Guitar Tuning Guide (5 Expert Ways to Tune Your Guitar)

5 Helpful Methods to Tune Your Guitar Like a Pro

  1. Tuning the guitar with your phone: GuitarTuna App
  2. Clip-on guitar tuners
  3. Built-in tuner
  4. Tuning by ear: match external pitch
  5. Manually tune the guitar with itself
Guitar Tuning Guide cover image

When it comes to playing guitar, it’s essential to make sure your guitar is tuned properly every time before you begin. Simply put, it doesn’t matter how talented you are: if your guitar isn’t in tune, you’ll never sound good!

But if you’re new to learning guitar, understanding how to tune it can seem like a slow, frustrating process. Fortunately, today there are many methods that help make this process as easy as possible–even if you’ve never tuned your guitar before.

If you find yourself asking “how do I tune a classical guitar?” then this article will help you!

In this article, you’ll find answers to the most frequently asked questions about tuning your guitar. You can also jump straight to the guide to learn five guitar tuning tips that will make you a pro.

So whether you like using a mobile app to tune, or prefer “old school” methods like tuning by ear, this article covers it all!

For a quick historical perspective, here’s a quick timeline that shows the evolution of guitar tuners:

What does tuning the guitar mean?

Tuning your guitar means adjusting the tension of each string to match a specific pitch (frequency). Tightening a string raises the pitch, and loosening the string lowers the pitch.

You can adjust the tension and pitch of the string by turning the tuners, also called machine heads or tuning pegs, on the head of the guitar.

The direction you need to turn your tuners depends on how the guitar is strung. Typically, cranking the tuner away from yourself (counterclockwise) will tighten the string and raise the pitch.

If the pitch of one or more of your guitar strings isn’t correct, that means your guitar is “out of tune”. However, once the pitch of each string is correct, you can consider your guitar “in tune”!

Why is tuning your guitar important?

Tuning your guitar is the most important thing to do before you begin playing because if your guitar is out of tune, nothing you play will sound good. Ultimately, if your guitar is out of tune then it will sound like you’re playing the wrong notes.

An out of tune guitar can ruin a performance, or at least create an unpleasant experience for yourself and your audience.

Tuning your guitar is crucial if you’re playing music with other people, but it’s equally important if you’re a solo guitarist.

What is standard guitar tuning?

Diagram showing order of standard hertz for guitar tuning notes on a classical guitar headstock - E, A, D, G, B, E
Standard Hertz for Guitar Tuner and Order of Guitar Strings

Most guitars have six strings. Classical guitar tuning notes are the same as steel string or electric guitar notes.

These pitches are known as “standard tuning.”

Simple names of the guitar strings

Standard tuning refers to the most common pitches these strings are tuned to. From low pitch to high pitch, the standard tuning of a guitar is: E, A, D, G, B, E.

You can always just refer to the guitar string names as simply “E-A-D-G-B-E“.

Scientific pitch notation

If you want to be more specific, you can refer to the string names by using scientific pitch notation.

Scientific pitch notation helps differentiate between octave notes with the same name, like the two “E” notes. The lower numbers next to the letters indicates a lower pitch.

The scientific pitch notation for standard guitar tuning is: E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4.

Hertz

Even more specifically, all music pitch is measured in frequency hertz (Hz), and the most common frequency for tuning musical instruments is the A4 pitch at 440 Hz.

Learning how frequencies work is beyond the scope of this article. But for reference, the standard hertz for guitar tuners is:

  • E2 = 82.41 Hz
  • A2 = 110.00 Hz
  • D3 = 146.83 Hz
  • G3 = 196.00 Hz
  • B3 = 246.94 Hz
  • E4 = 329.63 Hz

What is “Drop D” tuning?

While most guitar music is played using standard tuning, some pieces require you to play in “Drop D” tuning. Drop D tuning means you tune the low E2 string (6th string) a whole step down to the D2 pitch.

Wondering how to do drop D tuning? Here’s a few quick ways you can do it:

  • If you’re tuning by ear, you can match the pitch of the 6th string with the higher octave pitch of the 4th string (D3). If these tones match (although they’ll be an octave apart), then you’re in drop D!
  • Another way to tune by ear is similar to method #4 described below. You can put a left hand finger down on the 7th fret, 6th string and attempt to match that pitch with the open string 5 (A2).
  • If you want to tune using an app like GuitarTuna (see method #1), then you can put a left hand finger down on the 2nd fret, 6th string. When you pluck this note, it should produce the standard tuning E2 pitch!

Can you tune a guitar without a tuner?

Yes, you can tune your guitar without a tuner or tuning device. This is called “tuning by ear”, and there’s several ways to do it.

However, unless you’re tuning your guitar by ear to a pitch from another instrument that’s already in tune (see method #4), then you’ll have to manually tune your guitar to itself (see method #5).

