Does your guitar need a tune-up, and you don’t have an electric tuner on hand?
If you’ve never tuned your guitar by hand before, don’t worry — although an electric tuner makes things nice and easy, you don’t actually need the advanced gadget to do it right. Pro guitar players know how to tune their instrument without a tuner, and with a little time and practice, you can certainly learn. Follow this guide to get you started.
Know the Notes for Each String
If you’re new to the guitar, you need to first know how each string is tuned (which note each string should be tuned to play). In standard tuning, the thickest string is tuned to E, and the thinnest string is also tuned to E — only two octaves higher.
From the top (thickest string) down to the thinnest, the notes are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, E. (You can remember it by the sentence, “Elephants And Dogs Grow Big Ears.”) Once you get any one of these strings in tune, then you can use it as a reference point for the other strings.
Tune the Low E
Most guitar players use the low E (thickest string) as a reference point for tuning the instrument. Some musicians are talented enough to hear the note on its own, and determine whether it’s flat or sharp when they pluck the string. This takes quite a bit of practice, but as you get more experienced with the guitar, it’s definitely possible to learn to tune by ear.
If you’re not quite ready to trust your ears alone yet, use a tuned piano, YouTube clip, or another instrument to get your first note on pitch. Play the low E on your piano (or YouTube video), and then pluck the thickest string on your guitar — play them at the same time, if it helps. You should be able to hear whether your guitar sounds lower or higher than the actual E note.
Follow the string up the neck of the guitar to find which peg it’s attached to. Turning this peg is how you’ll change the note of each string — as you turn it, you are tightening or loosening the attached string, and therefore changing its pitch.
If your guitar note was flat (lower than it should be), tighten the peg to make the pitch higher. If your guitar note was sharp (higher than it should be), loosen the peg to make the pitch lower. You may have to tighten and loosen the peg a few times, playing the string as you do until it matches the low E on your piano or video.
Congratulations, you’ve tuned the first string!
Use the Low E as a Reference for The Other Strings
Once you have the low E tuned on-pitch, you can use it to tune the next in line — the A string. In order to do this, you’ll play an A note on the E string (since you know it’s tuned), and then match the next string (the A string) to that note.
The fifth fret on the E string is an A, which means when you place your finger there and strum, it should sound exactly like the A string does when it’s strummed open. Strum your E string with your finger on the fifth fret, and adjust the peg for the A string until the notes match. Plucking the strings together should help you to hear it.
Do the same thing for the next strings. Tune the D string (next in line) using the fifth fret on the A string; the G string to the fifth fret on the D string; the B string to the fourth fret on the G string; and the E string to the fifth fret on the B string. Notice you’re using the fifth fret on each string for tuning, except when using the G string to tune the B string.
Double Check Your Tuning
Now that you’ve tuned each string one by one, go back and double check that they sound right together. Pluck each string one at a time, from the top down. The more you play guitar, the more you will learn how the notes should sound when plucked this way. You should also get a feel for what the guitar sounds like when strummed open (without holding any of the frets), which you can use to test the tuning by ear.
Try playing a chord that you know well (perhaps the G chord, or a C chord), and listen to whether the chord sounds “off.” If there’s an awkward sound, check your individual strings again.
Another way to check that you’ve tuned everything correctly is to pluck the low and high E strings together. They should sound the same, only in different octaves. If the notes clash, there’s a good chance your other strings are tuned slightly off, since you’ve used them as a reference to get from the low E to the high E string.
In this case, go back and tune each string one by one, until the two E octaves match and your chords sound melodious!
You Did It — Now, Strum Away!
You made it through all the strings, you’ve double checked (maybe, triple checked), and now all that’s left to do is to play your favorite song! Better yet, challenge yourself with a new song, now that your guitar is tuned up and ready for action.
Even if you do have an electric tuner available, try tuning your guitar the manual way whenever you can. Learning how to tune a guitar on your own is a great way to train your ear, and help you become a better musician. Ask your music teacher to help you, if you’re struggling — experienced guitarists will have good tips and advice on how to better improve your ear. Someday you’ll be playing by ear, tuning up with no assistance at all!