Before we dive in, though, there are a few points and concepts that need to be discussed…
The process we are going to review is geared towards what is called standard tuning. Standard tuning is a particular set of notes that each string is tuned to, and it is used extensively. Pretty much every song you’ve heard or tried to play uses standard tuning, and it is the basis for how most guitarists learn how to play.
Here’s a side note – as you gain more experience playing the guitar, you may come across the idea of different note setups for each string, called ‘alternate tunings.’ They can have a big benefit in getting a tonal color that you can’t get from standard tuning, and chord fingerings can be simplified. Alternate tuning is a fairly broad topic all to itself – plus, it can be confusing to many beginners – so we are going to stick exclusively with standard tuning for now.
So what is manual tuning?
The guitar is a unique instrument in that there are many ways to play the same note, with the same pitch, on different strings. This is unlike a more linear instrument like the piano, where each key represents a specific note that can’t be played anywhere else on the keyboard.
“At a young age I thought, ‘Wow, that fiddle thing, that’s pretty cool. That mandolin is great. These drums, I like these drums… ‘ They were Indian drums. And I was saying, ‘But that guitar. That guitar. Girls are going to like that guitar.” Robbie Robertson
In its purest form, manual tuning is a series of steps where you use notes from other strings to compare to the string you are trying to tune.
For example, the following notes are all the same E note:
Keep this concept in mind as we move along. But before we get into the details of the manual tuning process, there are few points that need to be understood so that your tuning is as accurate as possible.
Lack of a ‘true’ reference note
One thing that is simply awesome about a guitar tuner over manual tuning is that it gives you an accurate reference for each note you are trying to tune to. If you are using a tuner and you are dead on tune, then you will be at the absolute correct pitch to play with other instruments. This is particularly important if you’re playing with, for example, a keyboardist.
Manual tuning, as we described earlier, uses similar notes from other strings to allow you to tune all six strings to be in tune relative to each other. It’s important to understand that if your starting note (typically the low E) is a little sharp or somewhat flat, then you won’t be in tune with other instruments that are indeed tuned to standard pitch. Sure, you may sound perfect playing all by yourself, but the minute you start to go along with other instruments, it will be painfully clear that you aren’t in tune with the rest of the band.
How good is your ear?
As you progress in your playing, you’ll most likely develop what is called ‘your ear.’ What does that mean? As far as manually tuning your guitar goes, it refers to the ability to tell when two notes produce the same pitch. Seems like it should be pretty easy to do that, right?
Well, for beginners, that can be a little tough to do consistently. You may be surprised at how hard it can be at the start of your playing career to really hear the differences in pitch between two notes. And since manual tuning is all about telling when two notes (played on two different strings) are identical, having a well developed ‘ear’ is a skill that must be mastered before you can be as accurate as you have to be.
We aren’t mentioning these things to put you off of learning the process of manual tuning. On the contrary, there are times where you may have no other choice. Undoubtedly, at some point in your playing career, you’ll have forgotten your tuner, or the battery is the one you do have may have gone dead. In these cases, knowing how to tune manually will be your saving grace.
How to manually tune your guitar
First off, attempt to get a good reference note for the low E note (played on the 6th string). You can get this by using your ‘ear’ with a reference note from a piano, a recording, or even from a note generator that can be found with many free tuning apps. As we talked about earlier, having as accurate a reference at the start of the process is really important, so do your best to get that low E as perfect as possible.
Once you have your 6th string tuned to that perfect E note, fret the 6th string at the 5th fret. That will produce an A note, and it just happens to be the same exact A note that should ring out when you play the 5th string open. See the diagram below:
Here’s a tip – when you play the A note on the sixth string, let it ring out while you are playing the open 5th string. That will allow you to compare the two notes, and you can then tune the 5th string to where the notes are identical.
Simple enough, right? In essence, it really is. And getting the rest of your guitar tuned up uses the same process.
Now that you’re A string is tuned correctly, play the D note at the 5th fret of the A string. That D note is – you guessed it – the same D note that should sound when the 4th string is tuned correctly.
From there, go to the 5th fret of the D string. That’s a G, and you can use that note to tune up the 3rd string.
Next is a little bit of a twist, but not that much – once your 3rd string is tuned, and you’re ready to tune your 2nd string, don’t go to the 5th fret of the 3rd string. You have to play the B note on the 4th fret of the 3rd string instead of getting the open 2nd string. It’s a minor difference from the other strings, but that’s just how the process has to be followed.
Last is the 1st string. You can go back to the 5th fret of the 2nd string to get that final E note to tune to.
To help visualize things better, the entire process can be summed up by looking at the diagram below:
As you can see, all of the identical notes are the same color (that is, the two red A notes are the same, the two green E notes are the same, etc.). Hopefully, you can see how important it is to make sure that the first low E note (playing the 6th string open) is correct…because everything else is based on that starting point.
Being able to properly tune your guitar is a skill that absolutely has to be mastered before you can seriously consider learning to play the guitar. The vast majority of guitarists use standard tuning, and that set of notes can easily be obtained by using a good guitar tuner.
Manual tuning is a process that may not be as easy as using a tuner, and there can be concerns over how accurate it is. But you really should learn how to tune using both methods because you don’t want to find yourself in a position where a guitar tuner isn’t available, and you don’t know what else to do.
Over time, you’ll be able to tell when you are out of tune as well. The string (or strings) that aren’t correctly tuned will make your guitar just not sound ‘right.’ Overall, keeping your guitar successfully in tune will enable your playing to sound as good as it possibly can be.
See the other parts to this guitar tuning series:
How to tune a guitar properly part 1.
How to tune a guitar properly part 2.
Talk about tuning your guitar with other guitar players in the repairs and maintenance community forum.