How to Tune Your Guitar by Ear
One very overlooked habit of most guitar players is the tendency to use their eyes, rather than their ears, for basic music tasks such as tuning, learning songs, or watching their hands while they play guitar. Of these, “aural training” or ear training is one of the most critical parts of playing guitar or any instrument. The ability to “know” how something is supposed to sound depends on your ability to hear it. A very good way to develop this “aural” skill is by tuning the guitar by ear.
In the beginning, it will seem almost impossible to tune your guitar by ear. However, by practicing the process below every time you sit down to play, you will be amazed how quickly your ears will pick up on the subtleties of a “tuned” guitar. If you do not have an electronic tuner, you will have to resort to tuning by ear.
For the purposes of learning to “tune” your guitar by ear, I recommend you use an electronic tuner. This might seem counter-intuitive, but when used correctly, an electronic tuner will help you train your ear quickly.
Note: This article presumes you can tune your guitar with and electronic tuner.
How to Tune Your Guitar by Ear – Step by Step
- Begin by using the tuner to tune the sixth string (E) only. Turn off the tuner.
- Pluck the “A” note at the 5th fret of the sixth string. While it is ringing, pluck the fifth string (A) open (not fretted). These two tones are both “A” notes and should sound the same pitch. Listen closely.
- if the open string (A) is lower than the first tone, tighten the peg of the fifth string until it sounds the same.
- if the open string is higher, then turn the peg in the opposite direction to loosen it.
** Repeat this process until you think you have them sounding the same. Spend about 30-45 seconds – the tones will waver when not in tune. Listen and try to tune the pegs while the notes are ringing!
- When you think you’re close, power up the tuner. Tune ONLY the fifth string (A). Take note how close you came and if the string is higher or lower than you thought.
- Use the tuner to fine-tune the string if necessary. Turn off the tuner. (It is important to actually power down the tuner so you are not tempted to look at it while tuning. You MUST only use your ears!)
- Next, play the “D” note at the 5th fret of the fifth string. While it is ringing, play the fourth string (D) open (not fretted). Repeat the process in step 2, and then use the tuner to check yourself. If it’s in tune, congratulations! If not, fine-tune and turn off the tuner.
- Repeat this process using the “G” note at the fifth fret of the 4th string. Repeat Step 2 and check the tuner. Fine tune the open string and power off the tuner.
- IMPORTANT! The third string (G) uses the 4th fret as its “tuning” note (see diagram). Make sure you’re tuning a B note!!
- Lastly, pluck the “E” note on the 5th fret of the second string and use it to tune the first string. Fine tune as before and use the tuner to check your accuracy.
You are DONE! You’re in tune and you have trained your ears. Do this process every day. It will go quicker as you get better. Don’t feel bad if you weren’t very accurate. It takes practice to get better at hearing the intimate details of notes and pitches. If you really struggle, find a guitar teacher to help you along. Once you can tune by ear, your confidence will be stronger and your ability to hear music will be enhanced. How can you use this today?
About the author: Ken K is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher living in Colorado who helps students improve their guitar playing and have fun playing guitar. Contact Ken if you are interested in guitar lessons in Littleton, Centennial, Ken Caryl, Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree or other southwest suburbs of Denver, CO.