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This is not a question as much as it is a discussion. I am curious to know what are the different techniques to tune the guitar (using standard tuning) given you know that one string is in tune. I usually tune the 1st string and then go on comparing E on B, B on G, G on D, D on A, A on E, and finally E with E,

$1.0.$2.5  $2.0.$3.4  $3.0.$4.5  $4.0.$5.5  $5.0.$6.5  $1.0.$6.0

which is, maybe, the most common way.

But I've seen different guitarists use different methods. Are there any? Main aim here is to find out which is the quickest way to tune the guitar accurately once a single string is in tune.

EDIT: I do have a chromatic tuner, but this discussion is about tuning by ear.

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Buy a good tuner! fret method is cool, but a good tuner is true. –  user684 Jun 7 '11 at 14:18
Using an electronic tuner, but then simply applying it to the open strings, is completely silly. –  Kaz Jun 21 '13 at 22:52
I always double check my tuner results with my ear (unless I'm onstage and can't at the moment); it's more important to have as many actual fretted intervals on your instrument sound in-tune with each other than to have a needle on a machine no one is listening to point straight up. (not saying tuners aren't necessary/important), they just aren't as accurate as you might believe, get a strobe tuner for accuracy and you'll see how much pitch shifts even without touching the tuning peg as the string decays after plucking. You can't physically check every string against one another with a tuner –  David Axtell Moore II Jun 24 '13 at 8:09

8 Answers 8

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Tuning is almost as much an art as playing the guitar. You're trying to pull the strings to the point where most fretted chord combinations sound pleasant, even if they're not 100% true to their intended intervals.

First a note about tuning direction on the guitar. Your standard tuning machine uses a worm gear which has a nice property: it's extremely hard to pull a worm gear backwards. That means the force of the string, under tension, against the tuning peg has a hard time unwinding the peg. In order to ensure the worm gear's properties are being exploited during tuning you should always tune from flat. That is: flatten the string so it sounds lower than your desired note and tune up to pitch. Never tune down to pitch as the worm gear's resistive properties don't help you out here and you'll find the string slips past pitch pretty easily.

The method I've come to enjoy over the years does a pretty good job of handling the odd string out: the 5th string (B in standard tuning). And sweetens the temperament nicely even if the instrument isn't well intonated. It was shown to me by a luthier at the 12th Fret in Toronto. The approach may very well have a proper name but, unfortunately, I don't know it.

Let me try to describe the method...

You'll start by tuning the 1st string (low E in standard tuning). Use your ears or another instrument or an electronic tuner.

From there you use the 5th fret harmonic/7th fret harmonic technique to tune the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. To use this technique to tune the 2nd string you'd sound the 5th fret harmonic on the 1st string, letting it ring while sounding the 7th fret harmonic on the 2nd string. You'd then tune up (see paragraph above about tuning direction) the 2nd string until the two harmonics are at the same pitch, with no noticeable beats between them. Repeat this for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings.

To tune the 5th and 6th strings we'll use the harmonics at the 12th fret on preceeding strings and we'll tune to a fretted note. To tune the 5th string, sound the open harmonic at the 12th fret on the 3rd string (D in standard tuning). While this harmonic rings, fret the 5th string at the 3rd fret and, while holding the fretted note, tune it up to match the pitch of the harmonic -- where both notes are ringing without any beats occurring. For the 6th string a similar approach: ring the 12th fret harmonic on the 4th string and compare it to the 6th string fretted at the 3rd fret.

I want to show this to you using jTab but I can't figure out how to get it to show that the note is a harmonic, not a fretted note. Can someone help me out with these jTab pictures below?

