Tuning the Guitar to Itself: absolute beginners tips

Added on Tuesday 5 Jul 2011

Relative tuning is so named because you don’t need any outside reference to which you tune the instrument. As long as the strings are in tune in a certain relationship with each other, you can create sonorous and harmonious tones.

To tune a guitar using the relative method, choose one string as the starting point — say, the 6th string. Leave the pitch of that string as is; then tune all the other strings relative to that 6th string.

The fifth-fret method

The fifth-fret method derives its name from the fact that you almost always play a string at the fifth fret and then compare the sound of that note to that of the next open string.

Here’s how to get your guitar in tune by using the fifth-fret method:

1. Play the fifth fret of the 6th (low E) string (the fattest one, closest to the ceiling) and then play the open 5th (A) string (the one next to it).

Let both notes ring together. Their pitches should match exactly. If they don’t seem quite right, determine whether the 5th string is higher or lower than the fretted 6th string. If the 5th string seems lower, or flat, turn its tuning key with your left hand to raise the pitch. If the 5th string seems sharp or higher sounding, use its tuning key to lower the pitch.

2. Play the fifth fret of the 5th (A) string and then play the open 4th (D) string.

Let both of these notes ring together. If the 4th string seems flat or sharp relative to the fretted 5th string, use the tuning key of the 4th string to adjust its pitch accordingly.

3. Play the fifth fret of the 4th (D) string and then play the open 3rd (G) string.

Let both notes ring together again. If the 3rd string seems flat or sharp relative to the fretted 4th string, use the tuning key of the 3rd string to adjust the pitch accordingly.

4. Play the fourth (not the fifth!) fret of the 3rd (G) string and then play the open 2nd (B) string.

Let both strings ring together. If the 2nd string seems flat or sharp, use its tuning key to adjust the pitch accordingly.

5. Play the fifth (yes, back to the fifth for this one) fret of the 2nd (B) string and then play the open 1st (high E) string.

Let both notes ring together. If the 1st string seems flat or sharp, use its tuning key to adjust the pitch accordingly. If you’re satisfied that both strings produce the same pitch, you’ve now tuned the upper (that is, “upper” as in higher-pitched) five strings of the guitar relative to the fixed (untuned) 6th string. Your guitar’s now in tune with itself.

You may want to go back and repeat the process, because some strings may have slipped out of tune.

My tuning tip

Not everyone is able to easily hear if a note is sharp or flat relative to the note being tuned to; so here is a technique I use myself that might help:

Play both notes (as above) and listen for a 'pulse' in the resulting note. Turn your tuning peg and listen to hear if the pulse slows down or quickens. The closer the note is to being in tune the slower the pulse will be - until it disappears all together. As you practice this technique the pulse will become more obvious and you will be able to tune your guitar quicker.

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