To be able to play the electric guitar is a dream for both aspiring and accomplished music lovers, but no matter how accomplished you are, it is essential to get the sound right!
Knowing how to tune a guitar is one of those things that every guitar player needs to know it’s really just something that comes with the gig. Tuning your guitar is as important as choosing the right guitar. In fact, an out of tune instrument is no instrument at all.
Why You Need to Tune Your Electric Guitar
Knowing how to tune the guitar strings on your electric guitar is important for two main reasons.
Firstly, your guitar strings are subject to constant voltages as well as thermal and physical shocks. This can also happen as you bang them against the fretboard whenever you play. Don’t forget that the headstock (the place where your tuning pegs are) probably also takes a knock from time to time.
All of this can vary the tension of the strings which will change the guitar notes as you play. Tuning a guitar in this condition is essential to restoring its harmonic accuracy so that it doesn’t just sound like noise.
When you know how to tune a guitar it will actually optimise your ability – when you realise that you have played an inaccurate note, you can correct it during practice. Every musician needs to know the sound of their own instrument, it’s one of the ways they constantly improve.
You’ll notice some players tuning a guitar every time they sit down to play, some use their ear, while others use an online guitar tuner.
How to Tune Your Electric Guitar
If your relationship with your guitar strings is only starting out, don’t worry, tuning a guitar is not actually difficult and can be done without the help of a professional.
Before we look into the different ways to tune your guitar, you should know the notes that make up your six guitar strings when played open. What does this mean?
For those who are right-handed – if we start with the highest string closest to you and head down to the thinnest string of the sharpest note, then the notes are E A D G B E.
Interestingly, these are not the only available guitar tunings. Many guitarists will change their guitar strings and play with what is called ‘alternate tunings’.
This is when players deliberately change open tunings of open strings. It’s common for instance to move the lowest E string a step down, to D. This is called ‘Drop D’ and would then result in DADGBE. Tuning a guitar in this way can make playing some chords easier.
DADGAD is another popular open tunings option. This is when the lowest string E, becomes a D, while both the first and second strings move a step down too – B and E change to A and D.
While these alternates are interesting to note, the most important thing to know about how to tune a guitar is that there is a reason that EADGBE is called ‘standard tuning’.
Tools for Tuning an Electric Guitar
Fortunately, as already mentioned, ensuring that your guitar notes are 100% is not really difficult, especially with some of the handy tools around these days. From the traditional pitch pipe and tuning fork to an online guitar tuner, app or clip-on tuner, there are many options. Let’s take a look.
A tuning fork is probably the easiest and least costly way to ensure the accuracy of your guitar notes. When you connect a tuning fork with a surface and allow it to ring vertically, you will hear an A note. Tighten the string and keep adjusting it until you have reproduced the same sound. Amazingly, this time-tested method is till one used by some of the world’s leading guitarists.
Tip: This is also the sound of the dialling tone of a telephone landline!
This can also help you to keep in tune if you want to play the guitar and sing at the same time, but take note that this, like the pitch pipe, comes with practice and won’t result in 100% accurate guitar notes.
The Beat Method or Adjacent String Technique
This is a technique that works well on its own or in conjunction with a tuning fork.
Firstly, you could play any opening note, like an A and then use this as a basis to play the other notes. If you are wondering how to tune a guitar, this beat method is an easy one that requires working with an already tuned string and an adjacent string. Each pair of guitar notes should sound the same.
If you were starting with a low E, fret that first string at the fifth fret, this would be the note of the second string.
The A guitar string talks to the fifth fret of the low E. So play your A and turn the key that corresponds to the low E guitar string. Do this with care.
Remember that a semitone is equivalent to a half-turn of a key.
Once you have completed this, you can apply this method to the other strings.
Something else to remember: The B guitar string is equal to the fourth fret of the G guitar string and not the fifth as with other strings.
This is a rather precise method for those who already have a good ear for music.
Tuning a guitar regularly is as important as practising and really helps to develop a good ear. It will not be long until you can memorise your method and not need any marker.
While knowing how to tune a guitar by ear is a fantastic skill to learn, once you have tried an electronic tuner you will probably never look back. In fact, this is a very helpful accessory to have in every guitar case.
Electronic tuners are also known as chromatic tuners. They are accurate and available in many different varieties. Some include a metronome that you attach to your guitar to pick up vibrations.
There are plenty of options available locally and they are fairly inexpensive, at around a few hundred Rand each.
To use it, you simply plug in the tuner and play one of your open strings. If correct, the needle on the machine will appear in the middle of your screen.
If your guitar notes are not correct, you would tighten or loosen the guitar strings until you hit the correct notes.
A Practical Example:
- Place your tuner’s microphone towards the direction of the guitar, or use the jack to plug into the guitar. Then first play the sixth string (low E) and follow the tuner’s reading to begin making adjustments.
- If the needle veers to the left it means that the string is not tight enough, and if it tilts to the right it means it’s too tight. Use your corresponding keys on the far end of the guitar neck.
- When doing this, it’s advisable to wait for the sound to almost die completely before vibrating your string – this is how the electric tuner picks up the correct sound.
Tip: If you’re looking for how to tune a guitar perfectly, when the needle is just to the right of centre, take the guitar string that you are desiring to tune between your fingers and pull it about one centimetre. This will remove some of the tension and help you to avoid using the key that is keeping your strings stable, for tuning.
Online Guitar Tuner
If you don’t have an electronic tuner or a really good, experienced, ear to use the other methods, you could always use an online guitar tuner.
This is not really as practical as using an electronic tuner as you need an excellent internet connection. Online guitar tuners come with two options, with audio capture, and without audio capture.
No Audio Capture
This method is a good one for learning how to train your ear. It simply supplies the guitar notes for each of your guitar strings until you become accustomed to how they should sound.
There are three main versions in the market:
- The simple online guitar tuner: this tuner supplies notes when you push the buttons so that you can adjust your guitar strings to match.
- The advanced online guitar tuner: This type of tuner offers a few options. By selecting the type of tuning you would like, the tuner then actually tells you the notes to play on an open guitar string. Note: this type of tuner actually allows the listener to record their favourite tunings and to set other sounds like distorted guitar notes or nylon strings.
- An online guitar tuner for Fender: A good option for those taking guitar lessons, this model shows the guitar head in its entirety and is really ideal for beginners.
With Audio Capture
The online guitar tuner with audio capture is a good way to capture and analyse the sound of your own guitar by using the microphone on your webcam or computer.
Allow access to the microphone on your computer and then simply use it in the same way as an electronic tuner.
There are two online guitar tuners worth mentioning:
- The Pro Guitar Tuner Online Turner: Easy to use, it requires access to your computer’s microphone and then helps you to tune each guitar string.
- The TICKON tuner: this online guitar tuner does not indicate the notes but provides a reference so that you can use it as a check. It works with any stringed instrument like an electric guitar, violin, bass guitar or ukulele.
In today’s digital world, not only can you find online guitar lessons, but you can use technology like your smartphone to download online tuner apps. These work exactly like electronic tuners, except they are on your phone.
A Summary of Tuning Methods
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If you feel the guitar is tuned, play a few chords that use all strings and listen to your sound. Then play an entire piece using all the techniques you know, up the tempo, and if the sound is constant, your guitar is tuned and good to go!
Remember that all great musicians know that “guitar is 50% playing and 50% tuning.”