Have you ever heard somebody play an out-of-tune guitar? It certainly isn’t the same crisp, rockin’ sound of one that is perfectly and harmoniously tuned. Tuning an electric guitar can be done in several ways, both with or without an amplifier or any equipment at all!
An amplifier is not necessary to tune an electric guitar. Instead, tuning can be done through tuning pedals, clips, online apps, or even by ear. This is because amplifiers are primarily used to project sound, usually for music concerts and events, not for tuning instruments.
So if an amp isn’t available when your guitar needs tuning, don’t fret! This article will provide all the information you need to learn the basics of guitar tuning with and without equipment. I’ll also discuss a few of the different devices and tuning methods on the market
Understand Standard and Alternate Guitar Tuning
Before fully grasping how to tune your guitar correctly, it’s essential to understand the difference between standard and alternate types of tuning. Each has its merits but ultimately, the choice comes down to preference and accuracy. Generally if you’re looking for accuracy, the best choice is usually equipment-based tuning.
Since guitars only have six strings (unlike a piano with a range of close to ninety keys), standard tuning is most often in the keys of E-A-D-G-B-E. The low E is the thickest string on the guitar or the topmost string when holding the instrument in playing position.
Sometimes, musicians choose alternate tuning keys to create different-sounding songs. For example, a common alternate tuning scale is D-A-D-G-A-D (dadgad).
Led Zeppelin’s unique tune Black Mountainside is a popular song that uses this scale. Joni Mitchell, too, used Dadgad in her music. You can check it out on this video:
Choosing to tune your guitar in standard or alternate scales is a personal decision based on how you want your music to sound. Of course, this guide will teach you how to change the sound of your instrument any time you want to mix things up.
1. Tune Your Guitar With Equipment
Two well-known devices used to tune an electric guitar are tuning clips and tuning pedals. Each accomplishes the same goal with relatively high accuracy but in different ways. Musicians use clip-on and pedal tuners in several types of environments.
A tuning clip is essentially a tuner that gets clipped onto the headstock of a guitar (the piece with the tuning pegs on it). When a string is played, the vibration of the note on the guitar’s body gets converted into an electric signal through the tuner.
A small screen on the clip will display whether the note is in tune, sharp (a little higher), or flat (a little lower) than it should be.
The display varies in appearance depending on the brand of tuner purchased. Some tuning clips will have a screen with red and green lights to signal a guitar string that is not tuned (the green light will flash when the string is tuned).
Others will use an arrow or notch that points to green, yellow, or red colors to help guide you to the correct note.
Strings are typically tuned individually by either plucking the string and tightening the tuning peg to give the string a higher pitch or loosening the peg to lower the pitch.
Tuning clips are top-rated because they are discreet and lightweight. Some can be left on the headstock to ensure the instrument is in tune throughout its use.
They’re also handy because they work through vibrations, thus an excellent tuner for loud environments where it may be difficult for the device to hear the instrument’s sound.
Tuning pedals are another simple and popular tool for guitar tuning. Essentially, the guitar is plugged into the tuning pedal with an input cable, and the pedal is plugged into an energy source of its own.
The exact process is then completed: after plugging in the guitar, each string should be played independently and tuning pegs adjusted (according to the display on the pedal’s screen).
The difference is that while tuning clips use the vibration of the guitar’s body to tune the instrument, the pedal uses the electrical signal from the guitar’s input to identify the string’s pitch.
Since these two methods are so different, you might wonder how they accurately measure the guitar strings’ tune.
Electric guitars are built with magnetic devices called pick-ups, which sit beneath the strings on the guitar’s body and capture the instrument’s vibrations. The vibrations are then directed through the input cable as electrical signals and are translated into pitches based on hertz.
A pitch refers to how fast or slow a sound is vibrating. The faster the vibration, the higher the frequency. If the vibration is slow, the frequency is low.
