Guitar Tuning Guide

The PlayRecord guide to tuning guitars and bass guitars

You have got your nice new guitar and you want to start playing it, but the first thing you need to do is to get it tuned up properly. This can be a daunting task for the new guitarist or bass guitarist but worry not, help is at hand...

Lets start with the basics. All kinds of guitar including electric guitar, bass, acoustic and classical use the same standard tuning. Starting the thickest string, the notes are (E), (A), (D), (G), (B) and (E).

tune your guitar to a piano

QT11 Digital Guitar Tuner The easiest way to get a guitar tuned up properly is to use a digital tuner such as the highly popular QT11 Qwik Tune digital guitar tuner. To use one of these, you simply plug your guitar in, select the string note that you are tune to and then pick the string. The tuner will then indicate if the string is either sharp (higher in pitch) or flat (lower in pitch) and two what degree it is out of tune. You then adjust the string with the machine head (tuning peg) until it is bang in tune. Then you simply select the next string on the tuner, pick the next string on your guitar and repeat the process until you have tuned up all of the strings on your guitar. It is usually a good idea to quickly go over the strings again as they can sometimes slip a little bit after you have tuned them.

The more traditional methods of tuning are based around the for any string (apart from G) the note on the fifth fret is the same as the next higher string played open.

tune your guitar to the fifth fret

Tuning this way will make your guitar in tune with itself and will allow you to play on your own, but if you want to play with other people you all need to be in tune with each other. To make this easier, a standard tuning - often referred to as "concert pitch" was developed - based around A as 440Hz. If you tune to a digital tuner you will be tuning to concert pitch.

To tune your guitar this way, you play the thickest (E) string at the fifth fret and then play the next thickest (A) string open and adjust the (A) string until it is at the same pitch as the (E) string you are playing at the fifth fret. Once you have this string in tune you then play the (A) string at the fifth fret and the (D) string open and tune the (D) string until it is at the same note as the (A) string at the fifth fret. You repeat this for all of the strings until it is all in tune. The exception that you must remember is that the (B) string is tuned to the fourth fret of the (G) string.

If you want to use this method to tune to concert pitch then all you need is a reliable reference note from something like an electronic keyboard or a properly tuned piano. Play "E" on the piano and tune to your (E) string to this note and then tune the rest of your strings to this string.

Once you have got your guitar tuned up - test it by playing some small form chords such as D, A or E:

D Chord

	   0   1   2   3   4
	E  |---|-2-|---|---| F#
	B  |---|---|-3-|---| D
	G  |---|-1-|---|---| A
	D O|---|---|---|---| D
	A X|---|---|---|---|
	E X|---|---|---|---|

A Chord

	   0   1   2   3   4
	E O|---|---|---|---| E
	B  |---|-3-|---|---| C#
	G  |---|-2-|---|---| A
	D  |---|-1-|---|---| E
	A O|---|---|---|---| A
	E X|---|---|---|---|

E Chord

	   0   1   2   3   4
	E O|---|---|---|---| E
	B O|---|---|---|---| B
	G  |-1-|---|---|---| G#
	D  |---|-3-|---|---| E
	A  |---|-2-|---|---| B
	E O|---|---|---|---| E
If your guitar is tuned properly, these chords should sound sweet - if they do not, check you are fingering them correctly and then try and figure out which string is not quite right. You can do this by picking one string at a time and seeing which one doesn't sound right. Then tune this string to a neighbouring string using the method outlined above. Repeat these steps until your guitar is fully in tune. With practice the act of tuning will get faster and more accurate and will also be good training for your musical ear, building skills that will come in very handy when you start improvising and jamming with other musicians.

Tuning With Harmonics

Once you have mastered the above tuning method, you should look into tuning using harmonics. A harmonic is a "bell like" tone that is produced by lightly touching a string of the guitar over some specific fret bars. The pitch of a harmonic is derived from the distance from the fret to the nut (as opposed to the fret to bridge) and so the pitch of the harmonic will get higher the closer to the nut it is played (the opposite way around to normally fretted notes).

When tuning a guitar though, it is two specific harmonics that we will use - the first is played with the finger very lightly touching the string directly over the fifth fret wire. The second is played directly over the seventh fret wire. In the same way that you tune the guitar to itself in the method above, this method tunes the string to a neighbouring string however instead of playing the strings as normal, you play the fifth fret harmonic on the source string (the bottom (E) string for example) and then play the seventh fret harmonic on the next string, (A) in this example.

Due to the very clear tone produced by natural harmonics, you get two really clear pitches to work with. You adjust the (A) string until it is in tune with the (E) string. You will notice as it gets close to being in tune, a strange warbling effect kicks in. This is often called "beats" and is a result of the interaction between the two vibrations and the way your brain perceives them. As you get nearer to perfect tuning, the beats will get slower until the eventually stop altogether and the two strings are perfectly in tune. This is really handy as it makes it a lot easier that trying to use your pitch perception to gauge the tuning of the strings.

Depending on how your guitar is set up, you may find that tuning with this method does not leave your guitar sounding sweet. This is because the tuning of a guitar is not totally perfect, but is in fact slightly out. The reasons behind this are a little complex and are not really important at the moment. If you want to read more about it, check out this detailed web page. All you need to know is that if you use this method, you will still need to check your tuning by playing a few chords and then make any minor adjustments to get it sounding sweet.

Tuning a Bass Guitar

It is very difficult to tune a bass guitar using the harmonics method as the thickness of the strings does not lend itself well to sounding clear, sustaining tones. Instead you should stick to using a tuner or using the "fifth fret" method. One thing to bear in mind is that a standard four string bass guitar is tuned exactly the same as a normal guitar, but is just tuned lower. One thing that you can do to make it easier if you are tuning to an normal guitar is to play the twelfth fret harmonic. The harmonic at the twelfth fret is the exact same pitch as the fretted note at the twelfth fret, but will ring out clearer than the fretted note and also frees up your hand for adjusting the machine heads.

If you are having problems getting your guitar tuned up, or want to ask any questions related to this article, simply use the contact form to get in touch and we will help you out...
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