How to Tune a Guitar

Julian Acosta
Written by
Julian Acosta
Fact-checked by
Tom Grupa

How to Tune a Guitar (Electronic & By Ear)

Tuning your guitar is a skill you might consider to be the most basic of all. It involves no complicated playing or note reading, and yet, it’s just as important as being able to play a lightning-fast run of notes or cook up a soulful solo on the fly.

Today, we’re going to go over the basics of how to tune your guitar strings; you should have no excuses not to tune your axe properly by the time we’re through.

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Guitar Tuning Theory & Tips

The Musical Alphabet

You might not be a pro at tuning just yet, but you probably understand that the strings on your guitar have to be set to very particular in order to sound “correct.” This is true, and when we’re talking about standard tuning on a guitar, your strings, from six to one, should be tuned to these notes: E, A, D, G, B, and E.

Ways to Stay in Tune

Notice we said, “standard tuning” there. As you may have guessed, there are multiple ways in which you can tune your guitar. “Drop C” tuning, for instance, will have you tune your strings to C, G, C, F, A, and D. This tuning is a favorite of metal bands who want to achieve a deep and foreboding tone while sticking with six string guitars.

Alternatively, you have tunings like “Open E” which are popular among slide guitar players and require that you tune your strings to E, B, E, G#, B, and E. We could go on about the advantages of this particular tuning (and the many other ways to tune your guitar), but the point is that if you want to make practicing and playing the guitar worthwhile, you’ll at least need to know how to tune it in the standard manner.

Flats & Sharps

Before jumping into the tuning methods, though, let’s get a few terms and tips out of the way. In the process of tuning your guitar, you’ll find that you may tune a string too high or too low. The technical terms for missing the mark are sharp and flat, and you may remember these if you’ve ever taken a piano or music theory class.

Sharps: When the sharp sign appears next to a note it indicates you should play a half-step higher than what’s written. If you say that you’ve tuned a string and the pitch is sharp, though, that’s a general catch-all to indicate you’ve gone higher than the desired pitch.

Flats: Meanwhile, the flat sign would tell you to play a half-step lower than what’s written, and when applied to tuning, means you’ve undershot your desired pitch (so you need to tune higher in order to match the correct pitch for a string.)

Tuning Pitch

When you’re changing the pitch of your strings (by turning the tuning knobs), make sure you go slowly and you’re turning the knob that corresponds with the string you’re trying to tune. Nothing is more frustrating than turning a knob endlessly, only to find you were turning the wrong one all along.

Now that we know how to quantify what you’re doing wrong when you’re tuning, let’s go over how you can do it right, both with an electronic tuner and without.

How to Tune a Guitar: Electronic Tuner

The first thing you’ll need to do with your electronic tuner is to make sure it has fresh batteries and turn it on. You might be surprised how many newbie players make the claim that their tuner “doesn’t work,” but really just forgot to hit the power button.

With that out of the way, set your electronic tuner up properly. If you have a clip-on tuner, you’ll want to attach that to your guitar’s headstock.

How to tune a guitar
How to tune a guitar

If you have a plug-in, you’ll need to run an instrument cable from your guitar to your tuner. If your tuner uses a microphone, just set it up somewhere in front of your guitar/amp where it can pick up the sounds without much trouble.

Guitar Tuning Step 1

It is now time to get tuning. Going string by string, you want to strum so that the tuner can determine what pitch your string is currently tuned to, then adjust the string with the tuning knob so it matches the correct pitch.

For example, your 6th string should be tuned to E. Let’s say you fire up your tuner and notice that it’s currently tuned to D, though. You’ll want to tighten the string with your tuning knob so that the pitch of the string increases. Go slowly, and when you see that the tuner is showing an E, you’ve hit your mark.

On the flip side, if that 6th string was tuned to a note higher than your low E, you’d want to loosen the string until the pitch was lower than your E, then tighten again until you reached the desired low E pitch. This is because tuning up to a pitch allows a string to stay in tune longer, so you want to avoid tuning down to reach your proper pitch.

Guitar Tuning Step 2

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When you’ve completed this process for all six strings, go over all your strings one more time. The process of tuning can alter some pitches, so you want to do a “once over” to fine-tune your tuning!

How to Tune a Guitar: By Ear

If you don’t have an electronic tuner available, or you just feel like doing things the old fashioned way, you can tune your guitar strings to the notes on a piano, or try the 5th Fret Tuning Method (provided your 6th string is in tune). To make a long story short, you’ll be tuning string by string, using the preceding strings to provide the reference note for the current string you’re tuning.

The 5th Fret Tuning Method

Here’s how it works:

  • String 5 should sound like string 6/fret 5 (A)

  • String 4 should sound like string 5/fret 5 (D)

  • String 3 should sound like string 4/fret 5 (G)

  • String 2 should sound like string 3/fret 4 (B)

  • String 1 should sound like string 2/fret 5 (E)

And with that, you should be able to tune your guitar under just about any circumstances. Be sure to tune before you play or practice, and be precise if you’re going to be using any alternate tunings!