Tuning The Second String

$E 5 $A 7

(both harmonics)

Tuning The Third String

$A 5 $D 7

(both harmonics)

Tuning The Fourth String

$D 5 $G 7

(both harmonics)

Tuning The Fifth String

$D 12 $B 3

(12th fret on D string is a harmonic, 3rd fret on B string is fretted)

Tuning The Sixth String

$G 12 $e 3

(12th fret on G string is a harmonic, 3rd fret on E string is fretted)

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I do the same for the first four, but I usually tune the high E to the low E, and then tune the B to the E with the 5-7 method. You could do the same apart from tuning the high E with 12-3. –  Matthew Read Jun 7 '11 at 15:04
Yes. I've seen a few guitarists use this harmonic method to tune. Excellent, detailed answer. Thanks a lot! Would love to know about other techniques too. –  aliensurfer Jun 8 '11 at 5:16
I do this as well. I also use the 12th fret harmonic and the 7th fret harmonic on the next higher string are the same note. What drives me nuts though is that often the 3 methods wind up with slightly different tunings. In a perfectly intoned guitar, they should be very nearly identical. –  horatio Jun 15 '11 at 17:47
@horatio: the problem is you cannot have a perfectly intonated guitar. :) The method I use makes sure perfect fourths and 5ths still sound pleasant pleasant on the higher strings when you fret notes without damaging major and minor third intervals too much. The only way to achieve perfect intonation across the entire neck is to use something like this: truetemperament.com –  Ian C. Jun 15 '11 at 18:23
If I can't use a tuner for some reason, this is the way I do it (except for the 12-3...for those top strings I go the same way @MatthewRead does) –  Dr Mayhem Nov 3 '11 at 12:10

I came up with my "ultimate method" after reading that cheap Dover book on Piano Tuning. I believe it is the most direct and accurate way possible (so please school me if I err!).

  • Start with a reliable A 440. I use a tuning fork. [To use a tuning fork with a guitar: hold the ball end and strike the fork against a knee-bone with a swinging motion; choke up (like a baseball bat) on the handle so end of the ball is exposed (quickly, while the fork is still freshly singing); place the ball against the bridge of the guitar (holding it in contact with your fingers); a loud clear note will emerge from the guitar. I use my right hand for the striking and placing, then I switch hands and continue holding with my left, freeing the right hand to do a pinched harmonic and adjust the tuning peg.]
  • Tune the 1/4 (5th fret) harmonic of the A string in unison with the A 440. (External A440 =unison= A-string 5th-fret Harmonic (double-octave))
  • Tune the D to a perfect fourth above the A. (You can use the 2/3 (7th fret) harmonic if you like.)
  • Nudge the D ever-so-slightly sharp, until you hear a very slow beat (about 3 beats over 5 seconds). (D-string =tempered-fourth-above= A-string)
  • Tune the G from the D in the same way (just a smidgen sharp). (G-string =tempered-fourth-above= D-string)
  • Tune the low E from the A in a contrariwise manner: scoop in from the D# side until you find the slow beat just before a perfect fourth. (E-string =tempered-fourth-below= A-string)
  • Tune the High E from the low E. (You can use the 1/4 (fifth fret) harmonic if you like.) (High-E-string =unison= E-string 5th fret Harmonic (double-octave))
  • Tune the B from the E the same way you took the low E from the A: scoop in from the A# side until you hear the slow beat. (B-string =tempered-fourth-below= High E-string)


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$5.0 $6.0 }_4th    $6.0 $1.0 $3.}uni    $1.0 $2.0 }_4th  

And finally, check your work with the open triads: D-G-B and G-B-E. They should sound balanced and distinct. You can hear all three notes, but none of them sting. If the triads don't sound good, nothing else will either: Do it again in exactly the same sequence. You can also check all the tempered fourths against each other. They should all sound like identical intervals.

$4.0.$3.0.$2.0    $3.0.$2.0.$1.0  
$6.0.$5.0    $5.0.$4.0    $4.0.$3.0    $3.0.$2.1!    $2.0.$1.0  

Note: It is very difficult to hear the beats. One trick I've found is to hold my right hand a few inches over the guitar as I sound the notes. I seem to be able to "feel" the beats more easily than I can hear them.

Tempered fourths gives you equal temperament. But for music that stays in a diatonic key, you can make a few slight adjustments. Starting from equal temperament, fret the root chord of the key. Then nudge the fifth up a smidgen (to shake off the temper), and scoop the third in a little flatter (a Helmholtz third). Remember which strings you altered so you can scoop them back into tempered from the "stationary" strings.

