For beginners, having to tune an acoustic guitar can be a very daunting thing! That is especially true if you don’t have a tuner to help you make sure you are doing it right. So, how can you tune your guitar to perfection without using a device?
To tune an acoustic guitar without a tuner, the ‘5th fret’ method is the simplest and most common way to do it, but the harmonic method is more accurate. You will need to use a reference note to tune the guitar to concert pitch, which lets you play with other instruments.
There are a few different ways to do it. Some are a bit more tricky than others! In this article, we’ll be going through each of these methods in detail to show you how to tune an acoustic guitar by ear, so let’s get stuck in!
Overview On How To Tune An Acoustic Guitar
Before we get started, you will need to understand a couple of things for these methods to make any sense to you. For example, it is important to know that the strings on a guitar are EADGBe, with the capital E being the lowest string and the lower-case e being the highest string.
When I say ‘lowest’ string, I mean the string with the lowest pitch. Confusingly, the lowest string is physically higher on the guitar. The lowest string is also the thickest.
It is also good to know some basic terminology when it comes to the different parts of the guitar:
- The ‘body’ refers to the large hollow bit that makes up the bulk of the guitar.
- The ‘soundhole’ is the hole in the body behind the strings.
- The ‘neck’ is the long plank that runs from the body to the top of the guitar.
- The lines on the neck are called the ‘frets.’
- The bit with the tuning knobs on the end is called the ‘head.’
- The tuning knobs, by the way, are called ‘machine heads.’
You also have to know that playing a string ‘open’ means that you play the string without altering the note. In other words, it means you play the string without placing your hand on any of the frets. You also need to know how the frets work.
If I mention playing, for example, the 2nd fret on a certain string, that means it is two frets higher than the note when you play the string open. As another example, the 5th fret is two frets closer to the body of the guitar than the 3rd fret.
Why Does My Guitar Need To Be in Tune?
This may seem obvious, but many beginners do not intuitively understand why tuning is so important. What it essentially boils down to is that a poorly-tuned guitar just sounds awful! Even someone without a trained ear will be able to tell that something sounds very wrong on your guitar, so it is crucial to make sure you are in tune before any sort of performance.
How Often Do I Need To Tune My Guitar?
This is a very commonly asked question among beginners. The answer really depends on a few factors, but it is good practice to simply tune the guitar every time you pick it up to play it. As you get more experienced, you will instantly tell whether or not your guitar needs tuning. For beginners, though, you cannot get enough practice! You will be glad that you have thoroughly practiced tuning when it comes time to tune on a loud and busy stage!
What Is Concert Pitch For Tuning?
There are two ways a guitar can be in tune. First, it can be in tune with itself. This means that the intervals between the notes played by the different strings are correct and consistent. If a guitar is in tune with itself, playing the guitar in isolation will sound good. The problem is that you are often not just playing by yourself. If you want to collaborate with other artists or practice to a backing track, your guitar will need to be tuned to concert pitch.
If a guitar is in concert pitch, then the note played by the E string, for example, will be exactly the same note as an E played on a digital keyboard. In other words, concert pitch is a standard pitch frequency that can be used as a reference to make sure that multiple instruments are in tune not only with themselves but also with each other! There are a few different ways to get into concert pitch, which we will discuss later in the post.
Do I Need To Tune Up or Down?
This is a common question among beginners. At first, it can be hard to tell if the string you are tuning is too low (flat) or too high (sharp). For beginners, using the oscillations will help you to avoid this problem. Eventually, you will be able to tell instantly whether a string is flat or sharp just by hearing the notes. It is important to remember that this takes practice! Do not be put off if you can’t hear the difference at first. You will train your ear over time.
Getting Rid of Oscillations
One more thing before we get into the actual methods for tuning a guitar without a tuner. When you play the same note on two different strings, but the strings are slightly out of tune with each other, you will be able to hear an oscillation, or ‘wobble,’ between the two notes. This is especially true if using the harmonic method, which will be described below. These oscillations, also called ‘beats,’ can help you to find out when the two strings are in tune with each other.
The oscillations sound like the note is coming in ‘waves.’ In other words, rather than one continuous note, it sounds like the note is going back and forth between two different sounds really quickly. The closer the two strings are to being in tune, the slower the oscillations will become. If you hear the distance between ‘beats’ getting larger and larger, that means you are tuning in the right direction. Keep going until there are no oscillations at all. You are now in tune!
The Fifth Fret Method
Now, it is time to get into some real techniques for making sure your guitar is in tune. The first method we will look at is one of the simplest and is the first method I learned myself many years ago. As you become more experienced, you might leave this method behind, but it is a vital technique for beginners to learn, as it will help to train your ear and is an easy way to get your guitar sounding perfect.
