It goes without saying that being in tune is vital to sounding good, and your audience (or neighbors) will thank you for it!
- Tuning guitar using reference pitches from other instruments
- Using the 5th fret method
- Tuning with harmonics
- Using electronic tuners and apps
There are countless ways to tune you guitar and unsurprisingly, standard tuning is the name for the most common type of guitar tuning used the vast majority of rock, pop and classical music. Almost any chord and scale reference guides will use standard tuning and so if you’re a beginner, this is the natural place to start.
Here are some helpful mnemonics to remember the notes in standard tuning:
Memorize whichever mnemonic that you like the most or make up your own!
Alternate tunings can add flavor to your music and some can even make it possible for you to play full chords by simply strumming open strings and have historically been the foundation for many styles of music, allowing you to play certain key signatures and chord figures.
Alternate tunings can also help make guitar playing more accessible for those who might have disabilities that prevent them from being able to make extensive chord shapes.
For example, did you know that Joni Mitchell started using alternate tunings due to her experience with polio? Because her left hand was weakened by the illness, she began creating her own tunings that accommodated for her hands. This ended up influencing her guitar writing, leading her to create some of the most beautiful folk guitar parts ever written!
Drop-D is similar to standard tuning with the sole exception that the lowest string (normally the Low-E) is tuned down one whole note (or “dropped”)to D.
When you strum the open strings in Open-G tuning, the resulting sound is a G major chord.
Open tunings like this are a staple of folk music. Not only do they produce some truly beautiful chord voicings, but they are also incredibly suitable for finger picking styles! Open G is one of the most classic open tunings out there and has an extensive musical history.
Classic songs that use this tuning include “Troubles Will Be Gone” by The Tallest Man on Earth, “Walkin’ Blues” by Eric Clapton and “Tumbling Dice” by The Rolling Stone!
How to tune your guitar by ear
There are three main methods used for tuning by ear.
- Tuning each individual string to another instrument, such as a piano, pitch pipes or tuning fork
- The 5th fret method
- Harmonic tuning
How to Tune your guitar using a piano
Unless you have perfect pitch, you’ll likely need to use a reference note to tune at least one string. If you have a piano or keyboard close by, you could simply tune all of your strings directly to it.
Alternatively, once you’ve tuned one string to your piano, you can then tune the rest of your strings relative to that using the 5th fret or harmonics methods below.
Unlike the other examples in this guide, we’ll be tuning from the 6th (thinnest) string, the High-e.
Step 1 - Find Middle C
To find Middle C, you need to locate the two black keys in the centre of the keyboard. Middle C is the first white key to the left of these.
Step 2 - Tune Your High-E (Thinnest) String
Go up two steps (two white keys to the right) from Middle C. This is E. Tune your thinnest string (high-e) to this note.
Step 3 - Tune Your B String
Go back down to Middle C. The B note can be found one white key to the left of (below) Middle C. Tune your 5th string (B) to this note.
Step 4 - Tune Your G String
The note of G is found two white keys below B. Tune your 4th string (G) to this note.
Step 5 - Tune Your D String
The D note is three white keys below G. Tune your 3rd string (D) to this note.
Step 6 - Tune Your A String
The note of A is located three white keys below D. Tune your 2nd string (A) to this note.
Step 7 - Tune Your Low-E (Thickest) String
Low-E is three white keys below A. Tune your Thickest string (G) to this note.
Step 8 - Check All Your Strings
Once you are done tuning all of the strings, play an E major chord. With this chord, you can go through each string individually and make sure they all sound in tune with each other.
Repeat the above steps and fine-tune if needed.
How to Tune Your Guitar Using The 5th Fret Method
For this method, tune one string using a reference pitch from another instrument, pitch pipes, or a tuning fork and then tune the rest of the strings relative to that.
When playing on your own, a reference note is not essential as long as the strings are all in tune with each other. However, I still consider it best practice as it helps develop your ear.
If you’re playing with others, that’s a different story and you’ll all need the same reference pitch in order to sound in tune with each other.
Step 1 - Tune The 6th String (Low-E)
If you have a nearby keyboard, tuning fork or pitch pipes, you can use any of those to get your reference note of E. Tune the lowest string of your guitar to this note.
Step 2 - Tune The 5th String (A)
Hold your finger on the 5th fret of the Low-E string and pluck it. This will be an A, so use that note as a reference pitch to tune the next string, which is also an A.