The importance of re-tuning from scratch every time is that you don't know where you made a mistake. Had you known you would have fixed it before moving on, right? If you start fixing the bad note, you'll end up chasing your tail. This goes for any tuning method (except the "use a tuner" method, I guess).

The words nudge and scoop deserve some elucidation. If you're tuning the upper note of a tempered fourth, it needs to be just a little sharper than the center of the perfect fourth. So the action you perform on the tuning head is to tune up to the perfect fourth and then a very small amount further up to "temper" the fourth. Tune perfect, nudge the temper.

But if you're tuning the lower note of a temper fourth, it needs to be just a little flatter than the center of the perfect fourth. So you approach the perfect fourth from below (always tune up) but stop short by a very small amount. Scoop into the temper, merely approaching perfect.

You can use a different sequence if you like, if you remember what these 2 actions are for (tuning the upper/lower notes of a fourth). If you start with G, then it's scoops all the way. If you start with B (bizarre though it sounds) then it's all nudges. If you start with the low E, then you only have to scoop the B, the rest is all nudges.

I've made a video of tuning the guitar this way 5m35s. It's much easier to hear the beats thanks to the mpeg filters than it is in real life. This time I was pretty sure about E A D and G, so I took the E again from E, and the B the same way from E. I could also have adjusted G again from D, as it's a sort of independent branch.

Why/How this works. or More luser philosophy.

When you tune one note to another, the result is a ratio of frequencies. The musical apparatus of the mind is keen upon "harmonic" ratios: where several of the overtones of each tone coincide. This is perceived as "beats". If the two notes were runners on a track, the beat happens every time the faster runner laps and blows-a-raspberry-at the slower one. If they don't meet as often, the fast guy kinda zones out and is less offensive.

When you tune a perfect interval, you find two "zones" of beating around a central "can't really tell unless you focus on it" area. At the dead center between the beating zones is the perfect interval, essentially "infinite beating". But hovering around the dead center mark is the "temperate zone". The beats are slow enough that they aren't offensive. And this enables us to approximate Pythagorean intervals in any key using a base-12 logarithm. Thus, equal temperament. The guitar has frets installed according to this same base-12 logarithm (they slowly, evenly, get closer together).

Everybody knows, when you start with C and go around the Circle of Fifths you end up not at C again but some straunge beastie called B#. What equal temperament does is fix that problem by making B# == C. But it has to drag all the other notes with it; just a little bit.

So the interval of the Fifth becomes a little flat (not too much). The interval of a Fourth becomes a little sharp (Since a Fifth plus a Fourth makes an Octave, they temper in opposite directions to keep the Octave in the same place.) The squeeze decends from the Fifth into the Triad where the interval of the Major Third is flattened (from a Pythagorean Major Third, that is). To counterbalance and keep the Fifth stable, the Minor Third has to go sharp by the same amount. And the smaller intervals get smaller adjustments.

The Helmholtz Major Third is actually a different animal entirely, it deviates even further from the Pythagorean than the Equal-Tempered Third does. But it catches a different circuit of the musical mind which is keen on overlapping frequency spectra. But to do full justice to these kinds of relations, you need many more than 12 distinct notes in an Octave. One of his keyboards had 30-something keys to the Octave; another one had over 100!

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I'll have to try this - for temper I usually tune as mentioned above and then just tweak for preference depending on the song, but not in any structured way. –  Dr Mayhem Nov 3 '11 at 12:12
@DrMayhem Well, excepting intonation issues, it's mathematically correct. Sharp Fourths<==>Flatted Fifths. You can get a Pythagorean Third by going sharper instead of flatter. But it is difficult to execute (especially with external noise: this method really requires your ears). But under perfect conditions it should give the same results as an electronic tuner; and it trains your brain at the same time! –  luser droog Nov 5 '11 at 11:45
^flatter. [...] But [direct-interval tuning] is difficult to execute^ –  luser droog Nov 8 '11 at 10:45

A simpler method:

Ring the 5th fret harmonic on the 6th (the fat, bottom) string and tune the 7th fret harmonic of the 5th string to it, as described by @IanC in another answers. Then...

