If you’re learning guitar, accurately tuning your guitar is an important skill you need to learn as soon as possible.
Having a slightly out-of-tune guitar can throw off your sense of pitch as well as trick you into thinking you’re not playing things properly.
In this guide, you’ll learn all of the ways you can tune your guitar. You can choose any of the methods covered in this guide or you can learn multiple methods – it’s up to you.
This guide covers tuning a six-string guitar but you can use the same methods for 7-string, 8-string, 12-string guitars, or even bass.
How to Tune a Guitar Basics
While there are different ways you can tune an electric or acoustic guitar, they all lead to the same goal. The idea behind tuning your guitar is to tune each string to a specific pitch so when you play chords or riffs, they will sound correct.
Before you read through the different tuning methods, it’s a good idea to understand the basics of guitar tunings.
The most common tuning you will use on an acoustic or electric guitar is called Standard Tuning.
Standard Tuning tunes the six strings on a guitar (from thickest to thinnest) to the pitches: E A D G B E.
As you can see in the above diagrams, both acoustic or electric guitars can be tuned to standard tuning. It doesn’t matter if all of the guitar’s tuning heads are on the same side or split over two sides of the headstock (learn the names of guitar parts in this guide).
The thickest string on the guitar is the lowest sounding string and we tune that to E. Then the next string is tuned to A, then D, G, B, then finally E on the thinnest string.
If you’re a beginner, most of the music you will see will likely use Standard Tuning. So practice tuning your guitar to standard tuning following the methods covered in this guide.
There are a lot of different tunings for guitar and we these ‘Alternate tunings’. The most common alternate tuning is called ‘Drop D’, where we change the low E string down to D (we drop the E string).
If you want to learn a song that uses a tuning other than standard tuning, the transcription or Guitar TAB should tell you what the tuning is.
For example, if the song you want to learn says it is in ‘Drop D’ tuning, you need to change your guitar’s tuning to Drop D Tuning or it won’t sound right.
Tuning your guitar in an alternate tuning isn’t any harder than tuning your guitar to standard tuning. You just need to know what to tune each string to and take your time tuning each string.
Some alternate tunings may require you to change to thicker or thinner guitar strings. This usually happens when you need to tune the strings really low. A lower tuning (eg: Drop B) slackens the strings, so you need to use thicker strings for better tension.
Different Types of Guitar Tuners
There are a few different types of guitar tuners and the right type for you depends on what type of guitar you have and how you would like to tune your guitar.
Let’s have a quick look at the different types of tuners you can buy before we look at how to use each one. I’ll also explain how to tune your guitar without a tuner.
For more information on tuners, check out the Best Guitar Tuners here. In the guide, I talk about features to consider and the best options for each type.
You can buy small devices like the one shown below to tune both electric or acoustic guitars.
These small tuners have an inbuilt microphone to listen to your guitar, or you can plug a guitar into the input jack.
These tuners may suit some guitarists, but most guitarists will probably prefer using a clip-on tuner, tuner pedal, or smartphone app instead.
If you play electric guitar or you plug your acoustic guitar into a rig, you may prefer using a tuner pedal.
Pedals like the above give you a quick way to check your tuning at any time by pressing the footswitch. They’re the go-to option for electric guitarists and incredibly handy if you plan on performing live.
Clip-on tuners can be handy for both acoustic or electric guitarists. You literally clip them onto your guitar’s headstock and it will sense the vibration in the guitar to detect your string’s pitch.
The big advantage of clip-on tuners is that you can easily tune an acoustic guitar in a noisy environment.
If you have a multi-effects pedal, it will likely have an inbuilt tuner you can use at any time. Most multi-effects pedals will activate a tuner when you hold down a specific footswitch.
The tuners in multi-effects pedals will only work with electric guitars or acoustic guitars that you can plug in.
Some modern amps have inbuilt tuners you can access by pressing or holding down a button.
While I don’t suggest buying an amp just because it has an inbuilt tuner, it is handy if you don’t like the idea of having to use a pedal to tune your guitar.
There are countless free and paid smartphone guitar tuner apps available that do a great job.
You can use guitar tuner apps to tune either electric or acoustic guitar, but you need to be in a fairly quiet environment for the best results.
