The importance of tuning your guitar is fairly obvious. Being out of tune is bad enough when you’re playing alone, as it can make your playing sound awkward, clumsy, and unpleasant – all the more noticeable if you’re playing with a backing track, or along to a song or video lesson.
But being out of tune when you’re playing with other musicians is even worse. Music is precisely about the pleasant harmony (or deliberate lack of it) that occurs between bandmates, and each musician being properly in tune is literally foundation number one of that process.
Tuning your guitar can often go un-discussed, as it’s fair to say it isn’t the most fun aspect of guitar playing, and is often seen as a chore, or an obstacle in the way of fun. It’s important to begin to view tuning as quite the opposite – the foundation of the instrument, a tool enabling the fun of playing.
The good news is, the more you do it, the quicker and more habitual it becomes. Then before you know it, it’s second nature, like a reflex. And then, of course, the process never changes or complicates. So, get this right, and get playing!
1. Use a guitar tuner
It doesn’t matter which kind of guitar tuner you use – from a headstock clip-on, to a free online tuning fork. Use something to begin to train your ear to the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes.
Guitarists usually start out using guitar tuners, then as their aural skills improve, intermediate players often see tuning-by-ear exclusively as a badge of honor and skill. However, all the advanced players I’ve met in degree-level music education, studio sessions, live shows and tours, theatres and so on would never dream of tuning by ear before so much as a practice session – let alone a professional engagement.
Tuning by ear is a valuable skill, but using a good guitar tuner is a symbol of professionalism, dedication, diligence, and care. If you want fast and accurate tuning, get a tool to help you. We suggest a set-up grade strobe tuner for the most accurate reading.
You’re unlikely to go on stage or into the studio with only one pick, or without spare strings, or a spare cable. But people often don’t have a backup tuner. This is an easy way to really hurt your performance – and it is practically inexcusable in the modern age of online guitar tuners and tuning apps, meaning it’s easy to have more than one tuning option at your disposal.
2. Double check your guitar tuning
E, A, D, G, B, e. Tuned. Then what’s next? Hotel California? Nope. Back to E again. Doing this lets you check that you’ve tuned up correctly, and compensate for any adjustments the guitar made during the tuning process since things like floating bridges and weak necks can shift when string tension changes, causing the other strings to fall out of tune.
Many guitar tuners have a kind of range of being ‘in-tune’ and it’s very easy to end up close to perfectly tuned without hitting that green light or chime sound to let you know you hit the nail on the head.
So, this process is checking and fine-tuning. And while yes this is adding to your tuning job list, with good practice and repetition it’ll be second nature – and completed in literally seconds – in no time at all.
Any irritation at this relatively brief process is nothing compared to beginning a song on stage, realizing you’re noticeably out of tune, then having no option but to painfully complete the rest of the song creating unwanted dissonance in place of harmony. Tune, then check!
3. Use Good Strings
Guitar strings are one of the easiest and most affordable ways to upgrade your instrument. Considering that guitar strings are what you’re actually hearing and playing when you plug in, they’re worth paying attention to. If your guitar has low-quality strings, they’re likely to go more out of tune more often. A quality guitar string may cost a bit more, but the sound, feel, and tuning stability of your guitar is worth that extra few dollars – even for a beginner.
When choosing the right string for your guitar, you’ll want to consider a few things like what sound you’re going for and what type of guitar you play. The differences in material and scale length have a big impact on your instrument’s sound and feel, and oftentimes the strings that sound and feel the best bring with them a longer life and better tuning stability!
4. Be aware what can put you out of tune
Good guitar tuning is pre-emptive. What this means is that it shouldn’t come as a response to playing out of tune and hearing the dissonance. It should be a repeated, pre-emptive, fine-tuning process. Like keeping a car’s tank topped-off rather than letting it run down to empty before ever addressing it and refilling.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to tune up between every song (although it doesn’t hurt to check) it does mean that you need to be on top of tuning.
One key element of this is being aware what can put your guitar out of tune. It might be a change in temperature or environment, it might be repeated string bends or the use of the whammy bar, or it might be that your strings are relatively new and haven’t yet settled.
These factors – combined with an ever-developing knowledge of and relationship with your instrument – should stand out in your mind and set off a kind of I-might-need-to-tune-a-bit-more-often alarm and prompt you to do so.
5. Develop your ear to help you
So, having said all the above about why guitar tuners are more efficient, more quickly accurate, and more professional than using your aural skills alone, here’s a little bit to finish in defense of our ears!
Tuning by ear is something that you should be able to do, but also something you should understand is not your preferred option. If tuning by ear, unless you have perfect pitch (an innate ability to recognize any note by name purely from the sound of it, like recognizing a color), you’ll be tuning relatively, i.e. Once your E string is tuned, you can play it at the 5th fret to sound an ‘A’ note – from which you can tune the A string, and so on.
The only issue is where you get that initial ‘E’ note. Well, if you’re playing with other musicians (who have a tuned piano or a digitally-in-tune instrument like a keyboard) then you get it from them. This might be the best option when the only available piano isn’t tuned well! If you’re on your own, then, well, you go from your best guess at an ‘E’ note and hope for the best.
Hopefully all of these combine to make the point that while aural skills are important, a guitar tuner is not a training tool but a lifelong friend. Perhaps, again, tuning’s understandable reputation as the opposite of playing/fun/creativity is responsible for this underappreciation of tuners. However, as above, it’s time to flip that perception. Tuning is not the opposite of those things, but the foundation of them! So go get a guitar tuner – or preferably two!