Tuning your guitar is the first step to sounding good when you play – and it’s not as difficult as it may seem. Tuning is a ritual that definitely gets easier the more you do it. Once the habit is firmly locked into your regular guitar routine, you’ll naturally begin to develop an ear for it.
Here are some tips that will help get your instrument sounding great and ready to jam on.
Tips for tuning a guitar
Always Tune Up, Not Down
Some musicians miss this lesson: When tuning, you should approach the note from below rather than above. This means that you start out flat – or below the pitch – and tune up to the desired frequency. It’s the standard method, which just means that a bunch of professionals decided that this is the way we’re all doing it, so that’s final.
It’s important to do it this way because if you approach the note from above – AKA, start sharp and tune down – your tuner might tell you you’re in tune, your ear might even tell you you’re in tune, but when you sit down to play with an ensemble of others who have tuned from the opposite direction, discerning musical ears will hear the difference. You’ll be slightly off pitch from those who tuned the other way.
The biggest difficulty for many beginner guitarists is picking out what’s commonly known as the “wobble” – which may sound like the name of the star of some kids’ show.
You may have heard other musicians talk about this enigmatic wobble and wonder what they’re talking about.
When two or more pitches are played at the same time (ideally just two – you don’t want to get too crazy just yet), if one is slightly out of tune with the other, you’ll hear a subtle warbling. You can use whatever word you want for it, but there’s really no way around it – it’s a wobble.
It might seem impossible to hear this acoustical phenomenon at first, which may be particularly frustrating when the seasoned musicians in the room are seemingly able to hear it.
If you listen closely enough times, with repeated practice, you’ll eventually train your ear to pick it out. Once you’ve finally noticed this mysterious wobble for the first time, your ability to find it will improve quickly until it becomes second nature.
Tune it Your Way
Guitarists have several different options to get their instrument in tune.
1. Buy a tuner.
This is the simplest way to get the job done, and there’s no shortage of inexpensive options. Many guitarists prefer clip-on tuners, which attach directly to the headstock. This is a highly reliable option that makes it easy to get a clear reading in different types of environments – especially loud ones. You don’t have to worry about background noises impacting the tones your tuner picks up because it gets its reading directly from the vibrations of your instrument itself.
This type of tuner may also be used for brass or woodwind instruments – basically, anything that you can clip it onto – because everything vibrates in order to produce sound. The only drawback to a clip-on tuner is that you’d have a hard time tuning vocals with one of these. But if you want to be clever, you can clip it onto a resonant surface – like a metal music stand, for instance, or a glass – and sing towards the surface or into the cup.
There are also plenty of tuners with microphones at all price ranges. You can even find ones with both a clip and a microphone. Sometimes, the clip is a separate attachment that plugs into a 3.5-millimeter jack – the kind that looks like a headphone jack, and might even double as one. This comes in handy if you’re using the metronome function of your tuner and need to be quiet or if you’re using it to match pitch.
For most musicians, it’s well worth it to buy one of these multipurpose devices. There are apps you can use, but they’re not necessarily the most reliable. You also generally have to fork over some cash or else deal with the app constantly bombarding you with ads, pleas to rate their app, or pestering you to upgrade to the premium version. The bottom line is that it’s just not a good look – and not fun – to have to deal with your phone in the middle of a performance.
2. Do it the old-fashioned way.
On the other hand, tuning without using an electronic device to help you is an excellent opportunity to train the ear. Although it’s without a doubt the less efficient way to do it – and it’s harder – and you’re more likely to get spotty results as a beginner – it’s worth it just for the practice of tuning the old-fashioned way: by listening with your ears.
The more you do it, the better you get at it. And if you never hone the skill, you may end up lacking cardinal skills in your musicianship that hold you back in ways that you may not even realize along the course of your musical career.
With ear training, you’ll become better at identifying and matching pitch. This gives you the ability to figure out on the spot if the sour patch in the mix is your own guitar.