Tuning Your Guitar Basic Method
No matter what type of tuner you use, you’ll be following the same basic method for tuning your guitar.
I’ll walk through the steps in tuning your guitar, then you can read the instructions on how to use this method with different types of tuners.
Step 1: Check the String’s Tuning
Start by picking the thickest string closest to you when you hold your guitar. The thickest string on a six-string guitar is tuned to E in Standard Tuning.
Check your tuner to see whether the string is too high (sharp), too low (flat), or in tune.
If it is perfectly in-tune, you can move on to check the next string.
If it isn’t perfectly in-tune, go to step 2 to adjust the tuning.
If you see a different note name on your tuner (eg: D, F, or Eb instead of E), it means your string is way out-of-tune. Take note of whether you need to raise or lower the string to bring it to E. For example, if you see ‘D’ or ‘Eb’ on your tuner, D or ‘Eb’ are both lower than E, so you need to raise the string’s pitch to bring it up to E.
Step 2: Adjust the String’s Tuning
Once you know whether you need to adjust the string up or down, you can start adjusting your string’s tuning.
Start by picking the string. It’s really important that you listen to the string as you adjust the tuning.
Slowly turn the string’s tuning head and listen to how the pitch changes. You should hear the pitch rise or fall. If you don’t hear any change in pitch, make sure you’re turning the correct tuning head. You may snap a string if you don’t realize you’re turning the wrong tuning head.
The direction you need to turn the tuning head depends on the type of guitar and the type of headstock. That’s why you should learn to listen to the string when adjusting the tuning to make sure you’re turning it the right way.
In the above photo, you can see that I need to turn the tuning head anti-clockwise (or away from me) to raise the pitch on the string. But your guitar may be different which is why the best practice is to listen to the string to figure out which way to turn it.
Watch your tuner while you adjust the string to make sure you’re tuning it in the right direction.
Re-pick the string when the tuner starts to have trouble detecting the note or you hear the note start to fade away. Keep picking the string every second or two to keep the string loud enough for the tuner.
As you get closer to bringing the string in-tune, slow your adjustments down. Use smaller adjustments to bring the string closer and closer to perfect tune. Bigger adjustments usually ends up with overshooting and having to adjust the tuning back in the other direction over and over.
If you need to lower the pitch of the string, it’s a good idea to bring it slightly under tune, then tune up to pitch. This can sometimes help avoid the string slipping when you go to play your guitar and bringing it out-of-tune.
Step 3: Tune all Strings
Once the low E string is in tune, move on to the A string and repeat the previous step on that string.
Continue through all strings and bring each one into tune.
Step 4: Re-check all Strings
When you finish tuning all of your strings, go back and check the tuning of all of them again.
You may find that some of the strings have slipped slightly out-of-tune.
This happens due to the change in tension across the neck, the change in tension in the strings, and the type of bridge your guitar uses.
Re-tune all of the strings and check them again.
With some guitars, you will only need to do one pass and everything will hold perfect tune.
Other guitars may take multiple passes – especially if your guitar was really out-of-tune at the start. If you have a guitar with a Floyd Rose bridge, it will likely take you several passes until it starts to hold decent tune. Learn more about tuning a Floyd Rose in this guide.
How to Tune an Electric Guitar With a Tuner Pedal
Whether you use a tuner pedal, or the inbuilt tuner in a multi-effects pedal or a guitar amp, the method for tuning your guitar is the same.
Step 1: plug your guitar into the tuner pedal and make sure it has power.
I’m using a multi-effects pedal for this example, but the same method works with any guitar tuner pedal.
Step 2: activate the tuner by pressing the footswitch or holding down the tuner button on your multi-effects pedal or amp.
With the above multi-effects pedal, you can see that the tuner activates after holding down the left footswitch for a second.
If you’re using a tuner pedal, you should see the display light up when you press the footswitch.
If you’re using a multi-effects pedal or amp, try holding down the button or footswitch labeled ‘tuner’. After a second or two, you should see the tuner appear on the display or LEDs. If this doesn’t work, check your amp or pedal’s manual for instructions.
