How to tune your guitar by ear

If you have been playing for a while now, you know that guitars get out of tune for all sorts of reasons and it is quite useful to have a backup plan when you don’t have an electronic tuner around. That is when tuning your guitar by ear is a skill you would want to have acquired. But it is so much more than just a convenience.

The process of learning to tune the guitar this way will force you to get familiar with the sound of each string and accordingly be able to tell when a string is out of tune. This lays the foundation of pitch ear training – by consistently tuning your guitar by ear you will learn to understand the pitch relationships between notes. And don’t worry – perfect pitch is not required, and everyone can learn how to tune a guitar by ear to some extent.

The Basics

The six strings of a guitar go from thickest to thinnest. The topmost thickest one is the low E string, also called 6th string. The next thickest is A, or the  5th string, and so on, all the way to the 1st or the high E. 

The pitch order of strings in standard tuning – from 6th to 1st string or from lowest to highest, is EADGBE. It is recommended to tune your guitar in “reverse” order, starting with the 6th string and finishing up with the 1st. You can help yourself remember this pitch sequence with a mnemonic, such as “Every Apple Does Go Bad Eventually”. 

Now that we have this covered, lets begin with the real work:

6th String: Low E

Play an example of an E note for a reference pitch. If you use a guitar sound, pitch pipe or other simple “tone” it is comparatively easy to tune by ear. If you have to use another instrument such as a piano, you might find the difference in timbre makes it harder to compare the notes’ pitches. You can use the sound provided below.

Have a listen and then play the E string of your guitar. If the two sound perfectly the same, then your sixth string is in tune. It is though more likely for you to hear a difference which means your guitar string is out of tune. Slowly rotate the tuning peg of your sixth string, gradually adjusting in one direction to see if the two notes come into agreement. If they don’t, and you hear that the pitches are becoming further apart, simply reverse your direction and adjust pitch until the two notes match.

5th string: A

Once the E string is in tune, you actually don’t need any more example sounds – from then on you can tune the other strings based on the correctly adjusted 6th string.

Playing the 5th fret on the E string will produce the same note as the open A string. Place your finger on the 5th fret and play the E string and the A string one by one. If the A string sounds higher, rotate its tuning peg to lower its pitch. If it sounds lower, rotate it the other way. Repeat until the notes sound exactly the same. Just to be confident you got it right, have a listen also to the example of a correctly tuned 5th string below.

4th string: D

The note on the 5th fret of the A string is the same as the open note of the D string. Play the two strings in unison, by placing your finger on the 5th fret of the 5th string and plucking the open 4th string. Listen for whether the two notes are the same or have a noticeable gap in pitch. Adjust your tuning peg until you hear they are an exact match.

3rd string: G

When you get to the point to tune your 3rd or G string to the 4th or the D string some timbre problems might occur. On both acoustic and electric guitars there is typically a change in string type: either from nylon to steel or from single strings to wound strings. This affects the timbre of the note and can make it harder to directly compare pitches. 

Don’t be discouraged though, with a few tries you will get the hang of it. The G on the 4th string is at the 5th fret. Use it to tune your 3rd string’s open note the same way you already did with the previous strings – listen, compare, turn the tuning peg, find a match.

2nd string: B

If you’re playing a steel string acoustic, the timbre difference mentioned above will apply for you here. But never fear! Place your finger on the 4th fret of the 3rd string – this will create a B sound, as the open note of your 2nd string should be. I repeat – the 4th fret, not the 5th as in all the cases before. Again, rotate counter-clockwise for higher pitch and clockwise for lower pitch.

1st string: High E

You can tune this one in two ways:

Since your low E string is already tuned, you can tune your high E by referring to it. But as they are two octaves apart, you may find this gap makes it difficult to compare the two pitches.

If you are new to tuning you might want to leave that for later and continue with the method we have been using so far. Placing your finger on the 5th fret of the 2nd or B string will produce an E which sounds exactly how your open first string should. You already know how to continue from there and finish the tuning, right? 

Finishing touches

Before you officially pat yourself on the back and consider the job done, do some checkups. Start by comparing the low E with your source note again and then play each of the note pairs from above to be sure they sound the same. If something doesn’t sound quite right, adjust the tuning of the higher string to match the lower one. This way your tuning is always rooted on your low E string. As you practice tuning and do pitch ear training you’ll find you can sense when a string is out of tune and also directly hear whether it is too high or too low. 

If you’re tuning another instrument or are using different tuning, you might also find it useful to hear an A ‘tuning note’ at 440Hz, so here is a sample of it below:

Of course, this is not the only way to tune your guitar by ear. You can also tune it using natural harmonics, so let us know if you’d like to learn this method. Check out some other ways to tune here and if you want to know more about another one, leave a comment below and you might be responsible for our next article!

If you want some further reading materials on the topic, check out also these articles here and here. For more guides, tips and tricks we invite you to join Neli’s Guitar Family and subscribe to her YouTube channel! If you are ready to dive into the world of guitar (or ukulele) you can sign up for a lesson HERE – the first one is 50% off!

Photo by Bernie Almanzar on Unsplash

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