1 Using an electronic tuner

Some tuners work by having a small microphone to pick up the sound. Some clip onto the head of your guitar and pick up the vibrations. Some tuners have a jack socket to connect directly to your electric guitar.

Playing one open string the tuner will indicate what note you are playing and whether the pitch is flat (too low) or sharp (too high). Use the picture below to find the note name of the open string, and its tuning peg. The low or bottom E string is the thickest string.

If the open string sounds too LOW you will need to TIGHTEN the string to make the pitch HIGHER.

or

If the open string sounds too HIGH you will need to LOOSEN the string to make the pitch LOWER.

2 Tuning to a reference note

The second way to tune a guitar is to use a reference note. This means you have a piano, keyboard, tuning fork, mp3 etc that plays a note for you to tune to. Below shows where to find reference notes on a piano or keyboard. The low E string (thickest string) should be tuned to the E on the left of the keyboard.

Play and listen to the reference note FIRST. Then play the string you want to tune. You will have to listen carefully and decide if your guitar string is higher or lower than the reference note. Like many new skills this may be difficult at first, but becomes easier with practice.

Play the reference note several times clearly, then try singing, humming, or whistling the reference note (don’t be shy!). Then play your guitar string (again singing or humming the pitch), and decide if it is higher or lower. Tune the string up of down as needed. Repeat this process for each string.

3 Tuning your guitar to itself (traditional method)

You can find reference notes on the guitar, but you have to assume (or even guess) which string is in tune. This is not the most reliable way to tune, but if you’re strumming along by yourself is perfectly adequate. Do note though if you try and play along to something you may not be in tune.

  • Play the 5th fret on the bottom E string – this plays the note A, which you can use as a reference note to tune the A string. As before play this reference note a few times clearly.

Then play the open A string, listening to hear if it is higher or lower. As you tune the open A string keep playing it so you can hear the pitch of the note change.

You can repeat this for each string:

  • Play the 5th fret on the A string as the reference note to tune the D string.
  • Play the 5th fret on the D string as the reference note to tune the G string.
  • Play the 4th fret on the G string as the reference note to tune the B string.
  • Play the 5th fret on the B string as the reference note to tune the top E (thinnest) string.

Below shows a chart of the other tuning notes on the guitar

Assuming your guitar is more or less in tune play an E major chord picking one note at a time. By listening to the chord decide which string is out of tune and find the appropriate reference note for that the string.

Guitar tuning info

Being wooden, guitars have a bit of 'give' to their structure, and as you tune up and vary the tension on one string, you are at the same time slightly changing the tension on the other strings and also their tuning. You will therefore need to tune each string 2 or 3 times. This applies whether you are using an electronic guitar tuner or not.

Nylon strings for classical guitars take longer to stretch and settle into tune.

If you've just restrung your guitar, grab the middle of each string (around the 12th fret) and gently pull, straight up and away from the guitar. This allows the strings to stretch and become ‘settled’ to the high tension when they are in tune.

Old guitar strings get flattened where they contact the fret wire and become dull sounding and difficult to keep in tune. That's when you really need to change them.

A few more tips

Tune your guitar every time you pick it up to play, guitars can go out of tune sooner then you think.

Avoid leaving your guitar in areas with extreme temperature changes, this will definitely effect the tuning. Dropping or bumping the guitar can also make it go out of tune. Carry your guitar in a case as any damage to it could effect how well it tunes up.

In a noisy environment it’s easier to use a guitar tuner. You should purchase a quality tuner but you don’t need to spend a lot. Always bring it to gigs and jam sessions. But, remember try to develop your ear by using the traditional guitar tuning method when you can. In the long run it will make you a better musician.

Learn to attach the strings to the machine heads properly.

Always tune UP. When you tune a guitar string, always start below the desired note and tune up to pitch not down to pitch. This will help prevent the string from going flat during play. Even if the note is too high you can stretch the string to give it some slack then tighten it.

Tuning heads have a certain amount of “play” in them so make a couple of deep bends and then fine tune the string.

Before tuning a suspect string, check it against both adjacent strings to determine which string is actually out of tune. The string you suspect may not even be the culprit.

Play an open E chord to test the tuning, if it sounds odd or out a bit it probably is, remember always trust you ear.

When tuning a guitar with a vibrato arm, tune the string, give the arm a good shake, stretch the string, give the arm another shake and fine tune.