How to Tune a Guitar

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Tuning By Ear

To tune by ear you will need a reference note for at least one of the open strings. An open string is any string plucked without being held against the neck. Another instrument, such as a piano or keyboard, can provide a reference note as well as a recording of an in tune guitar. A tuning fork or a set of pitch pipes are handy since they do not need electricity and are small enough to keep in your guitar case or gig bag. Tuning forks look like a wish bone and produce a single note when softly struck against the palm of your hand. Pitch pipes have a separate pipe for each note. Simply blow through each pipe to hear the note. PlayTheAxe.com provides mp3 recordings of the open strings for convenience.

Before starting to tune up, take a moment to learn what it sounds like when one note is higher or lower than another. Listen to the following mp3 files. In the Ascending Notes mp3, the second note is higher than the first. In the Descending Notes mp3, the second note is lower than the first.

To begin tuning, start with the sixth string, low E. First listen to the SixthString.mp3 then strike the sixth string on your guitar. Determine if your guitar's sixth string note matches the sound of the mp3 note. Tighten the string if the note of the string sounds lower then the note of the mp3. If the string note is higher than the mp3 note, loosen the string till it sounds lower than the mp3 note then tighten the string till the two notes match. Always tighten the strings to tune, never loosen. The tension helps keep the string in tune. Loosening a string, or coming down to the note from a higher note, will cause the string to go out of tune quicker.

As you tighten or loosen the string, continue to compare the note with that of the mp3. You should begin hearing a wave when the two notes start to match. The wave will be very fast if the notes are still far apart and will slow down as you adjust the string and the two notes become closer together. When the wave stops the notes are in perfect tune. Compare the notes again to be sure they are the same and not harmonized. Click the links below to hear an example of the wave, a harmony, and in tune.

Now repeat the process with the remaining strings using the mp3s provided on the Tuning Reference page. Or you can now use the in tune sixth string as your reference note. To do this, use the note at the fifth fret of the sixth string to tune the open fifth string. Then use the note at the fifth fret of the fifth string to tune the open fourth string. Look at the chart below for a complete description. Pay attention to the second string (B). Notice you use the note at the fourth fret of the third string, not the fifth fret like all the others.

Tuning the guitar

Using an Electronic Tuner

By far the easiest way to tune a guitar is to use technology. Electronic tuners are available with a variety of features at a wide range of prices. Many guitar effects processors come with built-in tuners.

Some tuners only provide the notes of the open strings in standard tuning. Chromatic tuners display the name of the note as you play, allowing you to tune to any note you choose (handy for alternate tunings and other instruments). To use an electric tuner you need to know the names of the notes you want to tune to and the octave. Generally, there is either a needle on a chart (like a car speedometer) or series of flashing lights to indicate the note, the specifics very from tuner to tuner.

Tuning and Intonation

Intonation is how well the guitar stays in tune over the entire neck. The guitar may be in tune at the open strings, as described above, but not be in tune at the twelfth fret or some other locations on the neck. For example, you should not hear the out of tune wave described above when the open sixth string note is played with the fourth string second fret note, the fifth string seventh fret note, the open first string note, or any configuration of these notes.

To check intonation you will need an electric tuner and knowledge of where each note is located on the guitar neck (note chart). First be sure all the open strings are in tune. Now use the electric tuner to see if a note is in tune at every location on the neck that produces that note. For example, to check the intonation of the E notes start with the open sixth and first strings. If the tuner indicates the notes are in tune but they sound out of tune when played simultaneously, the guitar has an intonation problem. If the tuner says the open string is in tune but out of tune at the twelfth fret, the guitar has an intonation problem.

To check across the strings, play a note on the open sixth string (low E) and simultaneously play the seventh fret fifth string (E octave). If the two notes are out of tune, there is an intonation problem. Continue checking all the strings in this manner until you either find a problem or you are satisfied your guitar passed the test. Repeat the process with all the notes.

If you do find a problem with your guitar's intonation don't try to fix it yourself. Correcting intonation problems requires adjusting the neck and/or bridge and requires patience and experience. Most music stores have a small repair shop that will fix your guitar for a nominal fee.

To practice tuning the guitar, first tune up all the strings. Next detune it by twisting the machine heads left and right trying not to pay attention to which way you go for each string (better yet, have a friend do it for you). Then use an electric tune (or reference note) to tune the open sixth string (low E). Now tune the remaining strings by ear. Repeat this process starting with a different string each time. For example, you just tuned the open sixth string then tuned the rest. Next time tune the open fifth string and us it to tune the remaining strings. Now tune the open fourth string and so on.

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