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5 Tips for How to Tune an Acoustic Guitar

Tuning an Acoustic Guitar with Bryan Sutton

Whether you’ve just purchased an acoustic guitar or you have an old one sitting around that desperately needs a tune-up, this post will give you all the essentials of acoustic guitar tuning.

1. Know Where to Start

How should you begin when tuning guitar strings? Note that starting from the thickest string (closest to the ceiling), the notes are: E A D G B E. It’s also helpful to remember that the 1st string always refers to the high E string, and the 6th string always refers to the low E string. You’re typically going to tune from the 6th string through the 1st string. By following these tips, you won’t have to worry about using a guitar string tuning chart. Consider this “Tuning My Guitar 101.”

2. Understand Tuning Methods

The next matter of business is how to actually tune the strings to the proper pitch. There are two primary techniques: tuning by ear and tuning with the help of an electronic tuner. It’s highly recommended that you begin with an electronic tuner if you’re unfamiliar with the process, as this makes it quicker and more accurate. Most pros go with this option simply for accuracy and the peace of mind that comes with it.

The process for using an electronic tuner is simple: Clip it onto the headstock of the guitar, turn it on and sound the string. This will produce a reading on the screen of the tuner. You’ll see an arrow in the center of the screen that will light up in green when the string is in tune. The pitch of each string is indicated above the arrow, so make sure this matches the proper tuning notes mentioned above.

If the arrow is left of center, the string is flat (too low in pitch) and you’ll need to tighten it. If the arrow is right of center, the string is sharp (too high in pitch) and will need to be loosened. Whether you’re flat or sharp, the screen will be red, only turning green when you’re in tune.

If you’re interested in tuning your guitar by ear, check out this article for some helpful tips.

3. Take It Easy

A common mistake with beginning guitarists is to turn the tuning pegs (on the headstock of the guitar) too far, resulting in broken strings. You don’t need to fear tuning the strings. Just know that as long as you’re working in increments of quarter turns you won’t have to worry about breaking the strings.

That said, how far you turn the pegs also depends on how out of tune the strings are. For example, if you play the 2nd string and your tuner reads “G,” you’ll need to tighten it 2 steps, which will usually require several turns to get there.

4. Identify New vs. Old Strings

There are a few important differences between new and old strings when it comes to acoustic guitar tuning. Namely, new strings have not had the chance to stretch and settle into their tuning as much as old ones, and as a result they tend to go out of tune more often. There are ways of making sure that new strings stay in tune better from the get-go, and if you’re interested in learning about the mechanics of stringing the guitar, you can do so here.

Old strings tend to require less frequent tuning, but they also serve as an indicator of when it’s time to buy new strings. You’ll know this by looking for three signs: First, the strings will get to a point where they sound in tune when played open but go flat when they are fretted. You’ll also notice little rings of oxidation at the places where the strings have been repeatedly pressed against the metal frets. Finally, the brightness and clarity of sound will have completely vanished, resulting in dull-sounding notes and chords.

* Note: If your strings go sharp when fretted, that is most likely a problem of intonation, and you should take your guitar to a skilled technician to correct this issue.

5. Keep Your Sound Vibrant

Let’s discuss some steps you can take to keep your strings sounding young and vibrant. It’s a good idea to keep some sort of microfiber cloth and string cleaner handy so that you can wipe down your strings after each playing session. You’ll also want to purchase a bottle of fretboard cleaner for when you change the strings, as grime can accumulate on the fretboard and get transferred from fingers to strings.

Also keep in mind that if you use altered tunings you may need to change your strings more often as this repeated stretching and fretting at different portions of the string length will tend to wear them out more quickly. When you’ve got your guitar in tune, it’s a good idea to start learning some basic scales and chords.

Check out this cool blog on 4 Essential Bluegrass Guitar Scales to take the next step.

Ready to commit to playing acoustic guitar? Learn from master performer and instructor, Bryan Sutton.

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