With method #5, there’s a high risk that your guitar won’t be perfectly in tune from a frequency standpoint. Even so, at least your guitar will still sound good on it’s own!


5 Helpful Methods to Tune Your Guitar Like a Pro

We’ve covered what tuning your guitar means and why it’s important. Now it’s time to learn how to tune your guitar like a pro! Below are 5 different ways you can tune your guitar, some with technology and some without.

The first three methods will show you how to tune a guitar with a tuner. The last two methods will show you how to tune the guitar without a tuner.

1. Tuning the guitar with your phone: GuitarTuna App

Screenshot of the GuitarTuna app by yousician.
GuitarTuna App by Yousician

Nowadays almost everyone is comfortable using apps on their mobile phones to do things–including tuning a guitar!

There’s many FREE guitar tuning apps available on iOS and Android devices today, but my personal favorite is GuitarTuna by Yousician. The user interface is intuitive, and very easy to use.

You can download the GuitarTuna app using the links below or just visit their website.

Download on the App Store button
Download on Google Play

Simply download the guitar tuner app, open it with one tap, and you can begin playing a guitar string to see if it’s in tune, too flat, or too sharp.

If the app is set to “auto” in the top right, then all you need to do is play a string and the meter will tell you if you need to tune up or down. The auto option should be on by default when you first open the app.

If you toggle off the auto option, then you’ll need to tap the letter of the string you want to play, listen to the pitch, and try to match it that way. This setting can be useful if you want to practice tuning by ear, but otherwise the default setting is much faster and easier!

If you need to tune your 7-string guitar or 12-string guitar, you can also do this for free with GuitarTuna! Not only that, but you can also switch the acoustic guitar headstock out for an electric guitar headstock.

Even more impressive is the fact that GuitarTuna allows you to tune for dozens of other string instruments, including bass guitar, ukulele, banjo, mandolin, the violin family and more.

While I strongly recommend using the GuitarTuna app, here’s two other popular tuner apps you may want to try:

  • Fender Guitar Tuner – good for various guitar types like acoustic, electric, bass, etc
  • Simply Guitar – good if you also want tutorial videos for acoustic songs

The only downsides of using apps to tune a guitar are:

  1. You have to have your phone with you in order to use it
  2. If you’re in a noisy environment, the app might not be able to detect the pitch properly

2. Clip-on guitar tuners

Snark Clip-on tuner on a Ramirez classical guitar head
Snark Clip-on tuner

Aside from mobile apps, other electronic tuners are also available. The second most useful guitar tuning method is to buy a clip-on guitar device, like the Snark tuner or D’Aaddrio Micro Headstock tuner.

Clip-on tuners are usually attached to the headstock of the guitar. Rather than detecting the pitch of a string when it’s played, these tuners work by sensing the vibration coming from the string to measure the frequency, and therefore determine if the pitch is flat or sharp.

Clip-on guitar tuners usually have an easy to see LED interface, so you can easily see whether you need to tune the string up or down.

For more clip-on guitar tuner options, check out this list of results.

One thing to watch out for with clip-on tuners: when you pluck a string you want to tune, the other strings may also vibrate slightly and throw off the tuner.

So you’ll want to mute the other strings by placing your hand over them to prevent them from vibrating while you pluck the other string.

3. Built-in tuner

Example of a pickup device with built-in tuner on the side of an Alvarez acoustic-electric hybrid classical guitar
Pickup device with built-in tuner on an Alvarez acoustic-electric hybrid classical guitar. Apologies for the dust!

Some acoustic-electric hybrid guitars (sometimes called ‘crossover’ guitars when referring to classical-steel string hybrids) have a pickup and preamp built into the body so they can be plugged into an amp. The pickup converts the sound into an electronic signal which can then be amplified by the preamp.

Oftentimes, these pickups will also include a tuner device built directly into the guitar itself. Therefore, the built-in tuner can be very resourceful if you’re traveling, or if you need to tune very quickly in between pieces.

However, you usually need a battery to activate the electronic component. Also, the reliability of these tuners is sometimes questionable. In my personal experience these tuners can be accurate, but not perfect.

Therefore, you might want to use the built-in tuner as a starting point, and then trust your ear using method 4 or 5 to make sure the pitches match.

4. Tuning by ear: match external pitch

Want to know how to tune your guitar without a tuner? Then this section is for you!

The phrase “tuning the guitar by ear” means adjusting the pitch of the guitar strings to match an external pitch, such as another instrument.

Learning how to tune a classical guitar by ear is an age-old skill that I recommend all guitarists acquire!

Understanding how to tune your guitar by ear without a tuner also allows you to tune faster. Furthermore, it’s a good initial form of ear training.

Tune to the pitch of another instrument

Matching the pitch of another instrument is one of the most common situations where tuning by ear is helpful.

For instance, if you’re playing with other musicians, like a pianist, it’s possible that their instrument may also be slightly out of tune (and pianos are much more difficult to tune than guitars).

