A crying baby on a transatlantic flight. Nails on a chalkboard. A loud motorcycle at four in the morning. There’s not much more annoying than an out-of-tune guitar – both for the listener and the player. Knowing how to tune a guitar is a fundamental skill for any guitarist. 

Unfortunately, some people place little importance on tuning their guitars before they play. Over time their ears accept that ‘out-of-tuneness’ as normal. We think these people should be imprisoned and never allowed to interact with modern society. 

Training your hearing early on so you understand how to know if your guitar is in tune is vital to the development of a good ‘musical ear’. 

So, how do you tune a guitar? There are numerous methods including the use of harmonics, apps, pedals, and clip-on devices. Read on, and we’ll break down everything you need to about how to properly tune up a guitar.

How to tune a guitar for beginners

The guitar is not a perfect instrument. They’re mostly made out of wood, which makes them almost like living breathing creatures that will frequently go out of tune depending on room temperature, humidity, and a variety of other factors. 

  • It’s a good idea to get in the habit of tuning your instrument before every practice session.
  • You may have a perfect sounding E major chord, only to find that your G major chord sounds miles out. 
  • Starting to learn guitar is hard enough, but tuning your instrument can be extremely frustrating until you get the hang of it. Fortunately technological help is at hand.

The easiest way to tune your guitar is by using our free online guitar tuner. Check it out – we have simple instructions on exactly how to use it, and it’s super accurate.

If you’re looking to learn how to tune a six-string guitar with your ears (like a true guitarist!), keep on reading.

How to tune a guitar using your ears

Learning how to tune your guitar without the help of an electric tuner or free online guitar tuner will make you a better musician by “training” your ears.

There are two basic methods to tune up a guitar with your ears: 1) unison notes and 2) harmonics.

  • The unison-note method is pretty straight forward: You play a note on one string that matches the exact pitch of the string you’re tuning to see if they’re in tune with each other.
  • The harmonic method might sound like witchcraft at first – it involves barely touching two strings at the right place to create two identical high-pitched notes. The higher pitch makes it easier for you to know if your guitar is in tune.
  • A combination of both techniques usually works best when tuning.

Method 1 – Tuning a guitar with unison notes

This is a quick and reliable method of bringing your guitar to a reasonable state of tuning. Read through the steps below, and use this diagram to help you remember which notes should sound the same while tuning.

Tuning a guitar with unison notes

Step 1. Make sure your low E string is in tune:

If you want to be perfectly in tune, you’ll need to start by making sure that your low E string is in tune. 

  • You can use our free online guitar tuner to check this.
  • Alternatively you can just tune your guitar to whatever pitch your low E string currently is.
  • If you’re playing along, it’s okay to do this, but if you’re playing with others or playing along to a track, you’ll quickly find that this doesn't work.

Other methods of making sure your E string is in tune are using an E tuning fork, a pitch pipe, or a note on a keyboard (if that is also correctly in tune! Acoustic pianos are often notoriously just under the note).

Step 2. Tune the A string

  • Play the 5th fret of the low E String, while also playing the open A string
  • Your goal is for these notes to have the exact same pitch. 
  • Alter the pitch of the A string only by twisting the tuning peg.
  • If the A string note sounds LOWER than the E string note, it’s FLAT. Twist the tuning peg counterclockwise.
  • If the A string note sounds HIGHER than the E string note, it’s SHARP. Twist the tuning peg clockwise.

Step 3. Tune the D string

  • With the A string now in tune we repeat the process, but this time we play the 5th fret of the A string and the open D string at the same time. 
  • Tune the D string (not the A string), using the same instructions as in Step 2.

Steps 4-6. Repeat the process with the remaining strings

Repeat the process for the G, B, and e strings

  • There’s one small change you’ll need to account for when tuning the B string. 
  • The interval between two adjacent strings is usually a 4th. However, between the G and the B Strings, the interval is a Major 3rd. 
  • To adjust for this, play the 4th fret of the G String, and the open B string at the same time.
  • Note: If the tuning pegs are on both sides of your guitar’s headstock (three on one side, and three on the other,) it will appear as if you’re turning the tuning peg in the reverse clockwise direction to make the pitch sharper or flatter.

Step 7. Check your tuning

  • Play a six-string chord, like an E major or a G major. 
  • This will give you an idea of how your accurate your tuning is.

Method 2 - Tuning a guitar using harmonics

Harmonics are high-pitched notes created by shortening a guitar string's vibrating length. 

  • To tune a guitar with harmonics, you’ll use natural harmonics
  • These are created by lightly touching certain "sweet spots" on the fretboard – for example, the 12th, 7th, and 5th frets. 
  • When you lightly touch the string directly above one of these frets and pick, you’ll hear a high-pitched note that’s created by shortening the string's length and vibrating wavelength.

This method is more complicated, but the final result is usually more accurate than the fretting method outlined earlier. Once you read through the steps below, refer to this diagram so you know where you play a harmonic for each note.

Tuning a guitar using harmonics

Step 1. Make sure your low E string is in tune.

Refer to Method 1 for a breakdown of how to do this.

Step 2. Tune your A string

  • Play a harmonic over the 5th fret of the Low E String by gently placing your finger over the metal fret and plucking the string.
  • If you apply too much pressure, you won’t hear the harmonic – experiment to find the sweet spot.
  • Then play another harmonic over the 7th fret of the A string. 
  • Adjust the A string to sound in unison with the harmonic on the E String. 
  • Repeat this a few times to make sure there is no beating wave sound between the two harmonics. 
  • They should be as close to a unison sound as possible.

Steps 3 & 4. Repeat the process to tune the D & G strings

Refer to the tips in Method 1 to know which way to turn your tuning pegs, and trust your ear!

Step 5. Tune the B string 

  • At this point, because of the major 3rd tuning between the G and B Strings, we have to find some alternatives. 
  • Play a harmonic over the 4th fret of the D string and the 7th fret of the B string (or the 4th fret of the G string  and the 5th of the B string).

Steps 6 & 7. Tune the E string and check your work

  • You know what to do for the E string.
  • Once you’re in tune, check how you did with an open chord.
  • If it doesn’t sound right, head back to step 2!
  • You can also finish with a harmonic over the 5th fret of the low E String and an open high E string – this will tell you how accurately you tuned the strings.

Why you can’t get your guitar in tune

If you’ve tuned your guitar with the most accurate of guitar tuners, and it still doesn’t sound right, your intonation is probably out of whack.

  • If you play an open note on one string and it doesn’t sound the same as the note played on same string’s the 12th fret, your string isn’t properly intonated, and you’ll never be able to get 100% in tune.
  • Getting your guitar checked out by a guitar technician goes a long way to easing the headaches commonly associated with tuning and intonation. 
  • Any local guitar store will be able to help you with this.

When it comes to tuning by ear, even a small amount of error adds up by the time you tune all six strings. 

Grant yourself patience in learning this skill, and know that tuning your guitar gets much easier over time. As you learn, it’s important to use technological aids so you can train your ears to pick up on accurate tuning – our free guitar tuner is perfect for this and even allows you to play around with open tunings… but that’s a story for another day.