How Do You Tune a Guitar by Ear?

In any performances, you do not want your listener to cover their ears for you are playing loud with an out of tune guitar. Having a well-tuned guitar and an ability to tune your guitar by ear is very important. So let me give you some helpful tips on how to tune your guitar. Unless you have a “Perfect Pitched Ears” to tune your guitar, you need a Reference Pitch to be able to compare while tuning your instruments: a tuning fork, pitch pipe, piano, or another reliable-tuned instrument. We call it Relative Pitch ears, where you relate a pitch from another pitch.

By the way, tuning your instrument using a digital tuner (visual tuning) is a preferable way during live performances or for quick tuning. Using a digital tuner is another topic we can discuss in the next article.

Before you make any adjustment with your guitar, make sure you have a reference pitch. I used to carry in my gig bag a chromatic pitch pipe or a tuning fork. Now I use a digital clip-on tuner with my guitar, so I can tune it without making a loud sound on stage. The new digital tuner works by picking up the strings vibration and not from the sound signal input. My favorite clip-on tuner is made by D’Addario. It is smaller than Snark and snugs well on the headstock. I do not prefer Snark as I had broken many of them before because it sticks out on top of the headstock as compare to the D’Addario one.

You Need to Learn How to Tune Your Guitar By Ear

It is very important for any guitar player to know how to tune their guitar because you want to have a beautiful sound, not irritating to the listeners. I am not talking about the tone-quality of your guitar. I am talking about a well-tuned guitar, even the pitch intonation. You might say that it is difficult to tune your guitar because the strings are old and always get out of tune easily. Read these helpful articles. “ “How Often Do Professional Guitarists Change Strings?” and “What Happens When Guitar Strings Get Old”.

During your practice time, it is also a good habit to check the tuning of your guitar regularly so you are assured what you are practicing is in the correct song key, whether its a scale, chord or lick.

Tuning your guitar by ear also develops your hearing skill which makes you a better musician.

Guitar Standard Tuning E-A-D-G-B-E

When tuning a guitar, it is essential to know what are the notes of each open string of the guitar. A standard guitar has six strings. Even nowadays I’ve seen 7-strings, 8-strings or 9-strings guitar at the music stores. There is also a 12-string guitar which is very similar to the standard six strings guitar tuning but doubled each string, either in exact same pitch or an octave above or below.

1st string = E
2nd string = B
3rd string = G
4th string = D
5th string = A
6th string = E

The image shows you each note of the guitar strings. The 6th string (thickest) from the top of the guitar (not top of the image)  is tuned to E, 5th string is tuned to A, 4th string is tuned to D, 3rd string is tuned to G, 2nd string is tuned to B, then the 1st string is tuned to high E, which is the skinniest string below. You have to memorize the note name of each string. You will probably realize there are two E notes in the guitar strings. One pitch is either two octaves higher or lower than the other pitch.

Tuning Your Guitar

Using piano as the Reference Pitch, locate the middle C key. It is usually located in the middle, close to the keyhole in front of the piano. Now play the E note which is the third white key from middle C moving to the right. That E note is exactly the same pitch vibration as the 1st string (E) of the guitar. Adjust your 1st E string accordingly, either turning the tuning peg upward or downward. You may not get it 100% in tune during the first few times but tune it as close as you can. In time, you will get better tuning your guitar by ear.

Once you tune the 1st string (E), you are ready to move on to the 2nd string (B). Play the 1st string open E, then compare the fretted E note on the 2nd string (B). You can play at the same time or simultaneously, and see if they are in tune. They should exactly the same. Pay close attention to the pitch and the vibration.

Assuming you tuned the 2nd String B, move on to the 3rd string G. Do exactly the same process tuning the 2nd string but do it on the 3rd string. Look at the image. While tuning the 3rd string, you should be fretting a B note on the 3rd string 4th Fret position.

Continue the process of relative tuning. Play the open 3rd G string, then play the fretted 4th string in 5th position. Check the diagram.

