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Guitar Tuning for Beginners

Guitar Tuning with an electric tuner

One of the aspects of playing a stringed instrument that I would consider crucial to understand early on is tuning. An out-of-tune guitar not only sounds unpleasant but is off-putting when learning new repertoire, scales etc., especially at beginner level when you may be unsure of what sound should be produced. I think it is important to check your guitar tuning every time you practise, and I hope that these few steps will help you get to grips with tuning your six-string electric, acoustic or classical instrument in standard tuning. If you have a bass guitar, please click here.

STEP ONE: Purchase a tuner

First of all when it comes to guitar tuning, I have noticed a lot of beginner guitarists are unsure of the pitch that should be produced by each string. This can lead to a frustration and string breakage. To help you with this, I would advise purchasing an electronic chromatic tuner.

STEP TWO: Tune the ‘low E’ string

In ‘standard’ guitar tuning, the thickest string is known as the ‘6th string,’ ‘low E’ or ‘bottom E.’ This is obviously the lowest pitched string on the guitar and as you hopefully guessed, should sound the note E when strummed or picked.

If the tuner displays another note when you play this string, it is indicating that it is not in tune. You should adjust accordingly by tightening or loosening the machine head, also known as a ‘tuning peg.’ Should the tuner display notes such as D or Eb, the string is too flat, which means it is lower than it should be and the machine head needs to be tightened. A reading of F, F# or higher notes shows that the string is too sharp, or tuned too highly, and so you should loosen the tension.

Here is a chromatic scale over two octaves. It will help if you familiarise yourself with its repeated arrangement and the location of each guitar string over the two octaves.

C  C#  D  E♭   (6TH)  F  F#  G  G#   A (5TH)  B♭ B  C  C#  (4TH)  E♭  E  F  F#  G (3RD)  G#  A  B♭  B (2ND)  C  C#  D  E♭  E (1ST)  F  F#  G

Once you have adjusted the string to produce an E signal on the tuner display, you will need to fine tune it. On playing a perfect note, the digital needle will be central, and most tuners will use a green LED or backlit screen to emphasise that the string is in tune. If the needle is pointing more towards the left then the string is too flat, to the right is indicating that it is too sharp. Adjust accordingly at the machine head until the tuner display is stating that your Low E is in tune.

STEP THREE: Repeat the process for other strings

Continuing on with our guitar tuning, you now need to tune the other five strings of your guitar in the same fashion. Move on to the ‘A string,’ also known as the ‘5th’ string. In the same manner as the 6th string, if any notes such as G#, G or lower are produced, the string is too flat and will need to be tightened. If the tuner is displaying higher notes then loosen the tension accordingly. Fine tune the A note and move on to guitar tuning the 4th string (D), 3rd (G) and 2nd (B).

Finally you will come to the thinnest string, known as the ‘1st string,’ ‘High E’ or ‘Top E.’ Beginner players may not be used to the high tension that this string is under so please take additional care not to over tighten.

STEP FOUR: Tweaking

Once all strings have been tuned, the tension on the neck of the guitar may have changed from the point it was at before beginning the guitar tuning process. As a result, it is advisable to go through the 6 strings again from the Low E through to the High E and make any necessary adjustments. Play a chord; any chord will do but I find an open ‘E Major’ produces the most effective voicing. Does it sound in tune? You may be unsure at first but it is good practice to use your ear. If any of the strings sound out of tune, re check their open pitch with the electronic tuner until you are happy.

STEP FIVE: Time to make a racket!

Your guitar should now be tuned and ready to play. It may be necessary to check and adjust the guitar tuning periodically. Many factors can effect string tuning including heavy playing, string bending and of course external factors such as room temperature. Always remember to check your guitar is in tune every time to pick it up to play – it’s good practice.

Remember once you have completed your guitar tuning, a string only tends to DROP in pitch and generally only by half a turn of the machine head. If you find yourself turning the head more than that, heed caution! You may be heading for the note an octave above where it should be.

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