On reaching the B (2nd) string, play the 7th fret harmonic on the 6th string and tune the open 2nd string to it.
Finally tune the top E (1st) string to the B (2nd) string using 5th/7th fret harmonics in the same way as the lower strings were tuned.

I play right hand harmonics though, so my left hand only has to twiddle the machine heads. On a well-intonated guitar, this method works well - for me at least. The beats can all be clearly heard with this method, especially if there's some distortion/overdrive switched on. To clarify this - 6th string harmonic is found pretty well over the neck pickup poles on lots of guitars ( turn the bridge pup on to hear it ! ), and the 5th string harmonic is over the 19th fretwire. Quite easy to play using finger/thumb,or finger/finger.

@IanC: Your guitar may be upside down if the 'fat' string is number one...

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What was the reason this was marked down? –  Tim Mar 31 '13 at 13:05
Ulf thanks for the edit. My answer must have sounded quite complex, however, in execution, it's very quick. –  Tim Apr 3 '13 at 14:42

My wife tunes her guitar to an open in C minor. 5th=C 4th=C 3rd=G 2nd=C 1st=Eb . She does not have a six string on her guitar just like Keith Richards. She just doesn't put one on. So the only thing she has to do is lay her fingers all the way across all five strings to get a minor chord. If she wants to make a major chord she uses her second finger to bring the first string up to half a step. Lazy but brilliant.

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If you tune to major, you can raise the 5th of the chord to a 6th to produce a minor chord. Still one finger change, but it makes major chords easier. –  luser droog Nov 20 '12 at 22:26
She might like my tuning. G-D-d-f-g#-b (bottom two strings reversed). On the top five strings one can easily play a major or minor chord in any inversion, or a root-position seventh chord; second-inversion chords (e.g. G-G-C-E-G) don't sound great, but just extend the first finger to the sixth string to get C-G-G-C-E-G. –  supercat Apr 3 '13 at 21:39

I haven't seen any people that use my tuning method, but I'm sure there are.

  1. First I look for a string that's still in tune (almost). It's often the low E (I'll assume it's E for the next steps). Usually only one or two strings sound off when playing a chord, so I settle for the lowest string that isn't dissonant.

  2. I play the open E (let's suppose it's the reference) or a simple melody in the key of E (on the same string) to get the key stuck in my head.

  3. Then I play the other open strings individually, I detune each one then gradually raise it to the desired scale degree in the key of E. It's just like bending, you stop when you hear the right pitch.

In the key of E:

  • A is the fourth
  • D the flat 7th
  • G the minor 3rd
  • and B is the fifth.

If the E string is out of tune compared to the others, I switch to another key (often C) or play an E on another string.

It's a very quick way of tuning ; I don't like tuning with the conventional method (open string vs 5th fret on the string above) because it sounds very unpleasant and it takes more time (at least for me).

I only use the tuner when restringing. Otherwise, I don't because they're not that practical especially for electric guitars.

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My method is to get one string (usually A) in tune with something else (another guitar / tuning fork etc). Incidentall by "Harmonic note" in the explanation below I mean put finger ona string without fretting it, and pluck the string so you get a harmonic note instewad of the fretted one.

Play a harmonic note on 5th fret of bottom E This should be the same note as the harmonic on 7th fret of A string Whork up the strings with this, so 5th fret harmonic of a string = 7th fret of next string up.

This obviously doens't work between the G and B string, so I tend to tune to the G string with this method, then play the 3rd fret on the B and play the G and B (a fifth interval) - it's quite easy to pick up the "sweet spot" where it's in tune. A bit of amp distortion can help here. Then do the B and E strings as before.

What I like about this method is that apart from the B string, it uses no frets so if you've got a wobble of intonation somewhere in your guitar, as many of mey earlier cheaper ones did, then it sidesteps the issue and you end up with the guitar tuned to itself regardless of what the frets do.

I run through that then play a G, an A and a D just to check all the bits of the guitar sound ok together.

I always tune up to the note, never down. Tuning from a higher note down leaves some residual looseness in the string meaning it might go out of tune pretty quickly.

