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How to Tune a Guitar

hendrix tuning his guitar

The 6 Second Summary:

First off, there are many – actually infinite – ways of tuning a guitar. Though, a handful of tunings are especially popular, and Standard tuning is the most popular of them all.

You can tune your guitar to Standard tuning (or all those other tunings) by using an electronic tuner, for instance via a guitar tuner phone app, or by using “relative” tuning methods.

Introduction

In this lesson article, you’ll learn the wider context of guitar tunings, the fact that Standard tuning is the most popular, and different ways to tune your guitar to Standard tuning. 

How Many Different Tunings Are There?

Tuning the gear deals with adjusting the string pitches to assigned tunings. Though, much like there are several ways of holding a guitar, there are several ways of tuning a guitar.

Standard Tuning

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its name, Standard tuning is the most popular tuning; however, guitars are often tuned differently to achieve various harmonic effects, different ranges of pitch, or convenience to play with different techniques.

Drop Tunings

For example, different genres of metal frequently feature players who use “drop” tunings. This means that the bass strings of the guitar have a much lower pitch than usual, to induce very “doomsday”-like sonic effects.

Open Tunings

On the other hand, blues or blues-inspired guitarists often use open tunings when playing with a tool called a bottleneck slide, which allows them to conveniently “catch” harmonically consonant notes with the slide, which would be harder to do in Standard tuning.

Invented Tunings

At the extreme, you can look at a player such as John Fahey, one of the great “explorers” of sound on the guitar. In addition to being an expert on open tunings for folk music, he’d often “invent” his own tunings, experimenting with tunings such as each string tuned to the same note!

Therefore, you can see that guitar tunings can be a very vast and experimental plain. Though you likely won’t encounter these various tunings until becoming a more advanced player, and it should be mentioned that many advanced players never have to explore alternative tunings, it’s worth knowing this wider context of guitar tunings.

A Background on Standard Tuning

Though many popular alternative tunings exist, Standard tuning is certainly the most popular. 

It’s the Best Place to Start

It would be worth betting on the fact that every guitarist, beginner or legend, starts with Standard tuning, in part because Standard tuning is an important factor of what defines the guitar as an instrument! From Reinhardt, to Hendrix, to Van Halen, all their great works have been recorded with Standard tuning.

For that reason, and the fact that 98% of the learning materials you’ll ever find on the guitar assume you’re using Standard tuning, it’s best to also begin your guitar learning journey by focusing wholly on Standard tuning.

The Anatomy of the Standard Tuning

Essentially, Standard tuning is achieved by tuning that thickest string (called the 6th string) to E, and each subsequent string (from next thickest to thinnest) to the notes A, D, G, B, and E; per the pitches as defined by Western music, those are the given notes of Standard tuning.

Now that you’ve learned the wider context of tunings, namely that various tunings exist, and that Standard tuning is the chief among them all, you can now comfortably go about tuning your guitar to Standard tuning.

How to Tune Your Guitar to Standard Tuning: 3 Methods

It’s reasonable to say there’s a “Top 3” of ways guitarists tune their guitars.

One of those ways involves using an external guitar tuner tool, and the other two ways involve actually tuning your guitar relative to itself — without a tuner!

The latter might sound odd, but you’ll see how that works shortly.

1. Electronic Tuner

The way to tune your guitar, such that its tuning is most accurate and pitch perfect, is by using an external tuner. You can now tune your guitar, perhaps most conveniently and affordably (for free), by simply downloading any guitar tuner app on your smartphone as your external tuner. Simply search “guitar tuner” and you should find dozens of options, each of which are probably quite alike. 

To start by tuning with this method, in case your guitar is wildly out of tune, first you can try to get in the rough ballpark of Standard tuning by using an online tool like this. Comparing the pitch of the online tool’s strings with your guitar’s, adjust the pitch of your guitar’s strings so they roughly match what you hear on that online tool.

Then, open your guitar tuner app on your phone, simply holding your phone near your guitar. Starting with the thickest string, the E string, pluck the string and watch your guitar tuner app to check if you’re “flat” (which means too low in pitch) or “sharp” (too high in pitch); from there, you can adjust the pitch accordingly by tweaking your E string’s tuning peg so it matches the E note correctly on the guitar tuner app.

