How To Tune A Guitar

Jack Leonard over at our Bury store recently filmed a quick demonstration on how to tune a guitar.

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Quick Guide

As mentioned by Jack in the video there are a few ways to tune different types of guitar, but one of the easiest ways these days is by using an electronic guitar tuner. Depending on what brand and style of tuner you get, these can be as little as £9.99 which is almost as cheap as a pack of strings (Cheaper in fact if you’re a bassist!). However much you spend on a tuner however, they all work in the same basic way. Once you play the string, the tuner will display a letter for the note you’ve just played, and and either a needle or light on a screen letting you know how near to in tune you are. When you’re exactly in tune, the light or needle will display in the middle of the screen. If you are slightly flat or lower in pitch it will display a red light on the left hand side, and if you are slightly sharp or higher in pitch the red light or needle will display on right hand side of the screen.

What Notes To Tune To?

Guitar’s can be put into different tunings depending on the style of music played. Many blues slide players and acoustic folk players use something know as “open tunings”, where all the strings are tuned to the different notes of one chord. In some styles of rock and heavy metal, alternate tunings such as “Drop D” or “Half Step” are used to make power chords easier to play or to reach lower notes than in standard tuning. Most styles of popular music played on guitar however are played in what is known as “standard tuning”, as this is the most common tuning used in western music.  Starting from lowest pitched, thickest or 6th string, which is the nearest string to the sky, standard tuning is as follows:

6th|5th|4th|3rd|2nd|1st

E  |  A  |  D  |  G  |  B  |  e

You may notice that the highest string is displayed as a lower case “e”.  This is a common way to write the notes for standard tuning in order stop confusions with both “E” strings.  Some tuners may also have numbers after the note letters, in which case they may also look like this:

6th|5th|4th|3rd|2nd|1st

E2 | A2| D3| G3| B3 | e4

These numbers refer to the octave the note is, with a lower number meaning a lower pitched octave whilst a higher number refers to a higher pitched octave. Starting with the 6th string, each string is 5 semitones or frets higher in pitch, otherwise known as a fourth interval. The exception to this is the gap between the “G” & “B” strings which is 4 semitones or frets, also known as a major-third. We’ll get on to why that’s useful to know later.

Clip-On Tuners

One type of guitar tuner is what are known as clip-on tuners, which as the name suggests clip onto the guitar. The best place to put this is on the guitars headstock, which is where the tuning pegs or machine heads are. Once clipped on, simply press the button to turn on the tuner. Clip-On tuners normally work by sensing the frequencies a guitar string vibrates at once it is plucked.  This makes them particularly ideal if tuning in a room when people are talking or other musicians are tuning, as there is no interference.

Built In Tuners

Normally found in Acoustic guitars with a built in pre amp, otherwise known as Electro-Acoustics, these tuners work in much the same way as tuner pedals. This means that they often (but not always) mute the guitar signal going to the amp whilst tuning.

Electronic Tuners

These are normally the cheapest type of tuner these days and are a stand alone unit that picks up the frequency of the guitar string either through through a built in microphone for acoustic or amped electric guitars, or by plugging in using a jack lead into the guitars input. Although very useful and much more accurate than tuning by ear, these can suffer from interference if people in the room or talking or playing other instruments, particularly if using the mic function. However they are normally cheaper than an equivalent Clip-On tuner which has the same level of functionality and features.

Amp Tuners, Tuner Pedals & Rack Tuners

Although slightly different in terms of price, all of these types of tuners work in exactly the same way. You plug an electric guitar or electro-acoustic into them and then use them in much the same why that you would any other type of tuner. Tuners built into the amps have the added convenience of not costing any extra or taking up extra space, but are often not the most accurate and can sometimes only handle standard tuning. Pedals on the other hand are now nearly always chromatic and pretty accurate, so a guitar can be tuned to alternate tunings using them. They do however take up space in a pedal board or gig bag, and often more so than other types of tuner. Finally we have rack tuners which are the most accurate but quite cumbersome as well as expensive. As such they are best suited for studios and larger touring bands.

Tuning Forks & Pitch Pipes

Although they have largely fallen out of favour with guitarists due the popularity of electronic tuners, tuning forks & pitch piped were once the go to tuning method and were often included in starter packs. When struck, a tuning fork will ring out in either an “E” or “A” note, and the relevant string is tuned to that. All the other strings are then tuned to that string using the “5th Fret Method” we explain next. Pitch pipes on the other hand each play a different note which relates to each string of the guitar.

Tuning With The 5th Fret

As mentioned earlier, the interval between each string is 5 frets or semitones, apart from between the “G” and “B” string which is 4 frets. Provided the 6th string is in tune or you’re not playing along to any backing tracks or with other musicians, you can use this to tune up without a tuner. Playing the 6th string on the 5th fret creates the note A, which is the same note as the 5th string. Keep switching between fretting and playing the 6th string, and then playing the 5th string and tuning it. Once they both sound exactly them same played together, move on to the next string and repeat the process. Once your G or 3rd string is in tune, instead of fretting the 5th fret, put your finger on the 4th fret instead, but otherwise carry on with the rest. This is because the gap between these 2 strings is one semi tone less than the others. After the B string is in tune, go back to using the 5th fret to get the high e string in tune. Although not as accurate as using a tuner, this is a good method of getting a guitar in tune with itself so that it is pleasing on the ears to play. It’s also good practice for training a guitar players ears to recognise different pitches of notes, which is a valuable skill when learning music theory as well as for songwriting. The down side of tuning with this method is that you may sound out of tune playing along with music or other musicians

Tuning With Artificial Harmonics

The method of tuning with harmonics is a little more advanced, so don’t worry if you don’t get it straight away! Similar to using the 5th fret, this method uses one string as a reference whilst the other strings are tuned to that. Instead of fretting the string at the fifth fret however, hover your finger directly above the actual 5th fret on the 6th string and touch the string without pressing it against the fretboard and then pluck as you would normally before quickly moving away the finger on you non fretting hand. This creates what is known as an “Artificial Harmonic”, which at this fret is always two octaves higher than the open string. Next, do the same on the A string, but rather than hovering over the 5th fret, hover over the 7th instead and repeat the same action as before. If the guitar is in tune, these should sound exactly alike. If they sound different, then tune the 5th string until they do sound the same. Like using the 5th fret method, keep doing the same for each pair of strings apart from the G and B. To tune your B string, play an Artificial Harmonic on the 6th string at the 7th fret. You should notice that this is a B note two octaves higher than a B note fretted normally on the 6th string, which makes it the exact same note we want tune a B string to! To tune the high e to the B, use them same method as the other pairs of strings again. The main advantage of this method over using the “5th fret method” is that our ears find it easier to hear the difference between notes that are this higher pitched. It also has the added benefit of being able to turn the tuning peg when both strings are ringing as the left hand doesn’t need to fret notes like in the previous method. Obviously the main disadvantage is that in can be a little trickier for particularly new players to learn.

Whichever method you choose to tune a guitar, you’ll always get more precise and therefore better tuning results with a modern electric guitar tuner. It can be good to learn some or all of the other methods however in case of an emergency!

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