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Tuning the guitar is an important part of the process of learning how to play guitar. When you press down your finger at a fret, a specific pitch is supposed to sound. This will happen only if the guitar is tuned correctly. Some instruments (such as the piano) are tuned by professionals (usually while you are off running some errands) and other instruments (such as electronic synthesizers) maintain their pitch as to never need manual tuning. The rest of us have to tune our instruments. Lucky us. The guitar, like others in the bowed and plucked string instrument family, requires frequent tuning. It is essential that the person who plays the instrument can also tune the instrument.
Herein is a short discussion of a simple method of standard tuning for the guitar. Although other methods exist, they all attempt to accomplish the same goal: Get the guitar "in-tune" so that the tuning will not detract from the skill of any musician who plays the instrument. A well tuned guitar cannot make a novice player sound like a pro, but a poorly tuned guitar can make an accomplished player sound terrible. The truth is that an accomplished player won't tolerate an out-of-tune guitar, she'll just tune it. It is each guitarist's responsibility to keep their instrument in tune. Here's one way.
This page covers the relative tuning method (sometimes referred to as the "5th fret method").
Relative tuning involves comparing the tuning of adjacent string pairs. The higher pitched string in the pair is tuned in reference to the lower string. It is assumed that the lower string is "in-tune". With this method you have to tune the lowest string (string 6- low E) to some reference such as a piano or a tuning fork. Some additional suggestions for tuning the 6th string are listed later.
The general process is as described below, followed by a step-by-step breakdown of the tuning method.
Once you have tuned the 6th string, you will press down that string at the fifth fret and pluck the string. You then tune the 5th string to match that sound. The standard tuning system for the guitar is such that the difference in sound from the 6th string to the 5th string is the same as the difference from the open 6th string to the fifth fret of the 6th string. So the fifth fret of the 6th string should be a match for the open 5th string. If they don't match, you should change the pitch of the 5th string by turning the tuning peg for the 5th string in the appropriate direction (don't change the 6th string).
If the 5th string is too low then you need to tighten the string, if the string is too high you need to loosen the string. It is important to get the 5th string tuned up in reference the 6th string because once the 5th string is "in-tune" it will be the used to tune-up the 4th string, then the 4th string is used to tune up the 3rd string and so on. Any tuning error you make will "ripple" throughout the whole process, so tune carefully.
Usually the fifth fret is used when tuning the string pairs with one exeception being at the fourth fret. Here is a quick summary of the process:
When using this method it is important to go through the process in the above order. Now let's go through the whole process more slowly.
|tune string 6||
This is the starting point for tuning in this system. You tune the low E string (string 6) by one of several means. Here is a list of options with a short discussion afterwards.
If you own a piano, it is easy to play the E that is nearly two octaves below middle C. Hold down the sustain pedal and let the note ring out. As it is still sustaining, play the open 6th string and adjust the tuning peg so that the string sounds the same pitch as the piano note. If you don't own a piano you can use your CD player to play a song that is in E. In the third tuning method some additional discussion of tuning up to a CD is provided.
If you don't have a piano or other instrument to check your E string, you might just have to guess. The low E is about the lowest note I can sing, it's way down there. Probably too low for most women's voices. If you don't have any reference you will have start with a note that is your best guess. Once you decide that you have a note that is "in the ballpark", you can tune the rest of the strings in relation to the sixth string and it will still sound OK even if the low string is not exactly "E". Just be sure that you are not way too high (too tight) to begin with or you might have strings poppin' like old rubber bands. That's no fun.
|tune string 5||
Once the 6th string is in-tune or as close as you can get, you should press down that string at the 5th fret and use the sound created there to tune your open 5th string (A). Listen carefully to the sound of the note A (the 5th fret of string 6). Then play the open 5th string and adjust the tuning peg for that string to make it sound the same as the 5th fret of string 6. Both notes are "A". If they sound different be sure that you adjust string 5. Don't change string 6, it is your tuning reference. After you have adjusted open string 5 so that it sounds the same as the 5th fret of string 6, continue to the next step.
|tune string 4||
Use the 5th fret of string 5 as the reference to tune the open 4th string. Both notes are D. If the open 4th string is not in-tune with the 5th fret of string 5 then adjust the 4th string. Don't change the 5th string at this point, you have already tuned that string in the previous step.
|tune string 3||
Continue this process. Use the 5th fret of string 4 as the reference to tune the open 3rd string. Both notes are G. If the open 3rd string is not in-tune with the 5th fret of string 4 then adjust the 3rd string. Again, don't change the 4th string, you have already tuned that string in the previous step.
|tune string 2||
Tuning the second string is where you use the 4th fret instead of the 5th fret. Use the 4th fret of string 3 as the reference to tune the open 2nd string. Both notes are B. If the open 2nd string is not in-tune with the 4th fret of string 3 then adjust the 2nd string. Remember, don't change the 3rd string at this point, you have already tuned that string in the previous step.
|tune string 1||
Finally, use the 5th fret of string 2 as the reference to tune the 1st string. Both notes are E. If the open 1st string is not in-tune with the 5th fret of string 2 then adjust the 1st string. Again, don't change the 2nd string, you have already tuned that string in the previous step.
Now all of your strings should be in-tune "relative" to the low E string. Even if the E string was not exactly an E, the guitar should still be in-tune with itself based on whatever note the sixth string was tuned.
I like to test the tuning with the E major triad, shown in chord diagram form below. It should sound nice and full, without any discordant sourness.
6 5 4 3 2 1 o o o ___________ |_|_|_o_|_| |_o_o_|_|_| |_|_|_|_|_| |_|_|_|_|_| |_|_|_|_|_| |_|_|_|_|_|
If it doesn't sound right, start at the fifth string and go through the process again. If the guitar was extremely "out-of-tune" to begin with, it is common to have go through the whole process another time or two until the tuning stabilizes.