In situations like this, you’ll want to tune by ear to match the exact pitches of the instrument you’re playing with. So even though you both may technically be ‘out of tune’ in terms of frequency, at least you’ll be ‘in tune’ with each other!

Pitch pipe

guitarist pitch pipe exmaple
Pitch pipe example; Simon Speed, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before the invention of electronic and online tuners, guitarists would use either a tuning fork or small plastic or wooden devices called pitch pipes to help them tune. The pitch pipe is similar to an ocarina or harmonica, but without many of the acoustic elements to classify it as a ‘musical instrument’.

Although pitch pipes are seldom ever used today, I feel it’s important to credit this simple legacy tool as it helped guitarists for centuries (including myself) learn how to tune their instrument.

5. Manually tune the guitar with itself – notes or harmonics

What should you do if you don’t have a tuner OR an external pitch to match to? Well fortunately you always have the option of tuning the guitar based on the pitch of one of the strings you think is close.

Even though the guitar won’t technically be in tune from a frequency standpoint, at least the guitar will be in tune with itself!

In other words, you can play the guitar just like normal and it’ll still sound good even if all the strings are tuned slightly higher or lower than normal.

So how do you manually tune the guitar to itself? You can do so by either matching the pitch of notes you play on the fretboard, or by matching the pitch of harmonics.

Matching pitch with notes

Matching pitch by playing notes is the easier of these two options, and is a good place for beginners to start.

Let’s say for instance that you want to tune the guitar based on the pitch of the low E2 string (string 6).

What you’ll want to do is play the pitch of the next highest string, in this case A, on the low E string. First, put a left hand finger down on the low E string, fret 5. The pitch you’re hearing when you pluck the string with your right hand is the A note.

Next, play the open A string and the note you’re holding down on the low E string 5th fret (A) back and forth or at the same time to hear whether or not the pitches sound the same. If they don’t, then you’ll need to adjust the pitch of the A string up or down until it matches the pitch of the A you’re playing on the E string.

Here’s a breakdown of where you can find matching pitches for the open strings:

  • (A) String 5: 5th fret, low E string (string 6)
  • (D) String 4: 5th fret, A string (string 5)
  • (G) String 3: 5th fret, D string (string 4)
  • (B) String 2: 4th fret, G string (string 3)
  • (E) String 1: 5th fret, B string (string 2)

Matching pitch with harmonics

Some people find low frequencies more difficult to hear than higher ones. When you’re trying to match pitches of lower notes on the guitar, this can be especially challenging.

Fortunately, there’s a way to tune the guitar to itself using harmonics. Harmonics are a technique where the tone produced is a higher pitch (overtone) than the note you would hear if you just put your left hand finger down on the fret like normal. Harmonics have a “chime-like” quality, and are commonly used in all styles of guitar.

Explaining the harmonic technique on guitar in detail is beyond on the scope of this article. Suffice to say that you can also use harmonics to string pitches to one another.

Here’s a breakdown of where you can find matching pitches for the open strings using harmonics:

  • String 5 (A): First play the harmonic at the 5th fret, 6th string (E). While that’s ringing, play the harmonic on the 7th fret, 5th string (A). If the tones don’t match, tune the A string accordingly.
  • String 4 (D): Play the harmonic at the 5th fret, 5th string (A). While that’s ringing, play the harmonic on the 7th fret, 4th string (D). If the tones don’t match, tune the D string accordingly.
  • String 3 (G): Play the harmonic at the 5th fret, 4th string (D). While that’s ringing, play the harmonic on the 7th fret, 3rd string (G). If the tones don’t match, tune the G string accordingly.
  • *String 2 (B): The B string is a little but different. First, play the harmonic at the 7th fret, 6th string (E). While that’s ringing, play the natural open string 2 (B) note (not harmonic). If the tones don’t match, tune the B string accordingly.
  • String 1 (E): The high E string works the same as the ones before. Play the harmonic at the 5th fret, 2nd string (B). While that’s ringing, play the harmonic on the 7th fret, 1st string (E). If the tones don’t match, tune the E string accordingly.

Conclusion

As you can see, there’s several diverse and easy methods for tuning your guitar! Now you know how to tune your classical guitar with a tuner, or how to to tune by ear. Hopefully, this article can serve as a reference you can come back to again and again!

Keep in mind there’s no right or wrong way to tune your guitar. None of the methods listed above make you any more or less of a musician. As long as you can get your guitar strings to match the correct pitches you’ll sounds great!

However, for your audience’s sake, please tune your guitar every time before you play. Depending on the environment you’re in, you might even need to tune between songs.

Furthermore, if you have new strings on your guitar, you’ll need to tune even more frequently for the first few days until the strings get used to the tension.

Tuning can seem like a laborious process at first, but I promise it gets easier and faster the more you do it.

Published by Jonathan Richter

Classical guitarist, teacher and ethnomusicologist based in Atlanta, GA

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