If you want to play the guitar, you are going to have to learn how to tune it at some point. The sooner you learn how to tune the guitar properly, the sooner you are going to be able to enjoy playing it regularly.
There are several ways to tune an electric guitar, but we are going to be primarily focusing on standard tuning. Although some of these methods are specific to electric guitars, most of them can also be used to tune an acoustic guitar. It is important to be able to tune a guitar in a variety of ways, as you never want to be totally reliant on an electric tuner.
Below is a beginner’s guide on how to tune an electric guitar. It covers the most common ways to tune the guitar, as well as some more modern methods. We also touch on the ideas behind standard tuning and the value of experimenting with alternative tunings.
Tuning the Guitar
The standard tuning for a guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E. There are several useful ways of remembering which note corresponds to which string. Once you know which note you are tuning your strings to, it is time to start tuning. Most electric guitarist use plug-in/pedal tuners but it is also important to learn how to tune an electric guitar without an amp.
Tuning the guitar by ear is the common method of tuning the guitar and is the most valuable lesson to learn as a beginner. With this method you are tuning the guitar to itself. It is important to learn to tune the guitar this way, as it helps your ear to hear pitch variations and relationships between notes.
Here is a step by step walk-through of how to tune the guitar without a tuner:
1. You tune your guitar by turning the pegs on the side of the guitar’s headstock. So before you begin to tune the guitar check your pegs and familiarize yourself with how they turn.
2. Low E string – This method requires the low E string to be in tune already. It is a good idea to tune your E string to a piano’s E for reference. If you do not have a piano available your reference pitch could come from another guitar as well.
3. A String – Play the fifth fret on the Low E string- this is an A. Tune your A string to this note as they should sound the same. This is the method that will be used to tune the rest of the strings.
4. D String – Play the fifth fret on the A string. Tune your D string to this note as they should sound the same.
5. G String – Use the same method to tune the G string.
6. B String – The method changes slightly to tune the B string. Instead of tuning the B to the fifth fret of the G string you should play the fourth fret to find the pitch for the open B string.
7. High E String – To tune the high E string we return to the original fifth fret method.
In reference to the frets you need to remember this method is also called the ‘55545’.
Now that you have learned how to tune your guitar by ear and to itself it is time to have a look at electric tuners. In the future you will probably tune your guitar with an electric tuner more than you tune it by ear. It is important not to forget this skill as it is a valuable way of improving your pitch ear training.
If you want an easier way of tuning your guitar you can opt for one of many electric guitar tuners. There a three different types of tuners: microphone based tuners, vibration based tuners and plug-in/pedal tuners. All have their respective pros and cons and all are widely available and relatively easy to use
1. Microphone based
Microphone based tuners are a great addition to your guitar accessory collection. They are especially useful if you are tuning an electric guitar. As the name suggests, these kind of tuners pick up the sound of each string via a microphone. Most have a simple interface and a display that clearly shows how close your string is to being in tune.
The only real downside is that the microphone will pick up other noise. If you are tuning your guitar this way you will need to find somewhere relatively quiet to do so. Some of these microphone based tuners also have a jack input for your electric guitar.
We would recommend the Korg CA-50.
2. Vibration Based
If you are worried about tuning your guitar in a noisy, place then you should consider using a vibration based tuner for your electric guitar. These tuners clip on to the headstock of the guitar and detect the pitch of each note via vibrations.
Many of these clip-on tuners are small, convenient and make it easy to know when you are in tune, because the needle and interface usually lights up. The only downside of the clip-on tuners is that they may seem like an ugly addition to the head of your electric guitar.
Plug-in or pedal tuners may be the option you end up using most if you plan to play electric guitar on stage. Whereas vibration and microphone based tuners can be used on any guitar, plugin/pedal tuners are designed specifically with electric guitarists in mind.
You connect your electric guitar via a jack lead. The interface will give you an indication via a light or needle as to how close each string is to being in tune. The downside to these kind of tuners is that they are usually far more expensive than vibration or microphone based tuners.
If you have an electric guitar and a smartphone then finding the right tuning app will be important. There are many tuning apps available for free on Apple and Android app stores. But sometimes it is worth investing a bit of money to ensure you get a tuning app that is reliable, fast and easy to use.
Below we have listed a few tuning apps for both iOS and Android that have proved to be useful to many guitarists over the years:
- Cleartune is a widely popular tuning electric guitar tuner app available for both Android and iOS
- VITALtuner is also a great option
- As well as being a fantastic app for learning guitar, Ultimate Guitar: Chords and Tabs also has a handy tuner within the app.
Alternative Guitar Tunings
It is interesting to experiment with alternative tunings. Deviating from the standard tuning can uncover some hidden gems and refresh your playing. Alternative tunings like drop-D are frequently used in genres like heavy metal. More genres like blues and classical have used alternative tunings for many years to great effect.
Popular alternative guitar tunings include:
1. Drop D
Often used in heavy metal and grunge music the Drop D tuning involved tuning the low E string down to a D. This simple tuning trick can open up a world of power chord possibilities. Drop D tuning allows for fast transitions between chords and a deeper, heavier sound.
2. Open G
The Open G tuning was pioneered by Delta Blues players and later adopted by icons of the blues-rock genre like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. A popular string tuning for open-G is D-G-D-G-B-D. This tuning style enables you to play a G major chord on all six strings without fretting or using a capo.
3. Open D
Open D is another useful open major chord tuning. The open string notes in this tuning are D-A-D-F♯-A-D. The open-D tuning is a popular tuning for blues and slide guitar players because you are able to achieve full chords using a bottleneck. This tuning was also used by Bob Dylan in a number of his songs.
All of these tunings, and many more besides can be used to reimagine the fretboard and revitalise your interest in the guitar. As a beginner it can be exciting and ultimately useful to spend time playing around with alternative tunings. It will give you a good sense of the wide possibilities of the guitar and could lead you towards genres of music that may not have previously interested you.
Guitar Tuning As a Beginner
Hopefully, the tips we have mentioned above will help you to begin to understand how to tune an electric guitar. As a beginner it can be an intensely frustrating process to tune your guitar without assistance.
Tuning can also be particularly difficult if you have a cheap guitar that is prone to going out of tune quickly. Make sure that you follow at least one of the methods mentioned above to avoid frustration.
As your skill level on the guitar rises we would encourage you to experiment with your own tunings. If you are writing or composing your own music, it is a valuable asset to be able to find new sounds through tuning.
What are some of your favorite alternative guitar tunings?
Share in the comments below!