How to Tune a Guitar
Whether you plan to teach yourself to play guitar or enroll in beginners guitar lessons, tuning a guitar is, and should be, the very first skill that you as an aspiring guitarist will need to acquire. Learning to play guitar is impossible without first knowing how to tune a guitar.
Tuning a guitar, of course, begins with choosing the right strings, which will depend on what guitar you are using. Nickle-plated, stainless steel strings normally work best with electric guitars, while acoustic guitarists usually prefer all-nickel strings. However, in a pinch, either set of metal strings will work with either type of guitar.
Some acoustic guitars, those used for classical or Spanish-style music, use nylon, sometimes called “gut” strings wound with thin copper wire. These produce a very distinctive warm, soft sound. Because steel and nickel strings require much more tension to achieve the proper tuning, they will destroy a “classical” guitar and should never be used on one. Likewise, using nylon strings on an electric guitar will not produce the sound for which the instrument is intended.
As you teach yourself to play guitar, you will notice that the vast majority of guitars use six strings. There are some, however, that use twelve strings, and a very few electric guitars that use seven. It takes a bit of patience and skill to learn how to tune a guitar with twelve strings. That’s because twelve-string guitars use six pairs of strings; the lowest four pairs of strings, low E, A, D, and G are usually tuned an octave apart, while the upper pairs are tuned in unison.
Seven-string guitars are very rare and are usually similar to a six-string guitar, only with a low bass string added. While these are most often electric guitars, there is also a Russian seven-string acoustic guitar that uses a different tuning. There are also eight, nine, and ten-string guitars, but tuning a guitar with this many strings can be difficult and is beyond the scope of these beginners guitar lessons.
On a six-string guitar, the strings are arranged, from lowest to highest, E-A-D-G-B-E:
If you’re unsure what strings to use, you can walk into any music store and tell the guy behind the counter what kind of guitar you have and he’ll hand you the strings you need. If you tell him that you are learning to play guitar, or plan to enroll in beginners guitar lessons he may take a minute or two to show you how to tune a guitar, and may even share some guitar licks with you or give you some tips on how to teach yourself to play guitar.
When you have your new strings in hand, leave them in their individual sleeves so you don’t get them mixed up. Only remove them one at a time right before you string them. But first, you’ll need to remove the old strings. Six taut strings on a guitar produce a lot of tension, but you don’t need to worry that removing them all at once will warp the neck. Modern guitars are built with a metal rod in the neck that keeps it straight at true regardless of the string tension. Once the old strings are off the guitar, wipe down the fretboard with some linseed or olive oil. This will help preserve the rosewood.
Remove the low E string from its paper sleeve and thread the string through the hole in the bridge, then pull it so the ball at the end of the string is secured. It should look something like this:
Now, feed the free end of the string through the hole in the tuning peg and pull it through so there is little slack in the string. Next, start turning the tuner so the string winds counter-clockwise around the peg. If it’s done right, it should look like this:
…rather than like this:
This is so the string bends as little as possible at the nut. Now keep winding the string until it’s tight enough that it doesn’t slap against the fretboard when you pluck it. Repeat these steps for the remaining strings, remembering to remove them from their paper sleeves one at a time so you don’t get them mixed up, and winding the three highest strings clockwise rather than counter-clockwise.
When you’re first learning to play guitar, a very worthwhile investment is a “pitch pipe.” You can also use a tuning fork or a harmonica, or a piano or any other tuning mechanism that is unlikely to go out of tune. Any of these devices will make tuning a guitar much easier.
Start with the low E string. Turn the tuner to raise or lower the pitch of the string until it matches that of the pitch pipe or the tuning fork. You can then tune each of the other strings individually against the pitch pipe, but an important skill to develop as you teach yourself to play guitar is the ability to tune a guitar to itself. This is done by first making sure one of the strings is in tune.
An experienced guitarist knows how to tune a guitar by using any one of the strings to tune the others, but for a beginner first learning to play guitar and taking beginners guitar lessons, it’s a good idea to start with the low E string.
Once the Low E string is in tune, pressing down on that string at the 5th fret will give you the exact pitch for the next string up, the A string:
Hold this note and play the E and A strings together, reaching across with your free hand to make adjustments to the A string tuner, until the pitches match.
Now, play the A string at the 5th fret to get the pitch for the D string:
When the D string is in tune, do likewise to get the G string in tune:
Here, we encounter a slight change because the pitch for the next string, the B string, is located at the 4th fret of the G string:
But the pitch for the highest string, the high E string, is located again at the 5th fret of the B string:
Tuning a guitar with new strings can be a bit frustrating because brand new strings go out of tune very quickly. So once you tune your guitar, you will most likely have to do it again immediately, and then again after you have played it a little. Once you know how to tune a guitar, though, it won’t take long for you to get good at it, and learning to play guitar will be much easier, whether you plan to teach yourself to play guitar or are taking beginners guitar lessons.