How To Tune A Guitar Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How To Tune A Guitar

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You've got a guitar, you know a chord, you strum the chord and it sounds ghastly. Either you're playing a bizarre 'diminished fourth suspended nasty' or your guitar needs tuning. Tuning a guitar seems daunting until you've tried it (once you've done it once it's no longer daunting - just a nuisance) and you don't even need a tuner!

Relative Tuning

'Relative tuning' is when the guitar is in tune with itself but not necessarily in tune with anything else. It'll sound fine while you're playing on your own but if you try playing along with a record it'll probably sound like a catfight in an elastic band factory. Fear not, once you've learned the basics of tuning a guitar relatively you'll easily be able to tune it to concert pitch and play along with stuff (more of that later).

The standard guitar tuning is1:

  • Bottom, the thickest one: E (6th string)
  • Next: A (5th string)
  • Then: D (4th string)
  • Followed by: G (3rd string)
  • Then: B (2nd string)
  • And finally, the thinnest one is: E (1st string)

However for relative tuning you don't need to know that. All you need to know is this:

The 'A' string should be tuned so that when played open (without putting your finger on the fretboard) it is the same note as the bottom 'E' string played at the 5th fret. Or, put another way, fret the bottom 'E' at the 5th fret then play the 'A' without fretting it. Twiddle the 'A' string's tuning peg until it plays the same note as the fretted 'E'. Once they play the same note they are in tune.

Then play the 'A' string at the 5th fret and twiddle the open 'D' string's tuning peg until it matches. Repeat with the 'G' string against the fretted 'D'. Four down, two to go.

There is a slight change with the 'B' string in that it should be tuned to the fourth fret of the 'G' string rather than the 5th. The top 'E' (the really thin one) should be tuned to the 5th fret of the 'B'.

Is That It?

Yep. Believe it or not, that is pretty much all you need to know to tune a guitar. It's not, however, all you should know.

You've been strumming away quite happily. It sounds good, it's in tune, and you decide to have a bit of a jam with a friend. Your friend turns up, they've been happily strumming away, and their guitar is also in tune. Then you try playing together...

There is a very, very small chance that it'll sound lovely. There's a much bigger chance that it'll sound horrendous. Cats will hide, dogs will howl, neighbours will write to the council. This is probably because, although the guitars might be in tune with themselves, they're not in tune with each other. You could spend a bit of time tuning them together but, if you're going to do that, you might as well go the whole hog and tune them to concert pitch.

Concert Pitch

Yikes! What, pray, is 'concert pitch'? As it turns out it's a very useful standard for tuning musical instruments. Orchestras use it, folk bands use it, AC/DC use it and some bands are 'digitally manipulated' to sound like they use it. Concert pitch has varied over the years but now seems settled. At current concert pitch, the A above middle C is 440Hz2. You don't need to know this frequency, but it explains why some electronic tuners have 440 written on them. This note is two octaves above the note produced by your open 5th string, but will sound like the same note. You should tune the 5th string to A based on a reference tone, and then tune the rest of the strings to be in tune with this one.

So where will you get a reference tone to tell you what 440Hz sounds like? There are several different things that fit the bill:

Electronic Tuners

An electronic tuner is the easiest of all the gadgets to use as it will check each string individually and provide a visual representation of the note played and how close it is to the pitch you're aiming for. To use it you either point your acoustic guitar's soundhole in the direction of the tuner's microphone or, if playing an electric guitar, put the tuner somewhere near the speaker3. With tuners with an analogue meter, you'll have to move a switch to pick the note you're tuning; others (the ones with a row of LEDs) will figure it out for themselves. Then you tune the string until the meter/LEDs indicate that it's in tune. Repeat this for the other five strings and the job is done. Simple. Some audio interfaces for computers have tuners in the bundled software which work the same way. Some electronic tuners will also play an 'A' at 440Hz for you to tune to.

Pitch Pipes

Pitch pipes are a pain. They consist of six little pipes which, when blown, play the E, A, D, G, B and a higher E of the open guitar strings. They can be inaccurate (if using them it's a good idea to tune the 'A' string with the pipes and then tune the rest of the guitar relatively) and to use them you need to hold them in one hand while blowing into them. When tuning the guitar you need one hand on the tuning peg and one to pluck the string so, unless you have three hands, they are best avoided.

Tuning Forks

Tuning forks are also impractical for guitars. They were invented in 1711 by John Shore, a trumpeter and lutenist. They are a 'Y' shaped piece of metal that resonates at a particular frequency when struck, meaning that each one will only play one note. In theory you would tune the relevant string until it matches the note of your tuning fork and then tune relatively from there. Unfortunately they resonate very quietly so they have to be placed against an amplifying surface (such as a guitar body) to be heard adequately, which means that you'll again need one more hand than you're likely to have at your disposal. On the other hand, the note can be heard clearly if, after striking the fork smartly on your knee (or your head), you grip its handle firmly between your teeth.

Recorded Music

If you know the key of a song, and know it's played in concert pitch, you can tune to it (this is safest with classical music, and a lot of classical music titles even tell you which key the piece is in!)

So Which Should I Use?

All of the above have their merits but all have their drawbacks. Some have practical issues (as mentioned) and electronic guitar tuners, while easy to use, cost more than the others. As long as you can find an 'A' at 440Hz you can tune a guitar to concert pitch to keep the cats from hiding and dogs from barking (though the neighbours might still complain) but for speed and accuracy an electronic tuner is hard to beat.

Yeah, That's All Very Nice, But What About...

...tuning with harmonics? This is another way to tune relatively. If you gently touch a string just above the 5th fret (don't press it down, just touch it), it produces a note which is exactly two octaves above the free string. If you do that with the 7th fret, the resulting note will be one octave plus one fifth above the free string.

Touch the low E at the 5th and the A string at 7th fret4. The resulting notes will be an E two octaves above the free E string and a note which is one octave and a fifth above the A which happens to be - that very same E!

If both notes are precisely the same, you will hear them as one homogenous sound. If they aren't, they will produce a phasing, tremolo-like sound that vibrates even more if those notes are out of tune. Just bring that phasing to a standstill, and voilĂ  - tuned.

It works for every pair of strings apart from tuning the 'B' to 'G' and provides a very accurate method of tuning relatively.


...different tunings? Yep, there are other ways to tune a guitar. If you're playing folk music or Rolling Stones tunes you'll probably find 'Open G' tuning useful:

  • 6th (thickest) string: D
  • 5th string: G
  • 4th string: D
  • 3rd string: G
  • 2nd string: B
  • 1st string: D

If you're playing 'Grunge' rock you might find a 'Drop D' tuning useful. It's simpler than it sounds: you just tune the bottom (thickest) E string down a tone so it plays a 'D' when open. You can then play a power chord by barring the bottom three strings. Rockin' riffs will fall from your fingers.

There is also the 'Open D' tuning, which is a great place to start mucking about with open tunings:

  • 6th (thickest) string: D
  • 5th string: A
  • 4th string: D
  • 3rd string: F#
  • 2nd string: A
  • 1st string: D

There are many more. You can experiment with different tunings as much as you like, but be careful not to tune too high and snap a string!

So there you have it: the proper stuff to the fun stuff. However you choose to tune and no matter what you do with it, you've an instrument in your hands that has made people laugh and made people cry. Enjoy it.

1These are the names for the notes in English - they differ in other languages.2There's more information about frequencies here: Brass Instruments, Tuning and Harmonics.3You can plug an electric guitar or microphone into most electronic tuners but this is generally more hassle than it's worth.4Remember: just touch them, don't press them down!

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