Sven's Guitar Site
Tuning a guitar
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Nothing sucks more than a guitar that is out of tune! Even if you don't have a perfect pitch and don't realize that your guitar is not in tune, you will notice it subconciously. I recommend you to tune your guitar frequently. That means at least once before you start playing.

The guitar belongs to the group of instruments (string instruments) that are easy to tune. So it is tuned to the pitch of the other instruments in a band that are harder to tune, like a piano or a vibraphone.

Usually all instruments in this world are tuned to a certain reference pitch. That is the A which has a frequency of 440Hz (440 oscillations per second). That can vary though. Some vibraphones are tuned to an A that is 444Hz, more and more classical orchestras tune their instruments to an A that is 441Hz.


The most common tuning for a guitar is E, A, D, G, B, e (low to high). Some guitarists tune their guitar one semi tone lower, that sounds kinda cool, too. Tuning the guitar even lower than that is not recommended, the strings are balanced for an E to e tuning, so they will be pretty slack if they are tuned too low. For playing slide guitar (that is that bottle neck thing) guitars are usually tuned to some chord tones, like an "open G" tuning etc.

Although every guitarist should be able to tune a guitar without a tuner, I recommend the use of an electronic guitar tuner (guitar teachers might disagree here). It is the easiest and most accurate way to tune a guitar and I think, if beginners play with a guitar that is not in tune, it harms their capability to notice that their instument is out of tune more than if they are not good in tuning.

No matter wether you use a guitar tuner or tune by ear, there is one thing to be aware of:
Since the strings of a guitar apply a lot of tension on the neck and the bridge (especially on a temolo bridge like on a Stratocaster), the pitch of one string takes influence on the pitches of the other strings. If you tune e.g. the A string a half semi tone higher, it applies enough tension on the neck and bridge, that all other strings will be slightly out of tune again. This is why you should tune a guitar in at least two steps. The first step is the coarse tuning. The pitch of the strings doesn't have to be 100% accurate, but it should be close to the final result. The next step is the fine tuning, just repeat what you have done before, but you try to get the most accurate result, you can get. It is a good idea to check the pitch again after the fine tuning and repeat it if it is required. In case you have restrung your guitar with a new set of striings, repeat the coarse tuning several times.

Another thing that may occure is that strings have a certain friction at the notches of the nut. That means the tension of the strings on both sides of the nut is not equal. Be sure, sooner or later, it will be equal and the guitar is out of tune again. To prevent that, just jiggle the string a bit that you are tuning. Don't pull it too much, though.... this will overshoot the mark.

A good electronic tuner should have most of the following features:
- an illuminated display, in case you play in a band, the lights might not be too great on stage.
- the reference tone A should be adjustable (e.g. 435 - 445 Hz), sometimes you have to "sample" the pitch of a piano or vibraphone, because it is not 440Hz.
- a built-in microphone helps tuning accoustic guitars and sampling different pitches.
- an input and output jack is required if you want to install the tuner on your effect board. This way you can easily switch between the tuner and the amplifier to tune your guitar while the set.
- a chromatic tuner is not a bad idea, since you might want to tune your guitar to other tones than E to e.

Many effect processors already have a built in tuner, which has all those features, so you don't necessarily need an external tuner, in case you are sure that you will use the processor in every situation. If not, get an external one.

Sometimes it is hard to tune the low E and the A string. In this case it can be helpful to try to use a harmonic to tune those staings. This is acomplished by slightly touching the string at the 12th fret (don't push it down on the fretboard!) before you pick the string. This way, the string will sound one octave higher.

Usually the deviation of the pitch is meassured in cent. One cent is one percent of one semitone. So, if the difference of a semitone is 10Hz, 0ne cent equals 0.1Hz. A deviation of 3 cent and less is considered to be in tune, more than that is out of tune. For the low E string (82.4Hz) that is a frequency range of approximately 82.3 to 82.5Hz. The A String (110Hz) is in tune, if it's frequency ranges between 109.8 and 110.2Hz. The high e-string (329.6Hz) is in tune between 329.0 and 330.2Hz. The reason why this is not linear is because the difference frequency that makes a semitone is not constant. If you want to determine the frequency of an A# and you have the frequency of the A (110Hz), you have to multiply the 110Hz with 2^(1/12), which is 1.059463.... Thus the A# has a frequency of 116.54Hz. Ok, I guess, I am getting too scientific again :)))

Tuning by ear is usually a comparison of two tones. That can be either the same tone or tone of a certian interval like an octave (or a 4th or a 5th). If you play those tones one after the other, it can be pretty hard to tell, if both tones are in the same pitch or not. When sounding at the same time, it is not that much of a problem.

When two tones are mixed (added) that are almost the same pitch, something like shown above happens. The amplitude (volume) of the resulting sound is modulated with aproximately the difference frequency of the two tones. That means if one tone is 440 Hz the other is 441Hz, you will hear a modulation with 1 Hz. If the difference is 10 Hz, the sound will be modulated with 10 Hz - this is really out of tune and produces a ringing sound. It is pretty obvious that the higher harmonics you use for tuning, the higher will be the difference frequency in Hz and the more accurate you can tune your guitar. This is why usually harmonics are used for tuning a guitar by ear.

Generating those harmonics is pretty simple. You touch the string over a certain fret (don't push it down on the fret board!) before you pick it and then take away that finger again. This way is vibrates one a multiple frequency of the fundamental wave. Keep in mind that the higher the harmonics, the closer you have to pick to the bridge. The harmonic that results from touching the string over the 12th fret is an octave, the 7th fret produces an octave plus a fifth, the 5th fret produces a harmonic that is 2 octaves higher.

Usually the guitar strings are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, e. The interval between the strings is a 4th, there is one exception, though. The interval between the G and the B string is a major 3rd. This is why the B string is always tune a bit differntly than the other strings.

First methode: Tuning without harmonics.
Tune the low E string to a reference tone from a piano or any other instrument or a pitch fork or a tuning pipe etc.
Then hold down the E string at the 5th fret (that is a 4th higher = A). Then play the E string and the A string at the same time. Compair the two tones like described before and tune the A string til if matches the tone that is played on the E string. Then fret the A string at the 5th fret and do the same to the D string and so on. For tuning the B string you have to fret the G string at the 4th fret (remeber, it's only a major 3rd). The high e-string can be tuned like all other strings by fretting the B string at the 5th fret.

Don't forget to check the tuning after you have finished the coarse tuning and repeat the whole process if some fine tuning is required.

Second methode: Making use of the harmonics.
This is more accurate than the first methode. First you have to tune the E-string to the picth of a reference tone (piaono, guitar or everything mentioned for the 1st methode). Then you play the harmonic at the 5th fret of the E string and compare it to the harmonic at the 7th fret of the A string until the A string is in tune. Then you tune the D string (harmonic: A:5th fret, D:7th fret) and so on. The B string is an exception again. You play the harmonic at teh 12th fret of the G string and fret the B string at the 8th fret. The high e string is tuned either in the same way like E to G or you can play the harmonic at the 12th fret of the B string and compare it to the harmonic at the 7th fret of the high e string. The difference of these tones is an octave and a detuning can be noticed as simple as if it were the same tones.

I suggest to use the first methode for coarse tuning and the 2nd methode for fine tuning. There are some other methodes that I didn't mention, but they are kinda derived from the methodes mentioned above.

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Last modified on Friday, 2. January 2009