It is worth noting that this method will only help you to get the guitar into tune with itself. We will talk later on about how to get the guitar into concert pitch and also into tune with itself. For the next section, we will assume that the E string is already in concert tuning. To be clear, the 5th fret refers to the space between the 4th and 5th of the metal ridges along the neck of the guitar when moving from the head to the body.
How Is It Done?
This is kind of hard to describe, but I will do my best. In standard tuning, the note played on the 5th fret of each string plays the same note as the string above. When you play the 5th fret of the low E string, the note played is an A. That is because each fret corresponds to a half step, meaning that every two frets up is one full tone. Looking at a diagram of each note on the fretboard will help you understand this, and the 5th fret method will make more sense.
Moving up the frets on the E string then, will go like this: Open = E, 1st = F, 2nd = F#, 3rd = G, 4th = Ab, and 5th = A. Because the second-lowest string of the guitar is an A, the fifth fret on the E string should be the same note as the second string. If the open note on the A string is lower than the note played on the 5th fret of the E string, you need to tune the A string up until the two notes sound exactly the same. Use the oscillations to help you figure out if they are the same.
So, if you play the 5th fret on the low E, that works as a reference point that you can use to tell if the A string is in tune with the E string. If the A string plays a lower note than the 5th fret of the E string, you need to tune the A string up in pitch. To use the proper terminology, this would mean that the A string is ‘flat’ and needs to be ‘sharpened’ until it is the same pitch as the note played on the 5th fret of the E string.
This basic method works for all the strings except the B string, the second-highest string on the guitar. To tune the A string, compare the note to the 5th fret on the E string. To tune the D string, use the 5th fret on the A string. To tune the G, use the 5th fret on the D. To tune the B, however, you need to compare the note to the 4th fret of the G string. Then it is back to normal, with the 5th fret on the B string being the same note as the open note on the high E.
The Harmonic Method
This tuning method is a little more tricky than the last, but if mastered, it can be an excellent way to make sure your tuning is correct. It involves the use of string harmonics, which can take a little getting used to. Here is some info on how to tune using harmonics:
What Are String Harmonics?
The physics behind string harmonics is somewhat tricky. Basically, you are creating a ‘node’ at certain points in the string, changing the shape of the sound wave. Harmonics are overtones that are in harmony with the fundamental note.
By creating a node, you isolate the overtones to create a chimey sound like a bell. Harmonics can be used to give flavor to your performances as well as tuning, so it is good to know how they work.
How To Play Harmonics
Harmonics only work on certain frets. The easiest to play is the 12th fret harmonic. The way it works is you very gently press your finger against the string on the 12th fret, but without pressing the string down. You then pluck the string close to the bridge and release your left hand from the 12th fret at the same time. The same can be done on the 7th, 5th, and 4th frets. Keep practicing these until the string continues to chime even when you are not touching it.
How To Tune Using Harmonics
Once you have mastered playing harmonics, it is time to start using them to tune. This works in a similar way to the fifth fret method, in that you use one string to tune another. However, you will be able to tune with more accuracy using harmonics! This is another method for tuning the guitar to itself and will not put the guitar in concert tuning. For that, you would need an external reference point like a note on a keyboard or from a tuning fork.
If you play a harmonic on the 5th fret of the low E string, the pitch should be identical to a harmonic played on the 7th fret of the A string. Using this method, you should really be able to hear the oscillations very clearly. As mentioned above, tune the string you are trying to get in tune until the oscillations get slower and slower and finally disappear. The 5th fret harmonic corresponds to the 7th fret harmonic of the next string up for the first four strings.
So, the 5th fret on the E string corresponds to the 7th fret on the A. 5th fret on the A corresponds to the 7th fret on the D. 5th fret on the D corresponds to the 7th fret on the G. As usual, the B is where it gets a little tricky. When using harmonics to tune the B string, compare the open B string’s note to the 7th fret harmonic on the low E string. To tune the high E string, compare the open note to the 7th fret harmonic on the A string.
Using an External Reference Note
I have talked a lot about the difference between tuning the guitar to itself and tuning it to concert pitch. This is the only way to get your guitar in concert pitch without using a tuner! Using a reference note means that you are playing a note from an external source, then tuning the strings of your guitar to that note by comparing the difference between the two. Remember to use the oscillations to tell when you have got it right!
There are a few different ways you can get a reference note that will put your guitar in concert tuning (Related article: how to know if a guitar is tuned correctly). Remember, however, that just because you used a reference note of some sort doesn’t mean you are tuned to concert pitch. Using another guitar that is lying around, for example, will not necessarily work because the other guitar is probably also not tuned to concert pitch.
