Tuning a guitar is a basic skill that every guitarist begins learning the first day they pick up their guitar. It’s not really the act of tuning that’s the skill, though…it’s developing the ear for tuning.
I once heard a well-known guitar luthier in Nashville, Tennessee talk about how the most trained human ear can be as accurate – and sometime even more accurate – than an electronic tuner. It takes years, even decades, to get to this point, however, and even then we need a baseline from which to tune (unless you’re one of the 1 in 10,000 people who has perfect pitch).
Even though the outcome of various tuning methods is the same (get the guitar in tune!), the fact is that different tuning methods are appropriate for different situations. Below I want to share with you five of my favorite tuning methods and how they are best used.
Note: you’ll see me use the term “A440” quite a bit here. If you’re unaware, this refers to the standard tuning of a guitar where the A string is tuned to 440 hertz.
#1 Using a Dedicated Guitar Tuner
This probably isn’t news to you but I’ll say it anyway: using a guitar tuner is one of the easiest and usually the most accurate way to tune your guitar. It’s not expensive either, with many excellent tuners priced under $15. As a quick warning, there are plenty of “free” smartphone tuners you can download, but not all of them are great. Only a few can really compete and this one is my favorite.
Using a guitar tuner isn’t always the right option in every situation, however.
When to Use a Guitar Tuner
Use a guitar tuner when you’ll be playing in a professional situation where accuracy is important or when trying to train your ear. In informal situations where tuning to A440 isn’t absolutely necessary, however, a tuner can be overkill.
Benefits of a Guitar Tuner
Guitar tuners are great for accuracy and therefore benefit the development of your ear. This is my preferred method to tune whenever I’m setting up alternate tunings. Also, when noise is an issue, a plug-in tuner is often your only option.
Challenges of a Guitar Tuner
Many guitar tuners require a quiet environment or a direct connection with a guitar pickup system, both of which you may not have at all times. In those rare cases where your tuner battery dies, you’re stuck winging it.
Further Reading: The Ultimate Guitar Tuner Guide
#2 Using a Piano or Other Instrument
When I am getting together with other musicians in a more informal setting, it is often more convenient to tune to each other instead of using a tuner. Some might consider this lazy but the point is to just play together
When to Tune to Other Instruments
It’s best to tune to other instruments if you’ll be playing in a group, especially if you’re playing with a piano that may not be exactly in tune. It’s much easier to adjust the tuning on a guitar than it is on a piano!
Benefits of Tuning with Other Instruments
Because accuracy is secondary, tuning to a piano can be incredibly quick. Moreover, when you tune against other instruments, even if those instruments aren’t tuned to A440, you will all still sound good together.
Challenges Tuning with Other Instruments
Until you’ve developed a good ear, tuning with other instruments is only as good as you’re able to accurately hear. I’ve seen some guitarist try to tune against a keyboard (which technically should be accurate to A440) and still be out of tune because they just don’t have the ear yet.
#3 Using a Pitch Pipe / Tuning Fork
I like to think as the pitch pipe/tuning fork method as a cross between methods #1 and #2: essentially you’re tuning to another instrument (the pipe or fork) without losing the accuracy of a tuner. I know I’m different in this regard but I always keep a pitch pipe in my guitar case. Tuner batteries die but as long as I’m still playing the guitar, I have the breath to use a pitch pipe!
When to Use a Pitch Pipe
At home. Usually in a quiet area. And not around too many people…they might think you’re an old-fashioned hack who can’t afford an actual tuner (at least that’s what my friends tell me!).
Benefits of Using a Pitch Pipe
Helps to develop your ear, especially when used in conjunction with an electronic tuner. Small, simple to pack and doesn’t require batteries. Also, handy if you want to break out into acapella with a group of singers. 🙂
Challenges of Using a Pitch Pipe
Again, this method (actually, all of these methods except a tuner) are only as good as your ear.
#4 Tune a Guitar on the 5th Fret
More than likely somewhere along the way somebody has taught – or at least shown you – how to tune your guitar on the 5th fret (assuming you’re doing standard tuning). If not, you can watch this short video that will walk you through the process simply.
When to Use 5th Fret Guitar Tuning
Wherever accuracy to A440 isn’t necessary (i.e. at home or when playing by yourself). I also use 5th fret tuning to supplement my tuning with other instruments – in other words I ask the piano to play their “A” note and then I tune from there.
Benefits of 5th Fret Guitar Tuning
5th fret tuning can be done anywhere, anytime, against any standard.
Challenges of 5th Fret Guitar Tuning
Only as accurate as your ear. Even with a trained ear, the environment has to be absolutely silent in order to hear very accurate tunings.
#5 Tune a Guitar using Harmonics
Finally, I’m a big fan of using harmonics to tune my guitar. This works best on an acoustic guitar, although it’s possible with an electric as well. If you’ve never done it before, a harmonic note is created by lightly touching the string at the desired fret and pulling it away when plucked. In this case you’ll create harmonics on the 5th and 7th frets. See the video below for an example:
When to Use Harmonic Tuning
In a quiet environment when you want to tune against yourself.
Benefits of Harmonic Tuning
In my opinion, it is easier to obtain an accurate tuning by ear from using harmonics than simply from the aforementioned 5th Fret Tuning method. Also, harmonics are great when purchasing a guitar because harmonics can help determine the quality of a guitar.
Challenges of Harmonic Tuning
If you’ve never done harmonics before, this method may not be practical to learn at first. This is also a difficult method to use when outside noise is present.
I’m sure there are other methods of tuning, but these are certainly the most popular. If you have any others that you use, or comments on the ones I’ve mentioned here, please let me know below!