How To Tune A Guitar By Ear
There are a number of different methods of tuning a guitar by ear, but I’ll focus on the simplest one since this is a lesson for beginners. The diagram below shows the notes of the open strings (in gray at the top) and each fret from the first to the fifth. The red arrows indicate the notes that you can use to get your guitar in tune:
- The fifth fret of the low E string (the string closest to you when you hold your guitar) should match the pitch of the open A string.
- The fifth fret of the A string should match the pitch of the open D string.
- The fifth fret of the D string should match the pitch of the open G string (insert off-color G string joke here).
- The fourth fret of the G string should match the pitch of the open B string.
- The fifth fret of the B string should match the pitch of the open high E string (the string closest to the floor as you hold your guitar).
Most people who tune their guitars by ear will set the pitch of the open A string first using a tuning fork or computer generated pitch, then tune all the other strings relative to the A string. If you don’t have a way of generating any of the pitches for the open strings, you can find guide pitches for all the strings here.
Some fine tuning checks and balances:
- Check the two open E strings against each other.
- Check the G on the third fret of the low E string against the open G string.
- Check the B on the second fret of the A string with the open B string.
- Check the open A string against the A on the second fret of the G string.
How To Tune A Guitar Using A Tuner
There are a lot of “purists” out there who will probably drag me through the mud for this, but I’m here to tell you that using a tuner is a great way to get your guitar in tune quickly and easily. Yes, there is value in training your ears to compare pitches while turning your guitar by ear, but I find that some beginners have real problems tuning a guitar by ear, and can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get the guitar in tune instead of practicing. If you have problems with tuning your guitar by ear, it’s preferable, in my opinion, to use a tuner and get used to what a guitar sounds like when it’s in tune. That way you’ll be more likely to recognize when your guitar goes out of tune instead of getting used to always playing your guitar out of tune.
Finally, if you’re going to play with other guitarists, or play in a live venue, there really is no substitute for using a tuner to tune your guitar. If you think it’s hard tuning your guitar while you’re sitting in a quiet room all by yourself, try tuning your guitar by ear at a party or a noisy bar… not going to happen.
Some Final Notes On Tuning
- For reasons that are outside the scope of this article, no guitar (or any other instrument, for that matter) will ever be 100% perfectly in tune in all keys. Because of something called “equal temperament,” a tuning system designed centuries ago to allow musicians to play in all keys with a single tuning, our guitars, even when tuned as well as they can possibly be tuned, will always be “equally out of tune in all keys.” Most people will never be able to hear it, but if you happen to have a good ear, you’ll likely be able to hear the tiny discrepancies, especially when you play major chords.
- Guitars in general are notorious for having tuning problems. As your ear gets better and better, you may find yourself wondering if you’re getting worse at tuning your guitar. The exact opposite is probably true. You’re getting better at tuning your guitar because your ear is improving but your guitar, which is likely a beginner or intermediate model, may not be capable of getting all the way in tune. At this point you might want to take your guitar to get “set up” by a competent repair specialist. If that doesn’t help it may be time for you to step up to a better guitar.