What You Should Know
  1. Basic tuning concepts
What You Will Learn
  1. How to tune using an electronic tuner
  2. How to avoid common beginner mistakes

Tuning Your Guitar with a Tuner

The best tuning method for beginners is to use an electronic tuner. Other methods require the ability to hear small differences in pitch and adjust the pitch of the string accordingly. This is something most beginners can't do. Because of this, an electronic tuner is essential.

Step by Step Instructions for Tuning

Before starting to tune, you should read through the instructions for your tuner for details on reading the display. There are many different kinds of tuners and they use various approaches for indicating whether the guitar is in tune or not. Tuners may use a digital display, lights, a needle or something else to indicate the current pitch.

Preparing to Tune

1. If you are tuning an electric guitar, plug your guitar into the tuner with a 1/4" cable. Use a clean tone for tuning with an electric guitar. You can use the mic on the tuner for acoustic guitars. This may also work for an electric if you are able to tune in a quiet environment.

2. Turn on the tuner.

Reading the Display on the Tuner

3. Start with the low E string. Pluck the string, being careful to not hit any other strings. Hitting another string will interfere with the tuner's ability to detect the pitch of the low E string, since it would have two pitches to detect at once. This will confuse your tuner. You may need to play the string several times to keep the volume loud enough for the tuner to pick it up. The string should be allowed to ring as long as possible, but play it again when the sound starts to die off.

4. Read the display on the tuner to determine the current pitch of the low E string. What is the current pitch? Does it come before or after E in the musical alphabet? If the pitch comes before E, you most likely need to raise the pitch of the string by turning the tuning peg so that the string becomes tighter. If the pitch comes after E, you probably need to lower the pitch of the string. Turn the tuning peg so the string becomes looser to do this.

Note that if the string is extremely loose or tight already, you may need to tune the string in the opposite direction of the advice given above. Remember that the musical alphabet repeats, so pitches occur over and over again as you go through it.

It is also possible that the display will show that you are close to E, but the pitch is slightly higher or lower.

Adjusting the Pitch of the String

5. Adjust the pitch of the E string until it is at the correct pitch. Turn the tuning pegs in the direction that is necessary to raise or lower the pitch of the string to E. Keep playing the string as you turn the pegs so that the tuner is constantly picking up the pitch of the string. If you are close to E already, you don't need to turn the pegs that much. A 1/4 turn or less will often be enough to get you where you need to be. You may need to make larger turns if you are further away in pitch, but be sure to make the turns smaller as you get closer to E. Be careful and don't tune the string too tight. This may break it. Keep some spare strings on hand in case you do break a string. Don't worry if you go past E and tune the string too high or low. You can always tune the string up or down.

6. Repeat the previous steps for each string, replacing E with the correct pitch for each string. Remember that the strings are tuned E A D G B E starting with the thickest string.

Common Mistakes When Using an Electronic Tuner

Adjusting the Pitch of A

This is mainly caused by someone playing around with the features on a tuner without knowing what they do. Some tuners allow you to adjust the pitch of the A above middle C. This A is used as a reference pitch. The A on most instruments will be tuned to this pitch. The worldwide standard for this pitch is 440 Hz. Some tuners allow you to adjust this slightly, usually somewhere in the range between 420 Hz to 460 Hz. If you change this from 440 Hz, you will end up playing out of tune if you play with other musicians. This is because any change you make to the pitch of A will also affect all other pitches. Don't change this pitch unless you specifically have a reason to adjust the frequency of the A.

The reason that this pitch is adjustable is that A has not always been set at 440 Hz. The A has become higher over time. This means that Bach, Beethoven, and other composers of their time were using an A that is lower than what we use today. For more information on the history of pitch, visit Wikipedia.org.

Ignoring Flats and Sharps

Many tuners indicate certain pitches with sharps or flats.

A sharp is indicated by the sharp sign symbol and raises the pitch.

A flat is indicated by flat sign. A flat lowers the pitch.

For example, Eb is lower than E, but E# is higher than E. If you are trying to tune the low E string to E, Eb is lower than E, so you would still need to raise the pitch of the string. If you were tuning a string to D and see a D#, you have gone too far, because D# is higher than D.

Not Playing the String Frequently and Loudly Enough for the Tuner to Pick Up

One of the most important aspects of using an electronic tuner is allowing the tuner to pick up the sound of the string. You may need to play the string every few seconds to keep the volume high enough for the tuner to detect the pitch accurately. You also need to allow the string to keep ringing while tuning. The tuner doesn't pick up the pitch unless the string keeps ringing.