After all, technological advances have brought us helpful devices that make the busywork of musicianship more efficient, and that’s all well and good – when you can use them. But that doesn’t do you much good when you’re in the middle of a performance and don’t have time to run offstage and grab your tuner. Taking 30 seconds or longer out of the most important section of a song – or any section of a song – is a great way to kill a show.
That being said, clip-on tuners are incredibly easy to use on the spot,
and you can leave them clipped onto your headstock for immediate access. Whether it’s a gig or a rehearsal, having a clip-on tuner already on deck enables you to keep on chugging. You don’t have to stop the music even for a moment, holding everybody up, or worse: settle for sounding out of tune, AKA like garbage.
Still, many musicians get by just fine without ever intentionally training their ears and suffering through the grind of manual tuning. So if it’s something that seems valuable to you, definitely give it a shot; but if it’s not for you and you have the tools available, by all means, use them.
You can think of tuners as comparable to using a calculator in higher mathematical subjects. It’s a tool that allows you to get the work done faster and more efficiently so that you can get to what you’re really trying to accomplish.
Which String to Start With
The only scenario in which you’d want to start with the A string is when you’re using a tuning fork. This totally works, but it’s really going the old-school method – a method that involves banging the metal, two-pronged rod onto a hard surface (NOT your guitar!!) and then – an important step that’s oft overlooked by novices – place the non-forked end onto the body of your guitar as you tune it. This will help the fork’s vibrations resonate throughout the guitar’s body, making the pitch that you’re listening for clearer as you tune the A string to it.
As you can imagine, using a tuning fork in practice is a challenging endeavor. You have to use one hand to hold it in place, which can potentially damage your guitar if you’re not careful. Meanwhile, you have to avoid bumping the rod with anything lest it stop vibrating and you have to start all over again. So you might buy a tuning fork and use it a few times for the novelty of it, but most musicians choose to use more modern tools.
However, if you’re working with an automatic tuner, you can tune up in any order you like – just don’t forget any strings.
These are the string names as you’ll see them laid out in tablature. Some people are thrown off by this order because of the top string in this column being the high E string. This may seem all backward at first because of the fact that when you hold the guitar in your hand, the low E string is physically on top.
But when someone refers to the high E string, they’re not talking altitudinal levels – they’re talking pitch: which one produces the highest note when played open.
“Open” means playing a string without holding down any of the frets – which is the entirety of the type of guitar playing you’ll be doing when you tune.
You might have seen some people – or might have even been instructed by some people – to tune the A string to the 5th fret of the E string, the D string to the 5th fret of the A string, and so on – but you’d be making a few dangerous assumptions if you tune that way.
If your guitar’s neck is at all warped, as they so often are, you’ll be tuning to the wrong note. This is also true if you use too much pressure when fretting; it becomes all too easy to bend the strings slightly. There are just too many rogue variables that you introduce to the tuning process when you involve frets. It can work in a pinch, but it’s definitely not preferred by serious players.
Natural Harmonics and Where to Find Them
This is what you’ll need to use in order to tune like a professional without the use of any electronic device. It may be tricky – there are a couple different skills to master here – but if you want to truly feel connected to your instrument while developing a highly attuned sense of pitch, this is a good ability to have in your back pocket. So if you want to be able to retune at a moment’s notice, it might be worth it to learn this skill.
Plus, natural harmonics come in handy for songs all the time, in virtually every genre. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll have fun playing around with them. And it’s great practice if you ever want to get that distortion “squeal” that metalheads are always going for in their face-melting solos.
Natural harmonics take a sensitive touch. It’s a matter of getting the very tips of your fingers to just barely touch the string at very specific locations. It’s no mystery where these natural harmonics occur on the strings, but you have to figure out where the precise sweet spot is by trial and error.
Instead of placing your finger between the fretbars like you do when you’re fretting a regular note or chord, put your finger directly over the fretbar at the locations listed below, and strum as you normally would.