The same process with the last two string 5th & 6th. Check the diagram below and tune as close as you can while listening to the quality of its vibration.

Another step is to check and see if the 1st and 6th strings are tuned in 2 octaves apart from each other. In that way, you are pretty close that your strings are all tuned. Play both E strings at the same time. Check the diagram.

Now play any chord progression. Play in the open position only (Open Chords), then play all barred chords only. Finally, combine both open and barred chords. Listen if there are any slight out of tuning while playing an open chord with a barred chord. For example, compare the open A chord and the A barre chord in 5th position. Sometimes you will see that the out of tuning is caused by how you are fretting the chords.

This may seem like a daunting process, but once you get the hang of it, you will be tuning your guitar in no time. Anyway, most likely you will end up getting a digital tuner that is either part of your pedal chain or a clip-on tuner. But tuning your guitar by ear is a great skill to develop, sharpening your ears.

Playing on Your Own

In the beginning, I mentioned about having a ‘Reference Pitch’ when tuning your guitar. However, if you do not have any reference pitch to relate or compare your strings’ sound, you can go ahead and tune your guitar based on whatever current pitch you have on your guitar. Chances are one of the strings is in tune, as most of the time, not all the strings are out of tune. You can apply the same process as I have described with the diagrams. But this way you are tuning your guitar and using the same guitar as your Reference Pitch.

Your guitar will still be in tune on its own, and ready to rock playing by your self, solo. Since it is only an approximation tuning process, it may not be similar or in tune with the standard tuning which is A440 MHz.

A Very Important Lesson I Learned

When I was attending music school, I had this embarrassing experience playing in an ensemble class on the first day. We were two guitar players, bass guitarist, piano player, drummer, and a saxophone player. In the middle of the first tune that we were playing, the professor stopped us and asked both guitar player to check our intonations or the tuning of our guitar.

I could not remember how my ensemble professor’s facial expression was, but I knew he was not happy about the two guitar players. So, the whole band had to stop playing to give us the opportunity to tune our instruments. Back then I do not have any digital tuner. We used the piano as the reference pitch. So I tuned my guitar first, asking the piano player who played me an “E” below the middle “C”. I started with the 6th string going all the way down to the 1st string, tuning it one string at a time. Having an assumption that my guitar was tuned, I played an open G chord, and it sounded horrible. I played a barred C chord at the 8th fret and it sounded worst.

All my classmate couldn’t help but laughed nonstop. I turned pale! So I paused and gave the other guitar player a chance to tune his guitar. The same process, he asked the piano player for a reference pitch. He said, “give me an A, any A-note”. Very cocky arrogant dude. I told myself, he must be a good player. I was watching how he tuned his guitar, almost same process as I did but he started from the first string. Afterward, he played the whole strings gently without fretting any chord. It sounded okay. Then he played a Cmaj7(9) chord, perhaps trying to impress us all, but it sounded so off and the professor asked him to tune his guitar again from the beginning but it was worst and he got very frustrated later on.

Our professor made a comment: “How many guitar players does it take to replace a light bulb having a guitar in one hand?” Everyone made each of their guessed answers and finally, the professor said, “NONE”. He added, “because none of them knows how to tune the guitar properly”. Honestly mean, but very true. Anyway, in the end, the professor helped us guitar players tuned our instrument by ears, using the piano with six reference pitches, that corresponds to the six-stringed guitar.

I and the other guitar player were so embarrassed. And it is still a fact these days, that guitar players are known for playing an out of tune guitar without being aware of it, especially the power chord players. Well, even if I know how to tune my guitar by ear now, I would prefer to tune any of my instrument using a precise digital tuner. There are lots of available App for your smartphone these days.

No matter how good of a player you are. If your guitar is out of tune, it will sound unpleasant. There might be an exemption to that. I knew some players or even great players like Jimi Hendrix, playing an out of tune guitar, but when he played it, he made it sound in tune. So now let’s talk about tuning the guitar by ears.

In any case, stay in tune with us and your guitar!