Step 3 - Tune The 4th String (D)
Hold your finger on the 5th fret of the A string and pluck it. This will be a D, so tune your D string with that note.
Step 4 - Tune The 3rd String (G)
Place your finger on the 5th fret of the D string and pluck it. This will be a G, so tune your G string to that.
Step 5 - Tune The 2nd String (B)
This is where things change up a bit. In standard tuning, all of the strings on the guitar are tuned in perfect 4th intervals, except the B string which is tuned in a major 3rd interval. It’s not important at this stage to understand what that means or why, just be aware that tuning your B string is slightly different to all the rest.
So, instead of putting your finger on the 5th fret of the G string, put it on the 4th fret instead. This note will be a B, so tune the next string to that pitch.
Step 6 - Tune The 1st String (High-E)
For the last string, put your finger on the 5th fret of the B string and pluck it. That will be an E, so tune the high-e (thinnest string) to that note.
Step 7 - Check All Your Strings
Repeat the above steps and fine-tune if needed.
How to Tune Your Guitar Using Harmonics
This is generally a less popular approach as harmonics are considered an advanced playing technique. However, its not that difficult and it can help get you more familiar with playing harmonics.
Harmonics are notes produced by lightly putting your finger over a certain fret. For example, the natural harmonics we will be using to tune your guitar are at the 5th and 7th frets. To play them, lightly touch your finger above the 5th or 7th fret and pluck the string.
Harmonics don’t sound like normal guitar notes, instead they produce a chiming sound.
Step 1 - Tune Your Low-E To A Reference Pitch
Using a reference pitch if necessary, tune the Low-E string in the same way as above.
Step 2 - Tune Your A String
Lightly touch the Low-E string string directly above the 5th fret with your finger—but don’t press down. Pluck the string and you should hear an E note. While that note is still ringing, play a harmonic on the A string by lightly touching the string above the 7th fret.
Tune your guitar strings until the A string harmonic is the same as the Low- string harmonic. In other words, tune them until there is no more “wobbling” sound.
Step 3 - Tune Your D String
Repeat the same process from the last step, but this time play harmonics on the 5th fret on the A string and the 7th fret of the D string.
Step 4 - Tune Your G String
Move on to the next string. This time, use harmonics on the 5th fret on the D string and the 7th fret of the G string.
Step 5 - Tune Your B String
Since the B string is tuned to a major 3rd instead of a perfect 4th, we can’t use the 5th/7th fret harmonics. You’d think we could just shift down a fret like we did with the 5th fret/4th fret method, but we can’t.
Harmonics are harder to play and hear at certain frets than others and so we need to find another way to get a harmonic note we can use to tune the B string.
Here are two ways to tune the B string with harmonics:
- Option #1: Play the 9th fret harmonic on the G string and the 5th fret harmonic on the B string.
- Option #2: Play the 7th fret harmonic of the Low-E string and 12th fret harmonic of the B string.
Step 6 - Tune Your High-E String
Tune the high-e string by playing the 5th fret harmonic on the B string and the 7th fret harmonic on the high-e string.
Step 7 - Check Each String Again
As always, repeat the above steps and check all your strings are in tune.
Why Use Harmonics?
The are two main advantages of using harmonics to tune your guitar:
- The notes ring out longer. Using the 5th fret method, you need to take your finger off the fretted note adjust the tuning pegs. That’s not a problem with harmonics.
- Note “wobble” tells you how far out of tune the string is. When you play a harmonic and another note together, you will hear a subtle wobbling effect. The faster the wobbling sound, the further out of tune they are, so you can use this as a guide to how much to turn your tuning peg.
Using Electronic Tuners And Apps
Electronic guitar tuners are a great way to tune your guitar without having to rely on reference pitches. All you have to do is let the tuner hear the note that you’re playing and it indicate whether it is flat or sharp (or waaaaay out of tune!).
You don’t have to purchase a physical device, though – there are plenty of really good smart phone guitar tuner apps out there, and many of them are free.
A lot of guitar tuner apps have dual function as well. These provide reference pitches for you to tune to, as well as acting like normal electronic tuners.
How to Use an electronic guitar tuner
Before you begin – If your tuner has the option, you should always calibrate it to A440Hz.
Pluck the Low-E string and adjust the tuner until the screen displays the correct note. Then, fine-tune the note until the needle is in the middle of the screen.
