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How to tune your guitar

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This is a key step before playing the guitar: get it tuned. That's what we will see in this tutorial!

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

This tutorial is divided in two sections: first we will go through tuning by ear, then we will say a few words about electronic tuners.

Tuning in by ear

Every decent guitar player should be able to tune in by ear, as this skill is almost compulsory. After all, you never know where you may end up playing the guitar, you may have to put on a show in front of an audience of 20,000 people, and you may not have a tuner at hand! And having one string out of tune, even a little bit, can ruin even the best concert (just watch Nirvana's live DVDs :p).

The idea of tuning a guitar is rather simple to understand and that is what we'll see in this section, but before that, note that you probably won't get it right the first time you try. To tune in by ear, you will have to train your ear, make it more precise gradually until it becomes as accurate as an electronic tuner. Don't worry if it takes time, you will eventually succeed. In order to train your ear, you can use softwares (such as http://www.earmaster.com/fr/ for example), but please get used to always, always, ALWAYS play properly tuned in. Your ear will be accustomed to the notes that you play, but if you constantly play out of tune, your ear will be distorted.

Let us now tackle the tuning itself. As you probably already know, each guitar string makes a note when you pluck it open. Starting from the lower string, we find them in the following order: a low E, an A, a D, a G, a B and a high E. The goal is to tune in so that we get these exact notes when plucking the strings open. In order to achieve this, we will rely on an interesting specificity the guitar has: the same note can be played at different locations.
Therefore, when playing fret 5 on the lower E string, one is playing the A note. Fortunately, this is the note we want for the A string right below. So we will use it as a reference to tune in our A string. Assuming that the E string is tuned in properly, we’ll be sure that the fifth fret will give us an accurate A, and if we get the same note on the A string, then the string will be properly tuned in.
We will apply the same principle to all the other strings:

  • To tune in the D string, we’ll play fret 5 on the A string
  • To tune in the G string, we’ll play fret 5 on the D string
  • To tune in the B string, we’ll play fret 4 on the G string
  • To tune in the high E string, we’ll play fret 5 on the B string


Obviously, we can apply this principle the other way around: if my D string (for instance) is tuned in, but the A string isn’t, we'll use the open D string as a reference and seek the same note on the fifth fret on the A string.

Now the question you are probably asking yourself is: how should you proceed when no string is tuned in? (or when you don’t know which ones are tuned in). Well, as long as you are playing on your own, it doesn’t matter. Remember that the human ear is not perfect. This means that it can detect pitch differences between the notes, but not the pitches themselves. So, as long as the strings have the right pitch gap between one another, the guitar will sound right. It will just be a little flater or a little sharper, but if you are playing on your own without any other musical reference, you probably won’t hear the difference. If you are not playing by yourself, the same rule applies: all instruments need to be tuned in according to one another, i.e at the same pitch. Train your ears and listen to your fellow musicians in order to be tuned in!

Electronic tuners

Tuning in with an electronic tuner provides the advantage of a very precise (and usually faster) tuning, but as with any tool, you need to know how to use it in order to avoid making mistakes, like trying to remove a thorn in your finger with a jigsaw (in other words: don’t do it).

An electronic tuner operates in quite a simple way: it captures, by different means, the sound of your guitar and displays the nearest note and how far you are from this note. There are lots of differents tuners, all of them capturing the sound and displaying the notes in different ways. If you have any doubt about how your tuner operates, refer to the user’s manual first, considering there are hundreds of different tuners, you will not necessarily find the answer on a forum!

So we'll pluck a string on the guitar, see what note is played, and then tune in, so that we reach the exact note. The risk is to be trying to tune in a string that’s completely tuned out. Let’s say that the A string is too low and that the tuner displays an E, then you will have to manage in order to get closer to the A string before adjusting your tuning. In order to do so, you should determine whether you need to go higher or lower to reach the A. There’s no magic trick for that, the best option consists in applying the technique described in the first part of this tutorial: use the fifth fret on the E string as a reference to tune in the A string.

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Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
(Ludwig van Beethoven)