The only drawback with this is that it makes quite a noise, especially if it's an electric guitar. Best turn amp down ...

But my main method is to use one of these : http://www.dv247.com/studio-equipment/zoom-g1n-guitar-pedal-includes-power-supplly--69803

They're kind of ok ish as effects units (you get what you pay for ...) but the built-in tuner is super-accurate and really easy to use. It displays the note you're tuned nearest to with a spinning 0 (one segmend of LED screeen moving) - left = you're flat, right = you're sharp, and an 8 when you're spot on. Superb.

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I'm somewhat relating this to my first post on music.stackexchange; I won't re-write the whole thing, the more ways the better in my opinion, I can think of 5-6 different ways… they all end with checking to make sure all the notes/strings sound in-tune with one another at the same time, by ear, regardless of if I started with a tuner or a reference pitch (one or the other is required, unless you're just playing with yourself… no pun intended). If you find a discrepancy between your tuner and your ear… it's time to change your strings, adjust your intonation, or buy a new guitar.

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Given one string is in tune, and you cannot use a tuner to do the rest, there are three methods I know of. The first is tuning the fretted intervals, the second is tuning the harmonics, and the third is tuning the fourths.

To tune the intervals, start with the tuned string, and choose a string adjacent to it. Whichever open string is lower pitched, fret that string at the fifth fret (for the G-B interval, fret the G string at the fourth fret), and compare the two notes, tuning whichever string isn't already in tune until you don't hear any "beats".

The advantage is that you're using the equal temperament of the neck's frets to tune the notes, so assuming the guitar is intonated properly, the open strings will end up into tune to the fretted ones. It's also very simple to do. The disadvantage is a lot of variables inherent in the fretting of the neck and the intonation of the entire guitar; if the action is high, or the bridge saddles or neck relief aren't set just right, the fretted note will end up sharper or flatter than it should be, and that will introduce error in the tuned open string.

To tune the harmonics, choose two adjacent strings as before (one of which should already be tuned), then pluck the harmonic over the fifth fret of the lower string, and the seventh fret of the higher string. These will be the same note. The G/B interval can't be tuned using these two strings alone; to tune the B string, first tune the high E by comparing its open-string pitch to that of the fifth fret of the E string, then use the E to tune the B.

The advantage here is that the guitar's setup can't introduce error in the open strings. The downside is that tuning the harmonics doesn't tune to equal temperament; it tunes to Pythagorean just intonation, and the difference between those two can be significant; given A-440 as a reference standard, D would have a frequency of 586.667Hz in just intonation, while equal temperament would give the same D a frequency of 587.33Hz, a difference of .65Hz. Similar differences would be seen on all other strings.

Finally, tuning the fourths requires a good ear (or heavy distortion). Basically, you simply play the open fourth, and tune it until it's cleanly in tune. The beats won't be as prevalent as in unison tuning used for the other systems, but they'll be there, and they'll go away when you get the two strings perfectly in tune.

The advantage is that not even your variance in touch on the strings can affect the tuning; you're not touching the strings. The disadvantage, besides requiring a well-trained ear, is that the intervals still sound best when justly intonated, because that's the "perfect" 4:3 (1.33333...) frequency ratio between the two notes, compared to the equally-tempered 1.33483985... irrational frequency relationship, and so tuning to "perfect" fourths will cause fretted notes to sound out of tune.

In all these cases, there's a disadvantage of compounding error. If the tuning of any two strings is off, that tuning error will also be present between one of those strings and any string tuned by the other. In addition, tuning changes string tension, and that changes the total tension on the neck, causing it to bow up or down, in turn changing the tension on other strings. So, if the instrument is more than a little out of tune and you try to tune one string and then adjust the rest, by the time you're done, the original string will likely be out of tune, as the tension of all the other strings will have changed around it.

For these last reasons, I always recommend using a tuner. The Planet Waves NS Micro is a very reliable, sensitive tuner, it's small and unobtrusive enough to leave it on your headstock all the time, and it's $11, cheap enough that there's really no excuse not to have one handy for any guitar you regularly play.

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