Natural Harmonics Locations
These natural harmonics only occur at specific locations on the fingerboard. The good news is that they’re at the same place on every string, so you don’t have as much to memorize. Natural harmonics can be played by lightly touching your fingertips to any of the strings at the following fretbars:
Depending on how high your guitar goes, you can play with harmonics beyond that, but you won’t need those for tuning.
The harmonics at the 3rd and 9th fret are generally the hardest to make ring out, and the high E string is the most difficult with harmonics in general. The low E string is good to practice on as it’s the easiest. The 5th, 7th, and 12th fret harmonics are the ones that are easiest to find.
Natural harmonics are interesting in that the pitches aren’t always what you’d expect them to be. Harmonics go up in pitch as you get closer to the guitar’s headstock – the opposite of how it works when playing normally. While they take some getting used to, it’s well worth it to hone the ability to produce harmonics and learn which ones sound good.
It’s All Relative
Relative tuning means you’re in tune with yourself but doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in tune with others. That’s why we have standard tuning. In the past – in the Wild West of music history – different countries had different opinions of where a C was. This meant instruments were built out of tune with one another from country to country. Even across different areas in the U.S., there was no harmony on the matter of pitch.
Nowadays, in our brave new world of modern music, we have the technology to know exactly what pitch we’re playing with accuracy that’s within a fraction of a semitone. When tuning, you use the term “cents” to express how far off the pitch you are. If you’re confused as to why we’re talking about nickels and dimes all of a sudden, you can think of it like centimeters in the metric system.
Although vibration is measured in Hertz, guitar tuners show your pitch in semitones, a more relevant unit. One semitone is the interval from one fret to another – a half-step, in common musical terminology. Most tuners have the semitone broken down into hundredths.
A String: Check!
Okay. So you’ve tuned your A string – somehow. Whether you’ve used a piano, tuning fork, or anything else you can get to produce a tone of 440 Hz – there are plenty of YouTube videos solely created for that purpose – let’s start with the assumption that you’ve gotten that A string taken care of. Great – only five more to go.
Maybe you’re even using an electronic tuner for the A string, and you’re just doing the rest of your strings by ear for the practice. Good for you – collect your guitar bonus points. Now all you need to know is which natural harmonics to play to get your guitar in tune.
Let’s deal with the low E string first before it’s forgotten about. Nothing is worse than leaving a string untuned and not realizing it until you’re in the middle of a song. In some cases, you might as well have not tuned the thing at all.
Tuning With Natural Harmonics
Some guitarists prefer to always play the pitch that they’re tuning to first. But when tuning the low E string to the A string, it may be difficult to get the natural harmonic to ring out on the A string and then do the same on the E string without bumping the A string, either with your pick or finger.
So you can always make an exception on the low E string if you’d rather reverse the order. It’s all a matter of preference – it doesn’t matter which method you choose as long as you’re in tune by the end of it.
Tune the Low E String to the A String:
E string, 12th harmonic – A string, 7th harmonic
Tune the D String to the A String:
A string, 12th harmonic – D string, 7th harmonic
Tune the G String to the D String:
D string, 12th harmonic – D string, 7th harmonic
Tuning the B and High E Strings
Here’s where you might run into trouble because it won’t work if you just try to keep using the same pattern. To get the B string in tune, you have to do something a little bit different. Some guitarists cave in and use their frets here, tuning the B string to the 2nd fret of the A string. However, bringing the fretboard and all of its uncertainties into the picture is unnecessary.
Instead, tune the 12th harmonic on your B string to the 7th harmonic on your low E string. Follow the same pattern for the high E string and A string: 12th harmonic on the high E, 7th harmonic on the A string.
Tune the B String to the Low E String:
B string, 12th harmonic – Low E string, 7th harmonic
Tune the High E String to the A String:
High E string, 12th harmonic – A string, 7th harmonic
Now that you’ve finally gotten the hang of producing natural harmonics, trained your ears to the point of near-perfect pitch, and made excellent good friends with the mysterious wobble – you’ve definitely earned the right to go out and buy a tuner for $10.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.