Let’s frame up a pretty familiar scenario for many beginning guitar players: You walk into your local music store to do a little guitar shopping. Some more prominent retailers have a practice of letting customers pull a guitar off the wall (they are typically hanging on a rack). Once you have it down, you can’t help but notice how cool it is…how good it feels under your fingers…

You then plug it into an amp (or, if acoustic guitars are your thing, you just sit down and get ready to play). You go to hit a chord and – lo and behold – instead of complete sonic goodness, it sounds absolutely terrible. Like cats-fighting-in-a-bag-type terrible…actually, like nails-on-a-chalkboard-type terrible…

But how can that be? You’ve picked one of the best guitars you’ve ever come across to check it out, so it just can’t be the guitar, right?

Well…maybe it is. You, my friend, have just tried to play your guitar that is horribly out of tune. And that just won’t do!

What is ‘tuning’ the guitar?

We are going to expand on the topic of tuning over a few blog installments here because knowing all about tuning your guitar is a skill that is absolutely imperative for players of all levels to master.

While guitar tuning may not be all that hard, having some solid knowledge about how it all works will be invaluable for your playing and understanding of the instrument.

Having a properly tuned guitar is probably one of the most – if not the most – fundamental things for playing the guitar properly. For most beginners, the tuning process can be a bit of a mystery…so let’s try to clear some things up, shall we?

“Most people can do what I do – they can do guitar solos – but they can’t do a good, hard rhythm guitar and be dedicated to it.” Angus Young

It’s the simplest definition, tuning your guitar means having all of the strings sounding the right notes when they are ‘open’ (meaning: not fretting any notes). How that is accomplished is by applying the right amount of tension to each string.

It’s all about tension.

A guitar is basically a few pieces of wood with some long wires on it. Can’t get much simpler than that, right?

For your guitar to sound as it should, each individual string needs to have a certain amount of tension applied to it. The vast majority of guitar strings are made of very thin lengths of tough steel wire, and without that tension, the string won’t vibrate at the correct frequency needed to sound the right note.

How to change the tension of your guitar strings

Look at the head-stock of your guitar (found at the end of the neck, which is farthest away from you). There you will find what is called ‘tuning machines’ – one for each string.

Epiphone-DR500MCE - Tuners

Tuning machines are essentially small gearboxes that you thread the end of a guitar string through (with the other end attached to the guitar at the bridge, close to where your picking hand actually strikes the strings).

Turning the button on the tuning machine will allow you to increase or decrease string tension.

Sharp, flat, or perfectly in tune?

The note that a string produces when you strike it varies with how much tension is applied. The higher the tension, the higher the note will sound (therefore, the lower the tension, the lower the note will be.

Guitar notes sharps and flats

A guitar string will always be in one of three states when you start to tune it:

Sharp – too much string tension results in a note that is higher in pitch than it should be when properly tuned.


Flat –
the note will be lower in pitch than intended, meaning that more string tension needs to be applied
In tune – the string tension is right where it should be (given its thickness and the material it is made out of), which results in sounding the exact note you are trying to tune it to produce

But how much tension should an ‘in tune’ guitar string have?

There are too many factors to have an absolute answer to that. Strings can come in different gauges, or thicknesses, so that can have a considerable effect. Also, depending on the type of guitar, you may be using strings that are made from a different material altogether (such as the nylon strings on a classical model).

We know what you’re thinking: “what’s with all of this science stuff, and what does it have to do with playing the guitar?!?”

Yeah…well, there’s no doubt that there’s a level of physics that goes into all of this. Fear not, though – there’s not going to be a test at the end of this lesson!

Here’s where things get a bit easier to understand, though. When it comes to tuning your guitar, you really don’t need to measure the tension that each string has. Basically, all you have to do is make sure that the intended note sounds right. Is the note flat? Tighten the string up a bit to raise the pitch. Sharp? Loosen things up. All in all, it really is that simple.

What is the best way to tune a guitar?

There are two methods that are used: using a guitar tuner and tuning manually (also called ‘tuning by ear’).

 

Our overwhelming preference is to tune using a tuner, as your results will typically be more accurate. That being said, there are some benefits to learning how to tune manually that a guitar tuner can’t provide. In the end, it really may be best for a guitar player to be able to use either method.

Guitar electronic tuner

 

Conclusion

Tuning your guitar is an essential skill that is a must-have for every guitar player. Simply put, your guitar just won’t sound right if it’s not in tune, so it’s imperative to have it done correctly before every time you practice, every time you have a gig or every recording session you may have,

While the science behind tuning a guitar can seem a little daunting, you really don’t have to concern yourself with it all that much. In the end, the thing that needs to be done is to make sure each string is producing the correct note.

In our next installment of this series on guitar tuning, we will dive deeper into using guitar tuners. We’ll explain the multiple available types and help you understand each kind’s pros and cons. From there, we will then teach you all about manual (by ear) tuning, and how it can help you grow as a player.

Discuss this article with other guitar players in the repairs and maintenance forum.