3 Different Ways to Tune a Guitar: Stop Playing Out of Key


  • Published January 4, 2021

Now that you are getting more comfortable with your guitar it is time to address tuning. Every guitarist needs to know how to tune their guitar and should learn as early as possible how to do so. There are several reasons why staying in tune is important, and we will get to those later in the lesson. By the end of this lesson you will know 3 different ways to tune a guitar. 

"Tuning the guitar" by laRuth is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Importance of Tuning Your Guitar

As previously mentioned there are several reasons why it is important to keep your guitar in tune. Some of these reasons include:

Tuning up before practicing and performing will help with your ear training. Over time your ears will begin to recognize what the different notes and keys sound like through sheer repetition.

Being in tune is vital to keep your songs, notes and chords sounding as they should. Even untrained ears can often tell if a guitar is out of tune.

Building on that point, playing out of tune can actually frustrate your audience (and yes, you count as your audience if playing alone). If you notice something doesn’t quite sound or feel right mid-song, maybe take the time to check if you are still in tune after the song is over.

Proper tuning habits can also help develop your muscle memory. Tight strings vs loose strings feel quite different to play. Always staying in tune means your fingers will get used to the tension, and in turn, the feeling of playing the guitar the fastest.

Last, but CERTAINLY not least, an out of tune guitar just straight up sounds bad. So just stay in tune, will ya!?

Open Notes on the Fretboard

The first thing you’ll need to know is the note names of each string on the guitar. From thickest to the thinnest string the string note names are:

E-A-D-G-B-E

There are several mnemonic devices to help memorize this. One of the most common is:

Eat A Darn Good Breakfast Everyday

While you only need to know the open string note names for this tutorial, it will benefit you significantly to also begin learning the fretboard notes as soon as possible.

How to Tune a Guitar with a Tuner

The first of the 3 different ways to tune a guitar is using an electronic tuner. When tuning with an electric tuner your goal is to center the needle in the gauge to match the corresponding note you are tuning to, like so:

"guitar tuner" by lok_lok05 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Guitar tuners come in a few different variations:

Vibration Based Tuners

"Clip on guitar tuner" by Gavin Tapp is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Vibration based tuners are guitar tuners that you typically see clipped onto the headstock of a guitar. These tuners have what is known as a”contact microphone” built into them. This mic will pick up very low-level vibrations from your strings to determine if they are in tune.

A huge benefit of these tuners is that they are far less susceptible to outside noise, compared to the microphone based tuner.

Microphone Based Tuners

Microphone based tuners are likely the most common tuners you will see out there. They are also probably the easiest way to tune a guitar.

Your standard BOSS tuner will have a jack and a mic built in so you can tune either way. However, you will also see many tuners with no input jack and just a large microphone on the front.

You can also find microphone based tuner APPS on your smartphone. There a dozens of great app options out there for guitar tuners. My personal preference is GuitarTuna.

A big drawback to microphone based microphones is their susceptibility to outside noise. Since you are tuning via microphone in the tuner, that mic can also pick up other background noise. This makes these types of tuners not ideal for gigs or playing in crowded settings.

Plug-In/Pedal Based Tuners

different ways to tune a guitar

Perhaps the most accurate style of tuner is the plug-in/pedal tuner. Since you are directly connected to the tuner, your guitar sends the exact frequency to the tuner resulting in a precise measurement of where your guitar is relative to the note you are tuning to.

While primarily useful for electric guitars, if you have an acoustic-electric, or an acoustic with an aftermarket pickup, you can also tune an acoustic with these types of tuners.

What Is a Chromatic Tuner

As you begin to research various tuners that fit your needs and preferences you will begin to see some tuners labeled as “chromatic tuners”. The difference between these 2 is quite simple:

A non-chromatic tuner is only designed to tune your guitar to its standard, EADGBE, tuning. So when you play an A string, for example, the tuner will recognize the A tone and tell you how far away you are from being in tune to that note.

A chromatic tuner will pick up the note you play and display the closest semitone (also known as the nearest natural note in the chromatic scale) and how close you are to being ruined to that semitone. This makes chromatic tuners more useful for tuning to alternate tunings.

How to Tune a Guitar by Ear

While most beginners will learn this trick early on, I don’t recommend using it until you are a bit more experienced. The reason for this is that your ear is not developed enough to truly recognize the low E string being correctly tuned.

With that said, this is how to tune a guitar by ear:

First tune the low E string to what sounds in tune to your ear

Then fret the 5th fret on the low E string and tune the A string to match the tone of the fretted Low E String

Once the A string has been tuned, fret the A string on the 5th fret and tune the D string to match that tone.

With the D string tuned up, now fret the D string on the 5th fret and tune the G string to match that tone.

Now is where we see if you are paying attention. With the G string all tuned, fret the G string at the 4th fret and tune the B string to match that tone.

Now use the open low E string as a reference to tune the high E string.

Tuning by ear has some great benefits, such as much faster ear development since it forces you to listen closely to the notes you produce. Additionally, when you know how to tune by ear you are able to tune up your guitar even if no electronic tuner is present.

The last benefit is also a drawback:

When you tune by ear in this way, you will be tuning your strings to the note you deem as “in-tune” for the low E string. For this reason, your guitar will be “in-tune” in a relative sense. However, it will also make all the preceding notes that much farther off from the target pitch.

Tuning a Guitar with a Pitch Pipe

One less common way to tune a guitar is with a pitch pipe! There are pitch pipes made specifically for guitar that you can use to tune your guitar. Like tuning by ear, I don’t recommend this method until you have some experience under your belt.

Additionally, you can really boost your ear training by combining a pitch pipe with tuning by ear. Do this by using the pitch pipe to tune the Low E, then tune the rest of the guitar by ear. Then, go back and cross-check each string with the corresponding note on the pitch pipe.

Keeping Your Guitar In Tune

While you should be tuning up before each guitar practice session, there are many things you can do to help reduce how much your guitar falls out of tune, making each tune up that much easier and faster:

Keep your guitar out of extreme heat or humidity. Your guitar is made out of wood. Heat and humidity cause wood to fluctuate in shape. Though minor and not noticeable to the eye on a guitar, this shift can easily alter string tensions and throw a guitar out of tune.

Similar to extreme heat, you should also avoid subjecting your guitar to extreme cold.

Stretch your strings before tuning up. I cover this technique in detail in my lesson: How to Replace Guitar Strings.

Avoid impacts. Banging your guitar against surfaces, whether intentional or accidental, will almost always knock a few strings out of tune. Try to be gentle with your instrument.

Ditch the Whammy. Yes, whammy bars are tons of fun. However, they are also an excellent way to knock your guitar out of tune. Whammy bars work by stretching your strings to adjust the overall tone. Think of it like a string bend to the extreme.

Always keep fresh strings on your guitar. Old, rusty strings sound bad and fall out of tune much faster.

Finally, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it one last time: Always. Always tune your guitar before you start playing, practicing or performing.

Wrapping It Up

Congrats! You now have no excuse for not being in tune as you know 3 different ways to tune a guitar. What method do you prefer? Did I leave something out? Leave any questions or comments down in the comments section below!

Additional Resources:

Fender's How to Tune Your Acoustic Guitar

Mathisonian How to Tune a Guitar Slideshow

posted January 4, 2021

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