A Complete Tuning Guide

There are several ways to tune, but they all boil down to one of two major distinctions. You can use a tuner that tells you whether or not you’re in tune or you can tune by ear.

Most people like the convenience of an automatic tuner versus tuning by ear, but there are several really good reasons to tune by ear. Tuning by ear is a great ear-training exercise – it can help you start to hear notes and patterns and help develop a good musical ear. It’s also a great exercise in patience. It takes most beginners a really long time to get the hang of it, and because of that, they give up and move to an automatic tuner.

All things come to those who wait.

Patience is a virtue.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The first thing we need to do is meet our strings. From thickest to thinnest, we have Low E, A, D, G, B and High E. Really quick memory trick: Eat At Dave’s, Get Better Eggs.
Now, there are a couple of assumptions that we need to make before we proceed with tuning by ear. We need to assume that you either have a reference tone for the High E string or that your High E string is already in tune.

A reference tone would come from a piano, a tuner, a pitch pipe or something else that can give you a specific note with reasonable expectation that it’s going to be the right note and in tune.

Since assuming that your High E string is in tune can be dangerous, we’ll assume that you have a reference tone.

Find yourself a nice, quiet corner where you won’t be disturbed. Shut the door to block out as much distraction as you can. This is really important. If you can’t hear, you can’t tune. Ideally, your reference tone should be the High E string. If you are using a keyboard or piano, that would be the E above Middle C.

If you’re on a tuning app of some sort, it should be self-explanatory.

Hit the reference tone and let it ring. While the reference tone is ringing, pluck your open High E string.

Listen closely to the two notes ringing. If they are NOT in tune, you should be able to hear a waiver between the two notes. Going on the assumption that you’re not going to be in tune, hit the reference tone again and then pluck your High E string again.

This time, you’re not necessarily listening for the waiver, you’re listening for which note is higher and which note is lower.

Turn your tuning key a little while the string is ringing to see which way moves the pitch of your string up and which way is down. After you figure out up and down, you can play your reference tone again. Pluck the string again. Adjust the tuning key until the waiver disappears.

CAUTION! Make sure you turn the tuning key a little at a time. You don’t want to overshoot the note, or worse, pop a string. It’s better that it take longer to tune until you get a feel for it than you keep cranking the tuners up and down without making any progress because you keep overshooting the note. Go SLOWLY!

Keep repeating until you’re in tune.


Once the first string is in tune, press down the fifth fret of the second string. Play the fifth fret of the second string, then play the open first string. Just like we did above, tune the second string to the first string.

Using the fourth fret of the third string, tune it to the second string.

Go back to the fifth fret to tune the fourth string to the third.

Fifth fret of the fifth string…

And finally, the fifth fret of the sixth string…

Now, for those of you who think that an automatic tuner is the answer, there are a few tricks. If you are using a hardware tuner that you can plug into and either an electric or acoustic-electric guitar, then by all means, be sure to plug in. Should you be using an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar that is for some reason not plugged in, here’s the first tip: Lay the guitar flat and put the tuner on the guitar body with the microphone as close to the strings as you can get.

Looking at the guitar neck, there is most likely a set of double dots on the neck somewhere. This is the twelfth fret. Pluck the High E string at the twelfth fret – not over the pickups or sound hole. This will give you a more “pure” tone and cut down on some of those pesty high end harmonics that we haven’t covered yet. It should be registering as…well…an E.

Move the tuning key to see which way is up and which is down. Pluck the string again. There will be some sort of indicator that says “in tune.” It can be a needle, colored dots, arrows or any combination of the above. Aim for dead center. The needle should be pointing straight up, the middle dot should be lit, etc. There should not be any wavering on the needle or dots. The note should be the note. It should not start

higher or lower than it ends up.

If you have a higher spike when you pluck the string, try plucking a little more lightly.

Once you’re dead center without any waiver, place your hand gently on top of the strings. You’re not pressing down, just trying to stop the strings from ringing.

Repeat the above with the second or B string.

And the third or G string…

Fourth string – D…

Fifth string – A…

And finally the sixth string, Low E.

One final note on tuning: if your guitar was really out of tune or you just had new strings put on it, you may need to tune several times before you have your guitar in tune.

Play in the Key of YOU!

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