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What Is Standard Guitar Tuning?

Before we get into the practicalities, let's break down some fundamentals first. The highest-pitched string on your guitar is called the 1st string, the lowest is called the 6th string, and those in between are suitably the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. In standard tuning, AKA the Tuning your Guitar Probably Came in, the strings are from lowest to highest (6th to 1st) E A D G B E, where the high E is two octaves higher than the low E.

Each fret on your fretboard represents a semitone, or half step, and standard tuning places the strings 5 semitones apart from each other, except for the G and B strings, which are 4 semitones apart. So that's: E +5→ A +5→ D +5→ G +4→ B +5→ E

These intervals are going to help us tune our guitar by ear, as we can match the pitches on adjacent strings. This will allow us to tune to a single note from an instrument or sample. Or if there are no instruments/smartphones handy because you're trekking through bushland or there's an apocalypse or something, we will at least be able to put a guitar in tune with itself.

Do I Even Need to Tune my Guitar?

While no one is going to make you do anything you don't want to, there are several compelling reasons to get your guitar at least in tune with itself, if not the rest of the musical world. While our ears aren't always the best at picking singular pitches, they are very good at determining if notes are not an equal distance apart. Think of a singer-songwriter transposing a song to a different key to suit their voice. It may not be immediately obvious that the notes they're playing are different at all. As soon as their voice misses that high C though, then boom, our ears prick up - the notes weren't the correct distance apart.

So you could conceivably never get a reference pitch for your guitar and just tune it to itself. Even if it were sharp or flat it wouldn't sound too bad. The problem comes when you want to play with other people. That could be an afternoon jam, a camp fire sing-along, or an internet collaboration. Other musicians are going to expect that your tuning is standardised. Being out-of-tune in an ensemble is like farting in a lift - you may not immediately get the blame, but it's very uncomfortable for everyone involved.

Red Burst PRS guitar on a couch

How to Tune Your Guitar By Ear

Let's say we want to tune our long-ignored guitar without a tuner, this is tuning 'by ear'. Firstly we'll need to 'Get an E' from somewhere as a reference note. This could be another instrument, a piece of software, an app or tuning fork / pitch pipe.

Play the reference E, then strike the 6th string, AKA the low E string. Is the second note higher (sharp) or lower (flat) than the first? Turn the tuning peg of the 6th string until they match.

This can take a bit of trial and error if you're new to the guitar or tuning in general. If you can no longer hear a difference but you're unsure if you're in tune, try purposefully detuning the 6th string away from E and sweeping back in. Once we have the low E on the 6th string, we can then tune the other strings in series.

Next, play the 5th fret of the 6th string. If our low E is in tune this should be an 'A'. Strike the fretted 6th string and then the unfretted (open) 5th string. Is the open 5th string sharp or flat in comparison to the fretted 6th string? Adjust the tuning peg for the 5th string and strike again. If you get lost, purposefully detune and sweep back in.

Then, simply repeat the process with the 5th fret of the 5th string (D) and then the open 4th string. Then repeat once more for the 4th and 3rd strings.

It changes a little for the 3rd and 2nd strings. Here you use the 4th fret instead (not the 5th as before).

Lastly, go back to the 5th fret for the 2nd and 1st strings.

Now keep in mind that increasing the tension on one string will subtly decrease the tension on others, shifting them away from the pitch we just put them in. Go quickly back over each string again and check they're still in tune. This effect will be especially noticeable with new strings, but it's a good habit to get into regardless. Once that's done, play a big, juicy E Major chord to make sure everything sounds great.

As mentioned earlier, if you don't have a reference note to tune from, you can always tune the guitar 'to itself'. To do that, just use this same method but don't worry about tuning the low E string to start with, just tune all the other strings in relation to it.

Check out the diagram and video below for further instruction on this technique.

Diagram of the 5th fret tuning method
Black nd white image of ma playing an acoustic guitar

A Musical Interlude

"Hold on a minute," you say. "I've only been playing guitar about 5 minutes and I already have three electronic tuners, can't I just use them instead of all this 5th string, 5th fret, 5th Element nonsense?"

And the answer is yes, you can and will use an electronic tuner most of the time. It's simply easier and usually more accurate. But think about the times when you don't want to be staring at an electronic tuner - at a party, at an open mic night, in a guitar shop. It's these situations, especially if something's just slightly out, that demand a casual tune by ear so you can get on with the task of playing. What's more, advanced players will argue that tuning by ear is better because you're subconciously compensating for both the room and inherent subjectivity of the human brain.

How to Tune Your Guitar With a Tuner

First of all you should make sure your tuner is in tune. If there's an option your tuner should be calibrated to A 440 Hz. This is the tuning standard. Once you're plugged in, clipped on, or close to the tuner's microphone, strike your 6th string without fretting. If you're already close to being in tune, or your tuner is in EADGBE mode, then you should get an 'E' on the display, and some indication that you're flat, sharp, or perfectly in tune. While we can't account for every tuner out there, left/down is usually flat and right/up is generally sharp.

If you're using a stroboscopic tuner, you'll get a strobe effect going in a certain direction. As you tune closer to the correct pitch this will slow down until it's perfectly stable (and you're in tune).

If you're a long way out of tune, then you might not get the note displayed that you expect. You have two options here. You can either use your ear to decide if you're sharp or flat, or you can use a bit of logic. The notes in the chromatic scale are C, C, D, D, E, F, F, G, G, A, A, B. If you're shooting for an E and your tuner is showing D, it's probably safe to assume you're a bit flat. That said, if you're having trouble turning the pegs and the string's pitch is so high it's upsetting the neighbour's dog, you could also be very sharp!

Continue with each string until you've gone all the way to the high E. Then quickly go back and check all the strings again adjusting where needed. That's it, you're in tune, but as above you might want to play an E Major chord to confirm everything sounds good.

Guitar tuners sitting on a Stratocaster body

I'm Terrible at Tuning I'm not Cut Out to be a Musician!

We feel you, we've all been there at some point with music. The first thing to remember is that you will 100% get better at this, and anything else musical you're struggling with if you practise at it. The second thing is that whenever you hear a 'note' on guitar, you're actually hearing the root note and at least five harmonic overtones. Our brains resolve that into one note, but all those other pitches are there. So in trying to tune two strings to each other your brain is trying to juggle 12 or more different pitches at once and decide which one is ever-so-slightly out of tune. So give yourself a break!

How Often Should I Tune My Guitar?

This will depend on how recently you changed your strings, the level of climate control in your room, how hard you're playing, and the hardware on your guitar. New strings stretch, so you generally want to tune after each song until they settle. Changes in temperature and humidity also affect tuning, so after that summer storm or southerly change comes through your guitar has probably gone out-of-tune. If you're digging into your chords and doing massive divebombs and don't have locking tuners you're going to inadvertently move the tuning pegs against their will and detune your strings. In all other circumstances your guitar should stay in tune for a practice session, a band rehearsal, or a live set ... or until you start sweating on the fretboard. So tune often!

Tuner on the headstock of a guitar
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