You’ll continue that for each of the subsequent strings; recall that the strings’ pitches are EADGBE (from thickest to thinnest), so you’ll follow the same procedure as above on the E string for each of the other strings.

Tip: When plucking the string to register its pitch onto your phone app, allow your guitar’s string to resonate for at least a few seconds, so it has time to “zero in” on its actual pitch; this is because, immediately after plucking the string, the string’s pitch can be misrepresented, since the act of plucking the string temporarily adds tension, which raises its pitch.

2. Relative Tuning

Relative tuning is what you might call the remaining 2 ways of tuning your guitar, and while they’re not as pitch-perfect they’re much more convenient, and often get your guitar tuner “well enough”. They’re also the way you can tune your guitar, without using a tuner!

As a note, the relative tuning method is often especially useful for tweaking a single string here or there that suddenly gets out of tune, since it’s very quick and easy.

Again, it’s ideal to first start by getting in the rough ballpark of Standard tuning using an online tool like this. As mentioned earlier, compare the pitch of the online tool’s strings with your guitar’s, and adjust the pitch of your guitar’s strings so they roughly match what you hear on that online tool.

Then, you can achieve relative tuning via two methods: (1) using a fretted approach, or (2) using a harmonics-based approach.

2.1 Relative Tuning — Fretted Approach

  1. With the fretted approach, get your guitar into the rough ballpark of Standard tuning by matching your guitar strings’ pitches to the pitches of strings in an online tool like this
  2. Next, fret the 5th fret of the 6th string (the thickest string of the guitar), then match the pitch of the open 5th string to that fretted note
  3. Then, fret the 5th fret of the 5th string, then match the pitch of the open 4th string to that fretted note
  4. Repeat that for the 4th string, so you’ll fret the 5th fret of the 4th string, then match the pitch of the open 3rd string to that fretted note
  5. Then, you’ll fret the 4th fret of the 3th string, then match the pitch of the open 2nd string to that fretted note
  6. And finally, you’ll fret the 5th fret of the 2nd string, then match the pitch of the open 1st string to that fretted note

2.2 Relative Tuning — Harmonics Approach

Using the harmonics-based approach of relative tuning, it requires a bit more tact, though beginners and intermediates alike can still certainly use it after getting accustomed to it. Its advantage over the fretted-based approach is that it can be much more accurate in achieving relative pitch.

(Jaco Pastorius, a master bass guitarist who used harmonics, musically, throughout his playing. Listen to “Portrait of Tracy” as an example)
  1. With the harmonics-based approach, first get your guitar into the rough ballpark of Standard tuning by matching your guitar strings’ pitches to the pitches of strings in an online tool like this
  2. Next, touch the 6th string directly above the 5th fret but don’t push the string down into the fret, instead simply make contact directly above the fret – this is called “playing the harmonic”. Then, pluck that 6th string. Then, “play the harmonic” of the 5th string at the 7th fret (again, contacting your finger onto the string directly above the fret without pressing it down). Tune the 5th string so the pitches align with each other
  3. Next, play the harmonic of the 5th string at the 5th fret, and then play the harmonic of the 4th string at the 7th fret. Tune the 4th string so its pitch matches
  4. Similarly, play the harmonic of the 4th string at the 5th fret, and then play the harmonic of the 3rd string at the 7th fret. Tune the 3rd string so its pitch matches
  5. This will be slightly different: play the harmonic of the 3rd string at the 4th fret, and then play the harmonic of the 2nd string at the 5th fret. Tune the 2nd string so its pitch matches
  6. Then, play the harmonic of the 2nd string at the 5th fret, and then play the harmonic of the 1st string at the 7th fret. Tune the 1st string so its pitch matches

If you’re struggling at all to understand or execute any of these 3 tuning techniques, be sure to keep doing lots of research online, and keep trying!

There’s plenty of online resources on each of the three: using a guitar tuner, tuning guitars with the 5th fret (the fretted approach), or tuning guitars with harmonics (the harmonics-based approach).

Wrapping Up How to Tune Your Guitar

And there you have it! You’ve learned about the wider context of guitar tunings, in that many tunings exist, the primacy of Standard tuning, and how to achieve Standard tuning using three different methods. 

Feel free to continue onwards to the next guitar lesson. See you soon!