. Once you determine if your guitar is higher or lower than the reference note, you slowly adjust it in the right direction. For example: if your guitar string sounded lower than the reference tone, pick the note and slowly turn the tuning peg so you can hear the note going higher. As written above in the electric tuner section, make sure you hear the note while you are turning the peg. If it doesn’t sound like it is changing or going the wrong way, check what you are doing.
It will get to a point where you can’t tell the difference between the notes. For beginners, the notes may still be different but don’t worry. With practice you will get better at hearing the difference and you will get closer every time. I recommend learning this way even if you have an electronic tuner. It is good to use your ears when tuning and not to completely rely on an electronic tuner. It will make you a better musician.
There are many ways to find reference tones to use. You can buy pitch forks, pitch pipes (I don’t recommend these), and some electronic guitar tuners can play the notes for you.
LISTENING TO A PIANO OR KEYBOARD
If you have a piano or keyboard in your house, you can use it to tune your guitar. The method is exactly the same as the above ‘listening to a reference note’. You just need to play the right keys on the piano so you have the right reference tone to work with. The below diagram shows which notes to play that match up with the guitar strings. If you are unsure which key is the ‘middle C’, just ask whoever plays the piano or keyboard in your house.
NOTE: Obviously if the piano in your house isn’t in tune you shouldn’t use it to tune your guitar.
THE ‘FIFTH FRET’ METHOD
This is the most common method to use to tune your guitar. I recommend everybody learn it just in case you don’t have an electronic tuner or any reference notes with you. One of the great things about guitar is that it is possible to play two notes of exactly the same pitch on different strings. We can use this when one string is in tune to tune up another string that is out of tune. The requirement of this method is that at least one string is in tune. If you can, tune up the sixth E string. Then you can use this method to tune the rest of the strings from that one string.
As seen below, the fifth fret of the sixth string is exactly the same pitch as the fifth open string. Have a play of the first two notes in the below tab to hear for yourself. If one of those notes sound higher or lower, it means one of the strings is out of tune. If you start with the sixth string in tune, you can use the fifth fret as a reference pitch to tune the fifth open string. Follow the method in the other section with reference tones. Then play the next two notes in the tab. The fifth fret of the fifth string should be the same as the fourth open string. Continue this process. You will notice that there is a change from the fifth fret to the fourth fret when you play the third string. Try to memorise this change or else if you keep playing the fifth fret the two higher strings will end up wrong.
The coloured dots on the fretboard show which notes are the same on the guitar. Remember their positions. Later on when if you decide to properly learn all the notes, you will understand this much better.
THE HARMONICS METHOD
This method is for more advanced players who know what natural harmonics are. I will teach these in a later lesson so if you do not know how to play them or know what they are, skip this section. You can come back later after I create the lesson.
This method is similar to the fifth fret method but uses natural harmonics on certain positions. Again you need at least one string in tune to use this method. With the low E string in tune, play the natural harmonic on its fifth fret and while that is ringing out play the harmonic on the seventh fret on the fifth string. They should sound the same. If not, adjust the fifth string. Continue this for the next two strings and the first string. To tune the second string (B string), the method is slightly different. You play the natural harmonic on the seventh fret on the sixth string (low E string) and play the open B string together. It should sound the same. If not, adjust the B string.
My experiences with tuning:
There is nothing worse than playing something and thinking you’re playing it wrong because the guitar is out of tune. Playing an out of tune guitar is frustrating. I have used all of the above methods since I started playing and it is great to know how to use each one. When getting ready to perform on stage, I remember I couldn’t hear my guitar (because of all the background noise) so I was glad to have an electronic tuner with me. Other times I prefer using the harmonic method because of its accuracy. At the beginning I had a set of pitch pipes. They are small pipes that are supposed to be used as a reference tone for you to compare with your guitar. I don’t recommend buying one because everyone I’ve come across has been badly out of tune.
The most important lesson I learnt from the tuning methods is the importance of using your ears and not relying on electronic devices. As a musician, it is critical to listen to what you are playing and to be aware if what you are playing is in tune or not. Although this seems straight forward, it is quite difficult to achieve and many guitarists do not ‘listen’ properly to what they play.
Learn all the above methods so whatever situation you are in you may be able to use at least one. For the beginners, come back here later on after you learn how to play natural harmonics to learn that method too. Learning to tune the guitar is an important skill and you should spend some time practicing it.