I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep your guitar tuned. There a few things in the world more “nails on a chalkboard” cringe than an out of tune guitar. All of those dissonant notes being strummed at the same time, yuck!
It is doubly important if you plan to sing while you play. Having even slightly out of tune strings will make it hard to find the right notes. Even worse, it will train you to sing the wrong notes, a very hard habit to break.
Enough with the why, let’s get to the how.
There are 6 strings on a standard guitar and therefore 6 strings to tune. There are sooooo many different ways to tune a guitar but for the majority of applications, you will be using standard tuning.
From the thickest string down to the thinnest, the notes for standard tuning are
E, A, D, G, B, e.
(Yes, the little e is on purpose, it indicates the higher note)
You can use any number of mnemonic devices to help you remember this. Some examples include:
Try to think of one of your own and let us know in the comments what you came up with.
Now that we know what notes we have to tune to, let’s move on to how to do it. There are of course many different types of tuning for less common genres and styles of guitars like baritones. But, since this is a beginner lesson we'll stick to standard tuning.
At one end of the guitar, you have the little windy things that the strings are attached to. These are called machine heads, or aptly named tuners. Spinning them in one direction will increase the tension on the string while going in the other direction will loosen the string. If your guitar is set up correctly hopefully that direction matches for each machine head.
The looser the string is the deeper the note will be conversely tightening the string will raise the pitch of the note that the string plays when plucked.
This is the easiest way to tune any instrument. There will be some sort of indicator that shows how far away from the desired note you are while plucking the string. If you are below the note then increase the tension on the string by winding the machine head and vice-versa. Repeat with every string until all of them are at the desired tuning.
Sometimes while using an electronic tuner you can tune to the correct note but in the wrong octave (the note is too low or high). You can figure this out if a string is much floppier than the others or feels very tight like it’s about to break.
There are many options for electronic tuners. Some can cost close to $1000 but a free app on your phone or a cheap clip-on tuner will do the job for a beginner. It is a good idea to use a tuner that can also play the note so you can hear if it’s right as well to train your ear and avoid the aforementioned problem of tuning to the wrong octave.
Training your ear is one of the most difficult things to learn as a musician and many don’t even bother. It’s unlikely you won’t have your phone on you to use a tuner. However, using your ear to tune a guitar is a great skill and a step in the right direction to improve your overall musicianship.
Provided that your thickest string is already tuned to E you can tune the rest of the guitar to standard. If it isn’t, and you aren’t playing with others, you can still tune the guitar to itself.
Going from the lowest note to the highest the 5th fret on most strings will be the same note as the one below it. The only time this doesn’t apply is between the G and B strings. For this, you use the 4th fret instead of the 5th. As shown in this diagram.
So if the E string is in tune it should play an A Note when fretted at the 5th position. You can then play the A string and see if the notes match. If not you should wind the machine head on the A string until the two notes are the same. If you find this confusing check out the video below.
I recommend using a combination of electronic tuning and tuning by ear. Tuning by ear will be very hard to begin with but you will be surprised how quickly you pick it up if you do it often. If you found this helpful check out our other beginner lessons.
If you're still shopping for your first guitar take a look at our favorite electric guitar starter kits.