Tuning a Guitar
Tuning any musical instrument is easy once you get the hang of it. If you are reading this, then you either need to know some basics about tuning, or you are just interested in how other people tune their guitars. This section is divided into 2 small sections. The first guides a novice user through basically tuning a guitar (acoustic and electric). The second section addresses the subject of intonation and explains how you can correctly adjust it.
Electronic guitar tuners
It is worthwhile investing in a good guitar tuner. Not only will this allow you to tune faster, it will make you sound better. See our quick guide on selecting a tuner.
"It is worthwhile investing in a good guitar tuner"
Warning: Strings can break!
The first thing to mention is really the most important, especially for novices. When you tighten a string to tune it, you are putting it under a lot of tension. Under normal circumstances this is not a problem, but if your guitar has some rough parts that can snag a string, or if you incorrectly tune it and over-tighten the string, it will break. Because it is under so much tension, the string can cause a lot of damage — a string snapping under high tension can easily cut your finger, or if you are unlucky, damage an eye!
The bottom line is: DON’T over-tighten strings, if in any doubt, tune DOWN!
If you are an octave too low you’ll realise soon enough. If you’re an octave too high, you might damage your guitar, or yourself!!! Be warned.
Tune one string at a time
It is usually best to start with the bottom string (the fattest one). The reason for this is that this string usually has the most tension, and it’s “pulling” effect on the guitar’s neck is the highest. The force that each string excerts on the neck causes the neck to bend slightly. As it bends, all of the other strings detune! If you tune the heaviest string, you will detune all the other strings, but this is less important if you still have to tune the other strings. This effect is more pronounced if your guitar has a tremolo.
Tuning a string
Tuning a string is very simple if you follow one basic rule: ALWAYS tune UP to the note. What this means is that once you get close the the correct note, you should end the tuning procedure whilst you are increasing the pitch of the string. The reason for this is simple: if you end whilst decreasing the string’s pitch the string can slip on the tuning peg, making the string detune again. By always ending as you increase the pitch, you make string slippage less likely and therefore your guitar will stay in tune longer.
To begin tuning, ensure your tuner is getting a clear signal — the indicator (needle, strobe, LED etc) should be steady and not wobbling about. It is worth ensuring everything is setup correctly to get a good signal as it makes tuning much easier and more reliably.
If the tuner indicates you are off-pitch (i.e., flat or sharp), or you want to tune to a different note, just turn the appropriate tuning peg and watch the indicator move. In most cases you won’t have to turn the peg very far. When the indicator gets close to the "in-tune" position (with the correct note being displayed) only turn the tuning peg gradually until the "in-tune" is reached. If you found that you were decreasing the pitch to get to this point, you should detune slightly and then tune back up again (see earlier). Remember, try to end whilst tuning UP.
Tuning all the strings
To tune the remaining strings, simply repeat the above procedure until all strings have been tuned. You guitar will probably not be tuned yet! As mentioned above, as you tune one string, all the other strings detune slightly. Therefore you should repeat the above procedure starting at the heaviest string. Repeat this procedure until all strings are in tune (good tuners, including all sonuus tuners, will allow you to tune accurately to < 0.5 cents; although for pitch-to-MIDI applications a few cents sharp or flat is often acceptable). The number of times you tune each string depends on what kind of guitar you have.
Adjusting Intonation . . .
The first thing a novice will ask is what is intonation? Put simply, good intonation means that your guitar stays in tune as you play different notes along the neck. You may have a string that is perfectly in tune but at the 10th fret, it is half a semitone out. This is a classic case of bad intonation.
Poor intonation is caused by a mismatch between the length of the string and the spacing of the frets of the guitar. It can also be caused by non-uniform strings where their thickness changes along their length, as in the case of old corroded strings. If you have old strings, don’t attempt to change your intonation. Conversely, if you can’t fix the intonation, try changing your strings and see if that helps.
On an electric guitar intonation is easily adjusted as the bridge usually consists of separate adjustable parts, one for each string. The intonation on an acoustic guitar can be adjusted slightly, but that is a job for professionals. (Buying tip: if you are buying an acoustic guitar, check its intonation. If it is bad then don’t buy it!)
. . . on an electric guitar
- First: make sure you have a good tuner; a poor tuner will not allow you to adjust your intonation accurately and may make your instrument sound worse!
- Second: make sure your strings are new.
- Third: tune your guitar as mentioned above.
Now play a note at a high fret (12th is typical) being careful not to bend the string. If the note is out-of-tune then the intonation is out. The intonation adjustment is different on different guitars, but the aim is the same. If the fretted note is flat, this means that the string is too long. Conversely, if the fretted not is sharp, the string is too short. Once you have decided whether you have to shorten the string (note was flat) or lengthen the string (note was sharp), adjust the string slightly by moving the appropriate bridge piece. Note that you may have to detune the string to move the bridge.
Once the bridge has been adjusted, retune the string and recheck the intonation. You may find that you have to repeat this procedure several times on each string. It can be a time consuming process the first time you do it but it is worth it.
- Don’t break strings.
- End by tuning UP to the note; NEVER down.
- Use a good quality electronic tuner — cheap, inaccurate, tuners are false economy!
- Fix your intonation. It’ll make your instrument sound much better, and you’ll be in tune with everyone else.
- Have fun… that’s the important part after all.