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How To Tune a Guitar Without a Tuner

Last Updated: December 13, 2021 / by Helen Baker

No matter where you play, whether you are in front of a teacher, a crowd or alone, you’d always like your guitar to sound good - and sounding good is all in the tuning. Being in tune should be your first thought before you begin to play as this will assure you that you are sounding your best.

If you’ve ever thought you needed a tuner to tune your guitar, or you’ve been stuck without one and thought that you won’t be able to play, you’ll be happy to know that it's simply not true! 

It's totally possible to get your guitar in tune in a variety of ways without the aid of a tuner - and it is actually easier than you think! 

So, just how do you do this?

Top To Bottom

First things first, remembers that your guitar has six strings, starting from the top, they run from thickest down to thinnest - from the top E (bass) to the bottom E (treble). 

These strings are known by the notes to which they are tuned by being played openly, without any of the frets being pressed down. You may like to refer to the strings as one through to six, from thin (highest) to thick (lowest), or you could also make up a mnemonic (simple rhyme) to help you never forget the order of the strings for example:

E - every (top)

A - athlete

D – does

G - good

B - by

E – exercising (bottom)

And how can you ensure that your guitar is played sounding perfectly in tune

If each string is tuned according to its adjacent string, your chords and picking will all be synchronized. If the top E and the bottom E sound the same, as they are exactly an octave apart, then you are already well on your way there.

Simplest Way To Tune Without a Tuner

The simplest way of tuning is known as standard tuning (also known as the manual fifth-fret tuning method), in which the bass (top or sixth) E string is used as the reference note for all other notes. 

This reference key can be found by using a smartphone, computer, tablet/iPad or piano. As soon as the source sound and the guitar sound match, then you know you are set.

If you have a piano or another (tuned) instrument nearby which has been tuned to concert pitch (to a fixed tune), you can always tune your guitar to this and determine the correct pitch by making sure that all instruments in an ensemble sound the same and in tune with each other. All you need to do is to make sure your sixth string (top E) is tuned to the E, which is two octaves below middle C. 

As you continue from that point, your guitar can be tuned to itself or you can carry on playing up the keyboard and matching each pitch to its corresponding note.  

Getting started

First off, you need to have the correct tension in your guitar’s neck. It is best to start with the bass note, the top E string. If this is correctly tuned, it can create a great foundational note to which the others can be tuned as you continue working your way down. 

Starting in the fifth fret with the sixth string being held down, your E string will be playing an A note. You are aiming for the pitch of the E being played on the fifth fret to be adjusted on the fifth (A) string until it sounds the same as when you play an open A string. 

Then, your D string needs to be tuned to sound the same as the A string’s pitch when played on fret number five. Each string can be tuned in the same way to the string above it on the fifth fret, except for when you reach the B string, which is slightly different to the rest. 

Here you hold down the G string on the fourth fret to tune the B string. Your guitar will sound in tune if you remember that each string needs to be tuned to exactly the right interval from the following string. In this way, you are in no need of a tuner.

Things To Remember

Due to stretched strings, changes in humidity and temperature, the pitch and tension can drop and needs to be reset. Guitars can also frequently go out of tune as they are being played. Guitar strings are very sensitive and should be checked regularly and changed when needed. 

The pitch of a string can simply be adjusted by turning the corresponding tuning key of the string on the guitar’s head. To tighten the string, you need to turn the tuning key in a direction away from you, and the pitch will be raised.

Alternatively, you will achieve the opposite effect when the tuning key is turned in a direction towards you, as the string will be loosened and the pitch lowered.

All notes have to sound like each other as you keep going, and you may have to "fine tune". This could involve going over the strings a few times over and tuning them again to make sure. This is why it is good to check, play a chord, try different variations of chords, and listen out for the flat notes, as well as sharp sounds, and then retune accordingly. If you hear a throbbing or pulsing when you strum the top E, this immediately indicates that your guitar is not in tune. 

By becoming more familiar with these telltale signs, you will quickly be able to tune your guitar well and develop a good ear for it too.

About the Author: Helen Baker

I am a freelance teacher and writer based in Ann Arbor, MI. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, I spent some time teaching English in Paris and, thereafter, returned to Ann Arbor where I was involved both in the media and academics. Currently I am a stay at home mom, working as a freelance writer and teacher. I love all my guitars and I also have an affinity towards old grand pianos. I love singing, traveling, reading, writing, watching films and spending quality time with my husband.

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