Frequencies and pitches are measured in hertz, and both tuning clips and pedals use hertz as a measurement to identify the guitar’s tune. That’s how both types of tuners work similarly and maintain consistent results.
Most instruments are tuned using standard tuning as mentioned previously (E-A-D-G-B-E). In measurement terms, this means that when plucked, each note vibrates at a particular frequency (or speed), producing a different pitch based on how tight or loose the string is wound.
Based on standard tuning, the low E string will vibrate at 82 hertz per second and the highest E at 330 hertz per second. For instruments to sound well together, they should be consistently tuned so that the A above middle C on a musical scale vibrates at 440 hertz per second. This produces the standard guitar tuning pitches.
Having a standardardization of hertz is important for musicians that play in bands. When bands play multiple instruments together, all of their instruments should be tuned according to the standard.
2. Tuning Apps, Software and Websites
If tuning devices aren’t available, the most accessible way to tune your guitar is through a tuning application or website. A quick google search should provide countless free sites that will play out the note’s pitch, and all you have to do is make each string sound similar to the pitch being played.
Another simple method is to use a tuned piano or guitar as a reference point. Play the key that you want to hear, and try to match your desired string to the sound of the key.
Both of these methods require the presence of another instrument and a good ear for sound. Luckily anyone can develop a good ear with enough practice and dedication.
Suppose you’ve got no tuning devices, no reference points, and an untuned guitar. Getting your instrument in good shape is still possible with nothing but your instrument and a good ear.
3. Tune Your Guitar by Ear
Tuning a guitar by ear is tricky business but possible nonetheless. It starts with tuning one string and using it as a reference for the other five. This is called the 5th Fret Method.
To understand the 5th Fret Method, some terminology needs to be familiar. On the neck of a guitar are intervals called frets. Pressing down on any string at any fret is called fretting
Fretting produces a different pitch because it changes the frequency. If you strum a string without closing it on any fret, they are playing an open string.
Playing both frets and open notes is necessary to tune your guitar using the 5th Fret Method.
Using the 5th Fret Method
This method is far from the easiest, but it you have no other options it’s a decent alternative:
- Ensure the sixth string (the low E and the topmost string when playing) is as in-tune as possible. Having a good ear for music is handy here, but whether you manage to get the string close or not, the instrument will sound tuned in the end because all strings are based on the pitch of the sixth string.
- Next you must fret the sixth string at the fifth interval and play it. It’s important to be familiar with this as you must go into the next step quickly.
- Play your open 5th string (A, 110 hertz) immediately after, and compare the sounds. Tune your fifth string to match the fretted 6th string. You may have to pluck each string a few times to get it right. When holding the guitar in a playing position, the 5th Fret Method tunes the strings from top to bottom and pitch-wise, low to high.
- Repeat this for the fifth, fourth, and third strings. The fifth fret of one note is compared and matched to the open note below it.
- When reaching the second string (B, 247 hertz), you must tune it to the third string fretted at the 4th interval instead of the fifth as was used for the previous four notes. The open second string is then played and tuned to match.
- Finally, you return to the fifth fret on the second string to tune your open first string. To check your work, the first and sixth strings should sound like the same note in different octaves when played simultaneously. Essentially, each note should sound like the 4th or 5th frets of the string below it.
Tuning your instrument using the 5th Fret Method is one way to develop your musical ear. However, it’s not recommended for beginner guitar players because familiarizing themselves with properly standardized pitches is essential to developing a good ear for music.
If you want the challenge, you can use a tuning device or app to get your low E sounding like it’s vibrating at 82 hertz per second and try the 5th Fret Method from there. That way, if you’ve gotten the method right, your guitar should be perfectly tuned when you’re all done!
The Best Tuners on the Market
As technology advances, tuners are becoming more and more precise, with many different brands that all have unique features. Below is a list of the best clip-on and pedal tuners (available on Amazon.com) in 2022 and some popular tuning apps and websites, according to artist and musician David Dino White.