Step 4: make sure your guitar’s volume knob is turned all the way up, then pick the thickest string closest to you. You should be able to use any guitar pickup without problems, but tuners tend to work best when using a neck pickup. You will tune this thickest string to ‘E’.
Look at your tuner’s display and whether the string is too high (sharp), too low (flat), or in tune. The above photo shows my E string is a bit too high in pitch as you can tell from the green needle and the red arrow next to the big E.
Here are some examples of what flat, in-tune, and sharp strings may look like (every tuner displays things slightly different):
The tuner should let you know the note it has detected (eg: E) and how close the string is to being in tune. If you see a different note name (eg: D# or Eb), you need to tune up or down until you see E.
Step 5: follow the earlier instructions for tuning your guitar.
Most pedals or inbuilt amp tuners will light up in a different color (usually green) or show something to let you know when the string is in tune.
The above photo shows what this multi-effects pedal displays when the string is perfectly in tune. The straight needle and green arrows next to the green E make it clear the string is in tune. Once you feel comfortable with your pedal’s display, you’ll find that you can tune each string faster.
Most tuner pedals will mute your guitar signal during tuning, so remember to disengage the tuner by pressing the footswitch or button to hear your guitar again.
How to Tune a Guitar With a Clip-on Tuner
You can use a clip-on tuner to tune electric or acoustic guitars. The tuner works by sensing the vibration in the guitar, so you can use it in any environment on almost any guitar.
Clip the tuner onto the guitar’s headstock.
If you play a headless guitar or you can’t seem to clip it on the headstock, look for any other position on the guitar you can clip on to. As long as the tuner has a good connection to the guitar, it should be able to sense the vibration of the strings.
Once your tuner is clipped onto your guitar, adjust the screen (if possible) so you can clearly see it while playing.
Turn the tuner on by pressing the power button.
Now you can tune your guitar following the same steps covered earlier. Follow the same steps for acoustic or electric guitar.
How to Tune a Guitar By Ear
Tuning your guitar by ear is possible, but it takes practice to be able to tune accurately.
You tune a guitar by ear by using a reference pitch to tune one string. Then you can use that string to tune the rest of your guitar strings.
As an example, let’s say you know that your low E string is perfectly in tune. Here’s how you can use that string to tune the rest of the strings by ear.
The fifth fret on the low E string is the note A, which matches the pitch of the next open string. You can use this note to tune the open A string.
Pick the 5th fret and compare how that sounds when compared with the open A string.
If the open A string sounds lower in pitch compared to the 5th fret, you need to tune it up. If it sounds higher, tune it down.
Keep comparing the open A string to the 5th fret until they both sound exactly the same in pitch.
Now you can repeat this using the A string’s 5th fret and compare it to the open D string.
Adjust the open D string until it matches the A string’s 5th fret.
Repeat the exact same thing on the next string to tune the G string.
To tune the B string, you need to compare it with the 4th fret on the G string.
All of the other strings are compared against the 5th fret except for the B string. If you remember this, you’ll be able to use this method any time you want.
Finally, tune the high E string by comparing it with the 5th fret on the B string.
If you’re a beginner or intermediate guitarist who has never done something like this before, you might find it difficult to accurately compare the pitch of a fretted note against an open string. The two notes might sound the same to you or you may not be able to tell which one is higher.
The more time you spend working on ear training, the easier this skill will get. Training your ears to detect slight differences in pitch is an important skill if you want to become an accomplished guitarist. Find out about ear training here.
Here’s a diagram showing the fret positions to tune all six strings by ear:
It’s important to remember that this method only works if you can get at least one string in perfect tune. If you have no way of tuning at least one string to a reference pitch, this method won’t work.
This can be a quick way to check your guitar’s tuning, but remember that you get the best results with a tuner.
The problem with this method is that a slight inaccuracy in tuning one string causes all the other strings to go out-of-tune. With practice, you can get really good at tuning a guitar by ear, but it will never be perfect.
How to Tune an Electric Guitar Without an Amp
You can easily tune an electric guitar without an amp. Simply plug your electric guitar directly into a tuner or a tuner pedal. You don’t need your guitar amp to use either type of tuner. You can also use a clip-on tuner and clip it onto your guitar’s headstock.
