Guitar Crash course part one – Tune the guitar

December 29, 2007 at 11:09 pm Leave a comment

Before we learn to play guitar, let’s first tune the guitar.

The easiest way to tune the guitar is with a guitar tuner, so we’ll start with the note names of the strings.

After that, we can look at tuning the guitar to itself, and some advanced tuning techniques to make sure that we get the best out of the instrument.

Here are the note names of the strings

  • 1st string – E (thinnest string)
  • 2nd string – B
  • 3rd string – G
  • 4th string – D
  • 5th string – A
  • 6th string – E

Starting with the first string, every string up to the sixth string is tuned lower in pitch. I’m sure you knew that, but it just needs to be mentioned for those that don’t. Most stand alone guitar tuners will have this quite clearly marked out, but some guitar tuners are integrated into certain amplifiers and guitar effects processors. These usually just give the note name of the string or note you’re playing, so it helps if you know what you’re supposed to be seeing.

Some pointers to help with the accuracy of your tuning.

When a guitar string is first plucked, it will sound a note that is slightly sharper (higher in pitch) then settle down to its actual frequency. It’s easy for a beginner guitarist to think that the initial reading on the tuner is the true pitch. Steel string acoustic guitars and electric guitars with light gauge strings are more likely to show this phenomenon than classical and Spanish nylon string guitars, mostly because of the material the strings are made of.

The best thing to do is wait a second till the string vibration dies down a bit, and take that as the true reading. Some guitarists prefer to tune the thicker strings down slightly to compensate for this when playing. I prefer to use harmonics and my ears when tuning a guitar, as this gives a better result than just believing everything the guitar tuner is telling me.

We’ll get into tuning the guitar with harmonics a little later, but for now, we’re off to a good start.

Tuning the guitar to itself.

When you haven’t got a guitar tuner handy, and you just want to get the guitar in tune without worrying about whether or not you’re in tune with any other musical instruments, or you want to be in tune with the other instruments but you only have one note as a reference, then tuning the guitar to itself is the other option.

Here’s how you do it.

First, find a reference note for the 6th string (the thickest one) which should be E. If there’s no other instrument to use as a reference, you could try putting on a CD of a song that you know the chords to, otherwise you can right click and choose “save target as” to download this E reference note to tune your guitar from and save it somewhere like on your mp3 player or Ipod.

Now that we’ve got a reference for Low E, we can start.

First tune your 6th string as close as possible to E, then do the following: Play the note at the fifth fret of the 6th string and tune the open 5th string until the pitch matches. You should hear the two notes sound like one, and no oscillations.

The strings make a strange rhythmic oscillation when they are out of tune with each other, which slows down as the two strings come closer in tune, until eventually, when they’re perfectly in tune, the oscillation stops.

Now we move on to the 5th string and do the same. Play the note at the 5th fret of the 5th string and tune the open 4th string till the pitch matches. The same is done on the 4th string, playing the note at the 5th fret and tuning the 3rd string until the open 3rd string matches.

On the 3rd string, you press the note at the 4th fret and tune the 2nd string up until it matches, and then on the 2nd string, you play the note at the 5th fret and tune the open 1st string until the pitch is the same.

Making sure the guitar stays in tune longer.

When tuning the guitar, it’s always better to tune up to the note as opposed to down.  If you have to tune a string down, then rather go further down than you need to, and tune it back up from there.

The reason for this is quite simple – When you tune down, you loosen the string windings around the tuning post, which means that the string will slowly slip even lower in pitch as the string starts to vibrate. When you tune up from a lower pitch, you force the strings to tighten around the post, which makes for a more stable tuning.

Another thing that’s good to keep in mind when putting new strings on the guitar, is to try and keep the number of windings down to a minimum. A maximum of three should do just fine.

With less windings around the posts, there’s less slippage.

When you put new strings on the guitar, it’s also a good idea, in fact it’s essential to first stretch the strings before tuning it up properly. This can be done by pressing each string at the 12th fret and gently tugging them one at a time by pulling upwards away from the guitar body. You pull between the bridge and 12th fret.

Guitar strings sometimes take a while to settle in properly, so your tuning may go out a bit during the first day. Guitars and guitar strings are also susceptible to temperature changes, so that will also affect your tuning.

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Part Two of Guitar Crash course – Holding the plectrum

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