5: How to Tune a Guitar Like a Pro

You’ve learned how to read guitar tabs, now it’s important to learn how to tune a guitar.

Learning how to tune a guitar is one thing that you can’t put on hold. 

Your journey to becoming the next Hendrix will quickly grind to a halt if your axe is out of tune.

In this guide, I’m going to explain how to tune a guitar using an electronic tuner and how to tune a guitar by ear.

You should tune your guitar every time you play. In fact, you may need to do it many times per playing session. This can vary depending on the guitar and the player. 

Each time you play the guitar, the strings can stretch, which is what puts it out of tune.  

So, how do you tune a guitar? Let me explain.

How to Tune a Guitar to Standard Tuning

You can remember standard tuning using this acronym: Every Apple Does Go Bad Eventually—EADGBE. 

So the sixth string is a low E, the fifth string is an A, the fourth string is a D, the third string is a G, the second is a B, and the first is, again, an E. 

For this to make sense, it’s important to know the string numbers.

Most guitars are right-handed, meaning you strum with your right hand and fret with your left hand. So in this article, we’ll be describing a right-handed guitar. If you’re left-handed, then simply reverse the order. 

The first string is the string that’s farthest from you. It’s also the highest pitch. Moving up the guitar towards you, the strings are the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.

1. How to Tune a Guitar Using a Guitar Tuner

Using a guitar tuner is the easiest way to tune a guitar. There are many different kinds of guitar tuners. 

For example, one type clips onto the head of the guitar and shows a note on its screen when you pluck a string. 

Guitar tuners show you the pitch of the note relative to the string it thinks you’re aiming for. 

Confused? Let me give you an example.

Imagine you tune your sixth string (the low E string) to a D#. Many guitar tuners will show a flat E. That’s because it thinks you’re aiming for an E and assumes that you have tuned the string wrong. 

In other situations, the tuner might show that your E is flat using the flat symbol (). This symbol goes away once you tune the string correctly.

You should play each string by itself and measure its frequency (pitch) against the tuner’s reading. You should aim to get each string to hit its respective tuning dead on. 

How do you measure if you’ve tuned successfully? Play a basic chord that uses all the strings like G major or E major. If it sounds nice, you’ve probably tuned correctly.

2. Tuning by Ear: Relative Pitch

The advice I give to new guitar players is to try and learn how to tune a guitar by ear. 

There are two reasons for this. First, it makes you more self-reliant if you’re left without a guitar tuner or if, in the worst-case scenario, you’re playing live and your tuner kicks out on you.

Secondly, tuning by ear helps develop your musical ear. 

A good way to tun by ear is to use a free online tuner. Fender’s is good, as you can choose between acoustic, electric and bass guitars, as well as a ukelele.

Once you’ve heard the note you’re tuning, turn the machine head on the string you’re tuning so that the pitch of your guitar changes to that of the reference note.

Practice this by tuning by ear first and then checking how accurate you were with an electronic tuner.

Try not to get frustrated when learning how to tune a guitar by ear. It can take a lot of practice, especially if you’re not someone with a lot of musical experience. 

Stay persistent: hearing pitches is a skill, just like anything else related to music. With practice, time, and patience, anyone can learn how to tune.

How to To Tune a Guitar Using Relative Pitch

Guitar strings are relative to one another. What does this mean? 

It means you can play the same notes on multiple strings. Let me give you an example. 

The sixth string is a D when played at the 10th fret. You can play that same D note at the exact pitch on two other strings: the fifth fret of the fifth string and the fourth string open. The diagram below shows all the D notes on the fretboard.

You can tune your guitar strings by measuring their pitch against the pitch of another string playing the same note. 

Most commonly, beginners tune by fretting the fifth fret of the sixth string and seeing how it compares to playing the fifth string open. These should both sound an A. If played simultaneously, they should create the same sound. 

If they sound off, either decrease or increase the tuning of one of them. Do this until when you strum both strings, it sounds like you’re only strumming one string. If the notes are very close but not quite even, you’ll hear a warbling sound as your ear tries to differentiate the two very pitches. 

Next Steps

After you’ve tuned the fifth string relative to the sixth, tune the fourth relative to the fifth. The A string, as I mentioned above, when fretted at five is the same note as the D string played open.

Once you’ve tuned the fourth string, continue across the neck. Be careful, though! Not all the strings have the same relative pitch to the string before it. See below:

Sixth string (E) fretted at 5 = Fifth string (A)

Fifth string (A) fretted at 5 = Fourth string (D)

Fourth string (D) fretted at 5 = Third string (G)

Third string (G) fretted at 4 = Second string (B)

Second string (B) fretted at 5 = First string (E)

When you’ve tuned the strings against each other, pluck the fourteenth fret of the fifth string and play it along with the open first string. They should make the same note.

The downside of relative tuning is that you need to have at least one string in tune for it to be truly correct. The upside is if you’re not playing with anyone or along to anything then you can quickly get your guitar strings in tune with each other.

3. Reference Tuning

Much harder than relative tuning is reference tuning. This is when you tune your guitar against another instrument that you know to be in tune. The best instrument to use is another guitar but you could also use a piano or any other instrument.

The benefit of reference tuning is that you know you have tuned to the correct note. But it can be challenging to hear the same notes on different instruments.

Using the piano, play the proper keys one after the other and tune the guitar strings to the sounds the piano makes. 

The test, as always, is to play a chord on the guitar afterward and see if it sounds nice.

Tuning By Ear: Perfect Pitch

If you’re one of the blessed few who was born with perfect pitch, congratulations! The whole musical world is envious of you. If you know the pitches based on their sounds, tuning a guitar will be a breeze for you.

Perfect pitch is something you’re born with, but everyone can get better at identifying pitches. Even music school students without perfect pitch can judge whether a particular note is a D or a D-flat. However, they’ve practiced A LOT to get to that stage. If this is something you’re interested in, keep practicing, and don’t lose faith! 

Keeping Your Guitar In Tune

How to keep your guitar in tune? Here are some tips:

  • Keep the guitar in its case
  • Keep the guitar in stable environments that don’t fluctuate much in terms of humidity and temperature
  • Keep the guitar out of direct sunlight for too long
  • Tune frequently to get the strings used to their standard pitches
  • Don’t drop the guitar; always treat it very gently
  • If your guitar is regularly falling out of tune, there may be a problem with the body or neck. Take it into a guitar store.

In our next lesson you’re going to learn to play some easy beginner guitar riffs. Let’s go!

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