If you don’t have any other type of tuner available, you might be able to tune your electric guitar with a smartphone app. Hold your smartphone close to your strings in a quiet environment and pick the strings hard enough for the app to detect them.
While an unplugged electric guitar is far quieter than an acoustic guitar, it still emits a sound. So you can still use any tuner that has an inbuilt microphone if you’re in a quiet environment.
How to Tune a Guitar Without a Tuner
If you don’t have a tuner, you can still tune your guitar. The easiest way is to download a free tuner app on your smartphone or tablet. If one isn’t available, you can try tuning your guitar by ear or use another instrument such as a piano for a reference pitch.
Keep in mind that you get the best results when you use a tuner. Most guitar tuners can tell you what your strings are tuned to within a fraction of a cent (the measure of pitch). The human ear isn’t capable of that level of accuracy, even with practice.
The key to tuning a guitar without a tuner is to have something you can use as a reference pitch. A reference pitch is something else with a precise pitch that you can tune your guitar to.
For example, if you have another guitar already in tune, you could listen to those strings to tune another guitar.
The downside of using something else as a reference pitch is if the reference pitch isn’t perfectly in tune. If you tune your guitar to an out-of-tune reference pitch (eg: another guitar that happens to be slightly out-of-tune), your guitar will also end up out-of-tune.
Tuning Guitar With a Piano
If you have a piano nearby, you can use it to tune your guitar. Keep in mind that you will always get the most accurate results when you use a tuner, but it is possible to tune your guitar by ear using a piano.
To tune your guitar using a piano, you need to match the pitch of each open string to the pitch of the correct piano keys.
Here is a diagram showing which keys match the guitar strings:
Once you find Middle C on the piano, remember that the high E string is two white keys to the right. All of the other strings are below Middle C.
This may take some practice, but it’s a great way to train your ears (learn more about ear training here).
Tuning a Guitar FAQs
Here are some common questions you might have about tuning your guitar.
Do You Tune an Electric Guitar the Same as an Acoustic?
Both electric and acoustic guitars can be tuned the same with Standard Tuning or any alternate tuning. While acoustic and electric guitars may feel different to play, they are tuned the same.
How Do I Know if My Guitar is Tuned?
Use a guitar tuner to check if your guitar is tuned. A guitar tuner can tell you which strings are in tune and which ones aren’t. When you play guitar, a good guitarist will be able to tell if the guitar is in tune by how the chords sound.
How Often Do Guitars Need to be Tuned?
All guitars will slowly go out of tune over time and need to be regularly tuned. How often you tune your guitar depends on how often you play, how aggressively you play, and the type of hardware your guitar uses. It’s best practice to check and tune your guitar every time you pick it up to play.
It only takes less than a minute to check if your guitar is in tune and you don’t want to play a guitar if it is out-of-tune. So get in the habit of checking your guitar’s tuning every day you pick it up.
Do Guitars Come Tuned?
Most guitars will come tuned from the factory or store. But you should expect the guitar to slip out of tune during transport. It’s best practice to check your guitar’s tuning when you get it home and re-tune it if needed.
How Much Does it Cost to Get Your Guitar Tuned?
It should not cost anything to tune your guitar and it is simple enough you can do it yourself. Unlike tuning a piano, which costs money and is difficult, it is easy to tune a guitar. Learn to tune your guitar and buy a guitar tuner because your guitar will regularly go out-of-tune.
Some guitar stores offer a ‘tune-up’ service, which covers more than tuning the guitar. These services usually also look at the guitar’s action height, intonation, and truss rod position (links to guides for each).
Is It Bad to Tune Your Guitar a Lot?
No, it is not bad to tune your guitar a lot. It is important you only play guitar when it is in tune, so you need to regularly tune your guitar. Some guitars will fall out of tune faster than others, so it’s okay if you need to tune your guitar a lot.
If you regularly change to different alternate tunings, you’ll find that your guitar goes out-of-tune all the time due to changes in neck tension. This isn’t bad for the guitar, but it can be annoying for you.
Here are some useful guides you might want to check out:
- Best Guitar Tuners and Apps
- What is Ear Training?
- Guide to Alternate Tunings
- How to Memorize the Notes on the Fretboard