Here are a few of the ways you can use a reference note to tune your guitar to concert pitch:
This works in much the same way as a tuning fork, only with extra options for notes. You can play an E note on a keyboard, then tune the E string of your guitar up or down until the two notes sound the same. You can then move up and do the same thing using an A note on a piano to tune the A string of the guitar and so on. If you have mastered tuning the guitar to itself, you can simply use the keyboard to tune one string, then tune the rest of the strings to that one.
While it is pretty old-fashioned, a tuning fork is still a great way to get into concert pitch. A tuning fork is a piece of metal that vibrates at concert pitch of a certain note. If you have a tuning fork that produces an E note, for example, you strike the tuning fork off something, then tune the E string of your guitar to the note produced by the tuning fork. If you then tune the rest of your strings to the E string, the whole guitar will be in concert pitch.
Some great websites can help you get your guitar into concert pitch. I use Fender’s Online Acoustic Tuner. Simply click the button which corresponds to a string, then play the same string on your guitar at the same time. If the note on your guitar is lower than the note played by the website, you will need to tune the string up (to a higher pitch) until the two notes are exactly the same.
Now that we have gone through the different ways to tune a guitar to standard tuning, it is time to get into some more advanced stuff. Alternate tunings can be a great way to expand your range of sounds and styles! Joni Mitchell seldom played in standard! Some of the tunings can be quite tricky, though. In this section, we’ll look at a couple of the most popular acoustic guitar tunings and show you which frets to use to tune the guitar correctly.
Open D and DADGAD
From ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ to ‘Even Flow’, open D is one of the most popular alternate tunings around. The name comes from the fact that when you play the strings’ open’, you get the chord of D major. Open D is a great tuning for playing the blues with a slide, for example, on the classic ‘Dust My Broom’ by Elmore James. Once you have gotten the guitar into open D, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to great songs to learn!
To tune to open D, first, you need to go to drop D. That means you tune your low E string to the D string. While the D string will be an octave higher, you will still be able to use it as a reference note and tune using the oscillations. In order to check that you have done it right, compare the 7th fret of the E string (now a D string) to the open note of the A string. The 5th fret of the A string will still correspond to the open note of the D string.
When tuning the G, you will have to use the 4th fret of the D string since the G is being tuned instead to an F#. Next, use the 3rd fret of the G string (now an F# string) as a reference note for the B string since you are tuning the B to an A. As usual, the 5th fret on the B string corresponds to the open note on the high E. In summary, the notes of the strings should now be DADF#AD. Try using a keyboard to double-check you got the notes right!
Another great tuning is DADGAD, which is the same as open D, only you do not have to do anything to the G string! So, drop the low E to a D. 7th fret on the E (now D) string corresponds to open on the A. 5th on the A is open on the D. 5th on the D corresponds to the open note on the G. Now use the 2nd fret on the G as a reference note to tune the B string to an A. Finally, the 5th fret on the B (now A) string is used to tune the E string to a G
This is one for the hard rockers among you. Like drop D, this tuning follows the same pattern as standard tuning, but the lowest string is dropped by a tone. This tuning requires you to lower the tuning on every string of the guitar. First, however, you need to get the low C right. C is four semitones beneath E (C-C#-D-Eb-E), which means that the note you use to tune the lowest string to the second-lowest will be four frets higher.
The first thing is to play the 9th fret on the E string, then compare it to the open note of the A string. The note played on the 9th fret of the E will be significantly higher. Keep tuning the E string down until the notes are identical and you can no longer hear any oscillations. Now, use the 7th fret of the E (now C) string as a reference note to tune the A string to a G. Once that is done, the method is the same as the 5th fret method for standard tuning!
So, the 5th fret on the A string corresponds to the open note on the D. The 5th fret on the D is the open G. The 4th fret on the G is the open B, and the 5th fret on the B is the open E. Remember, however, that you will have to tune each of the highest five strings down by two semitones. The final result of this will be a guitar that sounds very low-pitched and chunky. Perfect for playing heavy metal!
For a quick note on open tunings, Joni Mitchell used so many different tunings that people have developed a system of notation for them. For open D, this would be D75435. The ‘D’ refers to the fact that the lowest string is tuned to D. The numbers after it represents the frets you use as a reference note to tune the next string up. For example, the 7th fret of the lowest string is the open note of the next highest, and so on.
While tuning can be a daunting prospect for beginners, knowing how to do it by ear is a great skill that will serve you well. Tuners are everywhere now, but you may well find yourself in situations where you will not have one, for example, if you are playing around a campfire.
The 5th fret method is the simplest way to tune the guitar to itself, but the harmonic method will give you greater accuracy. Tuning to an external reference note is the only way to get into concert pitch, which will allow you to play with other instruments.