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What do I need to learn before I can alternate tune my guitar? See, I was taught by my friend how to tune my guitar in standard(EADBGE), and it goes like this:

"How To Tune The Guitar To Standard"

  1. You should know that the topmost string is tuned. That would be the low E string.
  2. Pluck the open A string and the 5th fret of the low E string. They should sound alike. Twist the knob of the guitar until they sound the same.
  3. Pluck the open D string and the 5th fret of the A string. Again, they should sound the same. Twist the knob of the guitar until they sound the same.
  4. Pluck the open B string and the 5th fret of the D string. Blah blah blah. You should know what comes next by know.
  5. Pluck the open G string and the 5th... oh wait that would be the 4th fret of the B string. How come? Again, blah blah blah.
  6. Pluck the open low E string and the 5th fret of the G string. Hey, it returned to the 5th fret! Again, they should sound the same.

Now what topics should I learn so that I can tune to whatever tuning I want? Like DADBG or F#F#F#C#C#C#. I know 0% about music theory, or even guitar theory. Added question, see number 5 of "How To Tune The Guitar To Standard"(above). Why did it switch to the 4th fret on that step?

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The "Why did it switch to the 4th fret on that step" part of this question is answered at music.stackexchange.com/questions/1723/… –  slim Oct 19 '11 at 9:51

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The very easiest way to tune a guitar accurately is to use a chromatic tuner. The kind that clips onto the headstock is good for acoustics. The kind that plugs in is good for electrics. However, it's good to know how to tune from first principles - for when you don't have your tuner, and because it's fundamental to your understanding your instrument.

If you're going more than a tone away from standard tuning -- especially upwards -- consider getting a set of strings designed for the purpose. Putting the wrong tension on a guitar can damage it.

To answer your question more directly, you need to think about why the system you have works.

The notes go: 1=A 2=A# 3=B 4=C 5=C# 6=D 7=D# 8=E 9=F 10=F# 11=G 12=G# 13=A 14=A# ... and so on.

To express that as "rules" for naming notes - when you go up by a semitone:

  • If it's a 'natural', add a sharp, unless it's B or E
  • If it's already a sharp, or it's B or E, go to the next letter in the alphabet
  • After G#, comes A

The reason for this naming scheme is that the naturals form a scale that's useful for western music. The naturals are the white keys on a piano, the sharps are the black keys.

So, in your standard tuning, you know the bass string is tuned to E already. You want to tune the next string to A. How many frets up is it?

  • E is the open string
  • F is the first fret
  • F#, G, G#, A - takes you to the 5th fret

I hope you can see from that, that if you wanted to tune the next string to a B, for example, you could get it from the 7th fret on the E string.

Note that the system you've learned is very basic, and is likely to leave the instrument only approximately in tune. If you're slightly inaccurate tuning each string, by the time you reach the top E, you've multiplied your error by 5. Try checking the tuning of your D string against not only the A string, but also the 10th fret of the low E. Reason about why that works.

Some people like to use harmonics to get pitches for tuning. http://www.get-tuned.com/harmonics.php

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The only thing you need to be able to do is count from A to G.

In western music the notes go A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# (if we ignore the fact that those notes can also be referred to as flats. And yes, after G# you get back to A.

Standard tuning is not mandatory, it just works well with chords etc. If you want to use a different tuning just count how many notes difference and tune the next string to match the note you get that many frets up.

As long as you are close to standard E tuning, the standard strings will work, but as jadarnel27 mentions, you should carefully think about strings if you are going much higher or lower. Have a look at this question on strings for alternate tunings and the link on that page to D'Addario's information sheets on string choice.

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A B C D E F G? How about the stuff in between such as the flats(b) and the sharps(#)? So would that mean if I encounter G it could return to A again? –  J Roq Oct 19 '11 at 8:14
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In western music it goes A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# (if we ignore the fact that those notes can also be referred to as flats. And yes, after G# you get back to A. –  Dr Mayhem Oct 19 '11 at 10:46
    
It seems like it would also be important to know what the safe tuning range would be for each string (depending on the gauge of the strings). Otherwise a beginner could very easily break a string / damage the guitar by having string too tight or loose (I'm not a guitar player, so I could be way off). –  jadarnel27 Oct 19 '11 at 19:57
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updated as per comments –  Dr Mayhem Oct 19 '11 at 20:28
    
"All you need to do is count from A to G" ?Eh? –  blindJesse Oct 20 '11 at 4:22

You need to know

  • That each fret represents a semitone change in pitch and

  • The difference in pitch between notes.

For example, if you were in standard tuning and you wanted to tune to drop-D (DAGBE) you would detune the low E by two semitones, as D is two semitones lower than E.

You'd check the pitch by comparing the note at the 7th fret with the open A, plus the 2nd fret with the open high E.

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