Repeat the process for all of the strings – the tuner should automatically identify the string you’re playing.
Once you’re done tuning all of the strings, take the time to double-check them with an E-major chord and make any necessary adjustments.
Guitar Tuning Tips
- Always make sure that you’re tuning the correct string. If you find yourself turning the peg but the note isn’t changing, you are likely turning the wrong peg.
- Always tune upwards. It is much easier to find a note if you approach it from a lower note, so tune your string a little bit flat before tuning it up to your desired pitch.
Guitar Tuning FAQs
Why does your guitar go out of tune?
There are many reasons as to why your guitar strings go out of tune, but the most common factor is that your strings are being bent while playing. Even if you don’t intend to bend your strings, the nature of playing guitar requires you to.
For example, playing a note requires you to push down on a string to reach the fret. This causes the string to bend, making it stretch. When the string is stretched, it now resonates at a lower note than it did before. This is often done very incrementally and is not noticeable after a short period of playing, but over longer periods it can bring your instrument seriously out of tune.
How does temperature affect your tuning?
Put simply (it is quite complicated), temperature affects your tuning by making the strings expand or contract depending on the climate. When you’re in a hot environment the strings will likely expand, bringing down the pitch. In contrast, cold environments will make your strings contract and make certain notes sound sharp.
However, not all strings will be detuned the same amount. Because different strings are different sizes, the weather will affect them all differently. This results in all of the strings being out of tune with the others.
How Does humidity affect your tuning?
Humidity can make the wood of your guitar expand, affecting the tension of the strings, and therefore the tuning.
To avoid this, I recommend tuning your guitar in the room where you will play and then let it rest for 30 minutes or so. For example, if you’re going to play at a venue that is hotter than your apartment, tuning the guitar during soundcheck and then leaving it there before you go on can help your strings get used to the environment. This will help them stay in place and cause them to not go out of tune as easily.
If you keep your guitar in a case you can also use a guitar humidifier, which helps to regulate moisture around your guitar.
What happens if you play (or bend) your strings too hard?
Though guitar strings naturally loosen when they are played for long periods of time, it is possible to speed up that process by excessively bending your strings. If you like to be expressive with your guitar solos and heavily bend your notes, keep this in mind.
Also, if you play heavier music like punk or heavy metal, the pressure from your aggressive strumming can often stretch the strings, lowering their pitch.
My new strings aren't staying in tune. Is there something wrong with them?
There is nothing wrong with your new strings! New guitar strings are made to be very flexible and be stretched around whichever guitar they are being used on, they will need time to adjust. When you tune your new strings for the first time, you might notice that they lower in pitch quite easily and go out of tune.
The only way to fix this is by continuing to play the guitar and manually tuning it. After a few sessions and repeated tuning, your strings will generally retain their shape and not go out of tune as easily.
How Often Should I Tune My Guitar?
As a minimum, tune your guitar before each time you play it. If you play a particularly heavy style of music or switch tunings multiple times throughout a performance or practice session, then you should probably check your tuning more often.
As an added bonus—the more often you tune your guitar, the quicker your ear for pitch will improve. This is not only useful for noticing when you go out of tune, but it’s also a key skill for learning songs by ear.
How Can I Make My Guitar Stay In Tune Longer?
- Understand Your Technique: Being conscious of how hard you are strumming can be a great way to make sure your strings stay in tune for longer.
- Lubricate Parts of Your Strings: Certain parts of your guitar (i.e. the nut and bridge) can catch your strings, causing them to have inconsistent tension.
- Set Up Your Guitar: Having a guitar with a proper set up will go a long way for keeping your instrument in tune. In particular, you should focus on having an effective bridge and a good saddle adjustment.
- Change Your Strings: Though new strings take a while to break in, old strings can also become a problem. If your strings aren’t staying in tune for long enough, it’s likely time to change them.
- Make Sure Your Strings Are On Properly: Before putting on your strings, you should tug them about 10 times to allow them to stretch. Once you’ve done that, wind them a few times around the tuning peg to allow them to build up tension. In order to make sure your strings are on correctly, ensure that they are firm with the string’s ball end.
Tune your guitar with the method that is most comfortable for you. If you’re a beginner, I recommend that you should start with an electronic tuner, and then move to the 5th fret method. Try to avoid using harmonics. Although it seems impressive and has some practical advantages, it actually results in a guitar that’s slightly out of tune so it ultimately seems pointless to me.