Follow along and learn to tune your guitar or bass. This tutorial demonstrates various methods for tuning the guitar.
The guitar is an imperfect instrument. The frets divide the strings length into segments according to a mathematical formula devised by Pythagorus thousands of years ago. Piano tuners have developed their own means to correct for the imperfect nature of mathematical sound versus musical sound. They use a tempered, or stretch tuning to compensate for what is known as discordance. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier compositions are some of the earliest musical compositions meant to take advantage of a tuning that is altered to get the best sound.

  • What we as guitar players end up with is a compromise between perfect tuning and a more pleasing sounding instrument when played. The frets divide the strings length into 12 tones per octave. The 12th fret producing a note one octave higher than the open string note.
  • The guitar is tuned in perfect fourths, that is, each string is tuned to the fifth note on the string before it – except for the 2nd (B) string which is tuned the fourth of the 3rd (G) string.
  • The 6 strings are tuned (from the lowest wound bass string to the highest treble string) E, A, D, G, B, E. The high E string is an Octave higher than the lowest E string. On the bass, the low E string is an Octave lower than the guitar’s low E string.

A bit confusing, as the 4th note on each string is not at the 4th fret, but rather the 5th. This is due to the musical scale having 12 tones, including a natural and a perfect 4th, the later being the 5th note of the 12 tone (western music) scale. Let’s take a look at some illustrations which will make clear our understanding of guitar tuning.


 

Tuning From A Reference Pitch:

As the illustration shows, the bass E string is tuned to a reference note from a piano, electronic tuner, or another instrument. Then the rest of the strings beginning with the A string are tuned by playing the 5th fret note of the prior string.

Example: Fret the 6th string at the 5th fret, hold the note and pluck the 5th string open note.

Listen to the sounds, when out of tune there will be a wavering or fluttery sound as the two strings sound together. Play them both back and fourth listening closely. Now adjust the 5th string using the tuning key. If the 5th string sounds higher than the fretted 6th string note, turn the tuning key counter clockwise to tune the 5th string down. If the 5th string open note is lower than the 6th string fretted note, tune the string up, all along listening and comparing the notes until they are in unison. This may seem complex at first, but in no time you will be tuning your guitar as second nature. This the simplest way of tuning the guitar, and it works the same for the bass. For the bass guitar tune the same as the bottom four strings of the guitar but an octave lower.

With this method you can match your tuning to other instruments, recordings quickly. It is also a good method for tuning a guitar “to itself” meaning when played alone the instrument will sound good no matter how accurately the bass E string is tuned to a source note, as long as all the other strings are tuned in relation to the 6th string.

 


Tuning With An Electronic Tuner: Using an electronic tuner is a quick and easy way to tune the guitar. It’s always a good idea to know how to tune the traditional way as outlined above for when you don’t feel like plugging into a tuner, don’t have a tuner handy, are matching someone else’s tuning, or your batteries have gone dead. Let’s go over some electronic tuner basics.

  • Electronic tuners work best with a fresh batteries. Many models will flash “bat low” or a LED light when they are low.
  • There are a few different types of tuners, which range from under $20 to hundreds of dollars. With accuracy and features to match.
  • The basic VU meter style tuner has a needle which floats over a display to show you how in-tune your string is.
  • LED based models tend to have faster response and be slightly more accurate than Vu display tuners.

More accurate and expensive Strobe tuners use electronics to show display the tuning of your strings using a sliding bar graph. These tuners are more accurate than Vu or LED tuners. The accuracy is not as big or a deal as you might think, aside from studio players and luthiers who specialize in setting up instruments and recording their performances much of this type of accuracy is lost during play and performance for the average tuner user.

From left to right, VU style, LED, and Strobe tuner displays.

When using an electronic tuner, use your bridge pick-up with the volume turned all the way up and the tone controls wide open (no high frequency attenuation). This give the brightest and clearest signal for the tuner to “listen” to. Electronic tuners can be Chromatic (able to tune all notes of the musical scale within several octaves) Or designed specifically for bass or guitar – often limited to just the 6 open notes.

Electronic tuners are convenient and simple to use. There are a few options to look for when choosing an electronic tuner. Modguitar.com recommends buying a simple tuner for the beginner and more advanced models for hose who want to set-up their own instruments or those wanting to be in as perfect tuning as possible for recording.

 


Tuning With Natural Harmonics: A well intonated guitar can be tuned using natural harmonic notes.

  • The harmonic notes at each strings 5th and 7th strings are used as reference points to tune the other strings.
  • The second string (B) is tuned to the 6th strings 7th fret harmonic.

Harmonics are played by lightly pressing the string at the nodal point and plucking. Your finger acts as a “stop” at the nodal point. Nodal points are mathematical devisions of the string. The 12th fret is the easiest harmonic to play, it is the exact halfway point along the strings length. Other nodal points occur at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th frets. In actuality there are more nodal points, but thy are not all easily played on the guitar. After the twelfth fret the nodal point continue in the same progression as they do from the nut forward. Simply think of the 12th fret as the nut or open string, an count up. You can also slide your finger along the length of the string while picking to find other nodal points. Take a look at the following diagram to see how tuning with harmonics is done.

  • Following the above illustration beginning on the 6th string at the 5th fret, play the harmonic, then play the harmonic of the 5th string at the 7th fret – compare the notes and adjust the 5th string until it matches the 6th and so on for the other strings.
  • The 2nd string is tuned by comparing the 6th string 7th fret harmonic to the 2nd string 12th fret harmonic. Then the High E string is tuned by comparing the 5th and 7th fret harmonic like the first four strings.

Tuning by natural harmonics works best for guitars where the intonation has been precisely adjusted. Harmonics are very accurate- but the guitar itself sometimes is not. For this reasons you may find differences when tuning by fretted notes compared to tuning with harmonics or electronic tuners.

Guitar Tuning, Conclusions: In many ways tuning is a balancing act. Explore the tuning methods shown in this tutorial, and decide which method works best for you. This tutorial covered the basics of tuning by fretted notes, using an electronic tuner, and using natural harmonics.