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Learning how to tune the guitar can be challenging at first, especially if you don’t have a musical background. Many newer players underestimate how much skill is involved in learning how to tune a guitar by ear and end up getting frustrated. My advice to you would be to treat learning how to tune the guitar like learning any other skill on the guitar. Put in the time and work to develop your ability to tune the guitar just like you would if you were learning a new strumming pattern or chord shape.
We are going to use a two-step method for tuning the guitar with an electronic tuner and by ear. The two-step method goes like this: 1 - Match the individual string to its appropriate letter name. 2 - Fine-tune the string to where it is perfectly in tune. In order to use this method, you need to know the natural musical alphabet and the names of the open strings of the guitar. The natural musical alphabet is just the first seven letters of the regular alphabet, A B C D E F and G. Pretty simple.
Now you need to commit the names of the open strings of the guitar to memory. The thinnest string is the 1st string, and the thickest string is the 6th string. That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the way it is. The names of the six strings are 1E, 2B, 3G, 4D, 5A, and 6E. It’s important that you have the names of the strings down cold not only for tuning the guitar but also so you can learn new things as quickly as possible in the future.
It took me a long time to memorize the names of the strings when I was a kid. I think that was because I thought it was just too difficult for me. You can do this though. Just make it part of your daily warm-up or practice routine, and you will have it down in no time. Often people will come up with a fun little acronym to help memorize the names of the strings. Sayings like “Eat All Day Go to Bed Early” or “Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie” work well.
Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind as you start learning how to tune your guitar. These tips will keep you from breaking a string. 1 - Always make sure that you are turning the correct tuning key for the string you are trying to tune. 2 - If you feel like you are going too high or the string is getting too tight, just back off of the tension and start over.
The last thing we need to talk about before we start tuning is the idea of a note being sharp or flat. A sharp sign looks like a hashtag #, and a flat sign looks like a lowercase b. When we say a note is sharp, that means that it is too high in pitch and needs to come down. On the other hand, when we say a note is flat, that means it is too low in pitch and needs to come up. Try experimenting with your guitar right now. Grab one of the tuning keys and turn it both ways to hear the pitch of that string go up and down.
Let’s get into the 2-step tuning process with an electronic tuner. Remember that the first step is to match the individual string to its appropriate letter name. Turn your tuner on and play your first string. It should be an E note. If it’s a D, it is flat and needs to come up. If it’s an F, it is sharp and needs to come down. Adjust your tuning key for the E string until the tuner reads an E note. Step one complete!
Step two. Now that you have the E string tuned to an E note, you need to fine-tune it until it’s perfectly in tune. Play the E string again and look at the tuner. Is the needle or the light on the tuner off to the right or the left? If so, you have to fine-tune that note. If it’s off to the left, it’s flat and needs to come up some. If it’s off to the right, it’s sharp and needs to come down some. It may take some time to get to where you can quickly adjust the notes accurately, but this skill will come with practice.
Now you just need to go through this same two-step process for the B, G, D, A, and low E strings. Once you’ve tuned the entire guitar, you will most likely need to go through and repeat the process a second time to get the guitar as in tune as possible. This is a new skill that you are developing, so try not to feel discouraged if you aren’t great at it right away.
Okay, now for the challenging part… tuning by ear. In order to tune your guitar by ear, you need to have a reference note. It can be an E note on a piano or an E note from another guitar. There are even apps and tuners that will give you a reference note. An old tip is to use a phone dial tone since it is an A note. Sometimes you won’t have a reference note, and you will just have to get the guitar as close as possible using one of the strings on the guitar that is close to being in tune as a starting point.
For now, let’s assume that your low E string is in tune. We can use that string to do something called the 5th fret method for tuning the guitar. Since your low E string is in tune, you can play the 5th fret of that string (an A note) and use that note as a reference to tune the open A string. Play the 5th fret of the low E and then play the A string open. Those notes should be the same. If they are not, you can adjust the pitch of the open A string to match the A note you are fretting on the low E string. Learning how to match pitch like this is a skill that can be tough to develop, but it is an extremely valuable skill to have.
Once you have your 5th string in tune, you can fret the 5th fret of the 5th string (a D note) and use that note as a reference to tune your open D string. Once the D string is in tune, continue the process by using the 5th fret of the D string as a reference note to tune the open G string. So far so good. This is where the 5th fret method falls apart a little bit. In order to tune the B string, you need to fret the 4th fret of the G string (a B note) and adjust the B string until it’s in tune. This is the only time this method deviates from the 5th fret. One last string to tune. Fret the 5th fret of the B string (an E note) and use that note as a reference to tune the high E string.