How to tune a guitar by ear

A seven step basic tutorial - how to tune a guitar to standard tuning

After you have read this tutorial you should be able to tune a standard six-string guitar to the most common tuning called "standard tuning".

Our chromatic tuner has microphone and line-in support which can be used to tune all strings, but it is always good to practice to tune the guitar by ear. Before we start we need to familiarize us with the commonly used names for the guitar strings.

1. The string names

The standard guitar has six strings where each string commonly is named after the pitch it should be tuned to or a number decided by the string order. It is also common to group the 6 strings in two paires, where the three thinnest is called treble strings and the three thickest is called bass strings. On a classical guitar the three bass strings is always metal wound and the treble strings are made of nylon or carbon. An electric or acoustic guitar has steel strings where the bass strings is wounded. Though, it is common with a wound G string as well.

When using a number to name the string you should always start from the thinnest treble string E4. When using the pitch to describe each string the common way is to do the opposite and start from the thickest bass string. This inconsistency usually cause some confusion to the beginner.

Thereof, the standard tunings is defined as EADGBE and with the corresponding number; the 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st string. Table 1.1 visualize the standard tuning.

String Name
OrderPitchScientificThe Guitar
1stEE4Fretboard
2ndBB3
3rdGG3
4thDD3
5thAA2
6thEE2

Table 1.1Name of the strings.

To remember the names some people find it easier to learn a memorable acronym. For instance;

  • Every
  • Amateur
  • Does
  • Get
  • Better
  • Eventually

You can find a bunch of similar acrynoms on the web but if you feel creative why not take your time and make up your own.

In table 1.1 you might have noticed a number together with each string name (the scientific column). This number describes the octave and will be used in this tutorial and through out this site. This makes it easier to separate the actual pitch and in this tutorial the thick and the thin E string. For now, do not focus to much about this number.

2. Get a Reference

When tuning by ear the majority of guitarists need to have some kind of reference to start from. This could be a piano, a guitar, any other instrument etcetera. My recommendation is that you use our guitar tuner and tune the thick E-string to E2 as accurate as possible. This string will be used as reference when tuning all other strings. To tune the E string you rotate the tuning machine marked by the red rotation arrow in the figure 2.1. When you rotate the tuning machine you adjust the tension and therof the pitch of the actual string. When you pluck the loose string the pitch will be decided by the vibration between the nut and the bridge saddle.

Figure 2.1The thickest bass string E2 (6th string) used as a reference.

3. The A string

To tune the 5th string place a finger between the 4th and the 5th fret of the thick E-string. When you now pluck the 6th string it will only vibrate from the 5th fret to the bridge saddle. When shortening the vibrating string length you increase the pitch and in this case it will give us an A which will be used as a new reference when tuning the open A-string. Compare the sound when placing your index finger on the 5th fret of the E string with the open A string. Adjust the 5th string until the two strings sounds the same, i.e they are in tune.

Figure 3.1Using the E string as reference when tuning the A string.

4. The D string

When the two upper strings are in tune, continue with the 4th D string. You will now use the newly tuned A string as a reference. Place a finger on the 5th fret of the A string, that is a D note. Adjust the 4th open D string until its in tune with the reference D note from the A string. Keep in mind to make minor adjustments to the string tension while tuning.

Figure 4.1Using the A string as reference when tuning the D string.

5. The G string

Fretting the guitar on the 5th fret of the D string will give us a G note. Continue in the same way as before and adjust the pitch of the open G string until the two strings are in tune.

Figure 5.1Using the D string as reference when tuning the G string.

6. The B string

When tuning the 2nd B-string the nice pattern above does now change. In figure 6.1 note that the fret differs from the other strings. Instead of using the 5th fret you should now place your finger on the 4th fret of the G-string. Adjust the open B string until it is in tune with the reference B note from the G string.

Figure 6.1Using the G string as reference when tuning the B string.

7. The E string

To tune the thin E string you use the 5th fret of the B string.

Figure 7.1Using the B string as reference when tuning the thin E string.

Good work! Usually you need to go through each step at least one more time to obtain a persistant pitch.

Hope these instructions on how to tune a guitar by ear have been useful for you. With some practice you will soon get the hang of it. Keep on playing guitar!

Note, there are a lot of different ways to tune a guitar by ear and the most common method is described in this tutorial. More precise an accurate methods of tuning the guitar will be covered in an other tutorial.