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How to Tune a Guitar by Ear

Ready to ditch the electronic tuner? We explain the steps to tuning a guitar by ear in today’s guide. It’s hard at first but with a little practice you’ll understand your guitar like never before.

tune-a-guitar

A regular and experienced guitar player will be able to spot an out-of-tune instrument a mile away. Even someone who isn’t so au fait with the workings of a guitar will be able to hear the twang which isn’t just ‘quite right.’ The thing is, if you want to play your guitar to the best of your ability, you need to learn how to look after it, clean it, and maintain it. This isn’t a cheap instrument, so you should take the proper care of it.

When it comes to ensuring that your guitar sounds fantastic whatever you’re playing, you should learn how to tune a guitar by ear. This is the easiest way to learn how to tune your instrument and will also help you become more ‘at one’ with your guitar. Many players will tell you that in order to really understand their guitar, they need to become ‘at one’ with it, to really feel it, and to know when something isn’t going as well as it could.

And more importantly, can you ever really take a guitarist seriously if they have to rely on an electronic tuner?

When a guitar is out of tune, it can either sound just slightly off, or it can sound absolutely horrendous. You could compare this with your guitar feeling under the weather, or not feeling well at all, but to counteract it, you need to learn how to tune it properly.

So, let’s check out how to tune a guitar by ear, as well as a few other ways you can maintain your instrument

How to Tune a Guitar by Ear – Step by Step

When you tune a guitar by ear, you don’t need an app, a tuner, or any other piece of equipment; you just need your ears. You are firstly getting just one string perfectly in tune, and from there it forms the point of reference for the rest of your tuning endeavors. The first string is key and affects the sound of the strings that follow.

Take a look at the video below or read our explanation that follows.

First, you need to tune the 6th string (top string), because this will give you the reference point from which the rest of your tuning will take place. So, on the 6th string, play the 5th fret and listen carefully. Does it sound right? After that, play the open 5th string and see how that sounds. Tune the two sounds to match each other now, so you would tune the open 5th string to ensure it matches with the 5th fret of the 6th string in tone and pitch. You might need to do it a few times, and you might need to spend a bit of time the first time you do this, but once it’s in tune, you can move onto the next step.

From there, it’s all quite self-explanatory. You would then play the 5th fret on the 5th string and listen to it carefully, identifying the sound as ‘right.’ You would then play the open 4th string and see how that sounds. Once you have identified it, you would match the two sounds to each other, as you did before. Once you get that right, you would move onto the third string and repeat the process again.

After that? Again, you would repeat the process with the 2nd string. When you do this however, you will need to play the 4th fret of the 3rd string, in order to get your point of reference. This is the only anomaly in the process. You would then go back to the 5th fret on the 2nd string to ensure the open first string is tuned into the rest of the sounds.

When you get into it, you’ll see how easy it is, and then tuning your guitar by ear will become a second nature process.

Let’s quickly summarize:

  1. Ensure the 6th string is tuned perfectly – play the 5th fret of the 6th string and tune accordingly
  2. Play the 5th fret of the 5th string and tune accordingly, matching the 6th string perfectly
  3. Play the open 4th string and tune according to the previous string
  4. Play the 4th fret on the 3rd fret, and tune accordingly
  5. Play the 5th fret on the 2nd string, and tune accordingly

How Can You Check It’s Actually in Tune in the End?

Basically, everything will sound harmonious, and you will be able to tell when one string is out of tune compared to the rest. The out-of-tune string will literally sound like someone who is singing out of tune – it will be glaringly obvious. As you tune the string, the out-of-tune sound will slowly begin to right itself, and you continue tuning until the sound is more even and in harmony with the rest.

Points to Remember When Tuning by Ear

Tuning a guitar by ear is not something you will be able to master overnight, so do allow yourself some slack at first, until you become a little more familiar with the process. Also, be aware that tuning your guitar by ear is not a fool-proof method, and it all hinges on the sixth string being bang on, before moving onto the other strings, which form your reference point.

If the sixth string is even slightly out, then the rest of your guitar tuning will be out too. For this reason, spend more time ensuring your reference point is right before you move onto the next – don’t rush!

There are downsides to tuning a guitar by ear, and it could very well be that you find using an app or another automatic tuning method easier to master. It all comes down to what works for you; but, tuning by ear is certainly a less expensive and much more professional way of doing things. Practice makes perfect in this regard, and if you can spend some time mastering this method, you will be able to feel your guitar much more easily when it comes to tuning, and even when it comes to playing.


Thinking about recording your guitar playing? Don’t miss our guides to recording software and audio interfaces.

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