Portable, incredibly convenient, and simple to use, clip-on tuners are a must-have for any gigging guitarist. They’re incognito for tuning up your instrument in between songs and don’t require the handling of input cables.
Snark is a company that creates a wide variety of clip-on tuners, including ones specific to other instruments like the violin, ukulele, or bass guitar. Easy to use with a simple watch battery, Snark clip-on tuners are a great, inexpensive, and reliable device. Snark also has rechargeable tuners that can be charged with a USB cord.
The PolyTune clip-on tuners are produced by TC Electronics. Developed by two musician brothers, TC Electronics has grown as a company since the 1980s and offers an array of audio equipment, from loop pedals to effects processors.
The PolyTune clip-on tuners are excellent devices, but they are on the pricey side. If you’re willing to spend a little more on a quality tuner, this one is one of the best.
The Korg pitchclip 2+ is a uniquely designed tuner that looks sleek on any guitar’s headstock. The digital screen is straightforward to read and has 24-hour battery life. Korg tuners are slightly less expensive than Poly clips but still an excellent option with accurate pitch readings.
Pedal tuners are efficient for stage playing because of their durability and unique features. Pedal tuners are built to be stepped on. They are strong and usually have a mute function that temporarily disconnects the guitar from the soundboard so the musician’s tuning process doesn’t interrupt or distract bandmates.
TC Electronics is the company behind the PolyTune pedal tuner, believe it or not, and they designed it for both bass and electric guitars. The pedal is perfect for onstage events and long gigs or jam sessions, as it doesn’t rely solely on battery power like the clip-on tuners.
Again, TC Electronics doesn’t sell its products for cheap. However, if you’re willing to spend the money, this pedal will not disappoint.
Another nice function of the PolyTune pedal is the True Bypass switch. Usually, when the tuner pedal is on, the audience can’t hear the guitarist tuning and plucking their guitar strings.
The True Bypass switch allows the sound to bypass the mute function, which is useful if you’re playing a complete set with little time in between each song.
A second pedal with True Bypass is the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner. A durable, wireless pedal, chromatic tuners are especially useful when tuning your guitar to an alternate style, like D-A-D-G-A-D in Led Zeppelin’s song mentioned above or other unique tuning styles. The term chromatic refers to all of the notes on a scale.
Unlike chromatic tuners that only tune one string at a time, polyphonic tuners can assess the pitches of all six strings when played simultaneously. An example of a polyphonic tuner is the Korg polyphonic tuner.
It’s got a bright screen that flashes red and green to indicate pitch, but it’s not a pedal nor a clip. Instead, it’s got small buttons to turn the device on or mute it.
Apps and Websites
Tuning websites are the free option and can be easily found through a quick ‘guitar tuning’ google search. However, some go-to free tuning sites, such as Fender.com, can help you adjust your instrument, whether it’s an electric, acoustic, bass guitar, or ukulele! Fender.com also has a free tuning app with a link on their website that you can download onto your smartphone.
Other tuning software, like PitchPerfect, can be downloaded onto your Mac or Windows computer. PitchPerfect works by listening to the string played through a microphone, which is usually built into laptop computers already.
The interface uses green and red arrows to guide the pitch to the right frequency. It also provides you with the number of hertz for each note, just as certain pedals and clips might.
TC Electronics also has a tuning app available on the app store called PolyTune. You can download it for a price but unless you’re looking for extreme precision (in which case, you should buy a tuner instead of using an app), free websites and applications do the trick just fine.
The convenience of apps and websites is how easily accessible they are from any computer or smartphone that can reach the internet.
To summarize, there are several ways to tune a guitar with and without equipment. Clip-on tuners, pedal tuners, and tuning apps are the most efficient devices to use, but with practice, tuning by ear is by far the quickest method.
Tuners have different ways to translate frequency into the pitch by measuring the hertz of each string, and each type of device has benefits and drawbacks. With all this information in mind, choosing the most appropriate tuner for your instrument should be a total breeze!