How to Tune an Acoustic Guitar

Last Updated:  January 28, 2019

Just because a guitar has all six strings attached does not mean it’s ready to be picked up and played. Unfortunately, acoustic guitars must be tuned regularly. Sometimes only one string falls slightly out of tune, but often every string falls to stresses of changing temperatures and other factors that affect pitch. The cheaper the guitar and its strings, the more likely – and often – the pitch will change. Taking less than a minute to learn how to tune acoustic strings will not only make your guitar playable, but it will also make your chords and your notes resonate beautifully.

The Basics

Acoustic guitars typically have six strings. These strings are attached to the guitar’s body at the bridge near the bridge at the sound hole and at the headstock where the tuners are. When turned gently, these tuners will tighten or loosen the guitar strings to alter the sound each one produces when strummed. Each fret spaced along the neck of the guitar represents a different note on each string that depends on what note that string is tuned to.

Guitar Diagram

Using a Reference Pitch

In order to properly tune an acoustic guitar, you need to have a sound that produces the proper sound a certain string is assigned to. This sound is the reference pitch. Reference pitches can be found using an instrument that is already in tune, whether it is another guitar or something else like a piano. It can also be produced from a tuning app, a tuning fork, or even a video recording of the proper sound such as one below. For certain references, you could tune each string to each individual sound. As long as five strings are tuned off of just one of the strings, the guitar will be playable; however, the sound produced may not be in the right pitch and therefore sound a little different when playing songs.

Tuning String to String

tuning fretboard diagram

The strings of a guitar start at a low E and progress as A, D, G, B, then a high E. One way to memorize this string pattern is the sentence “Elephants And Dogs Got Big Ears”, a tool that has different variations and is often used in guitar lessons. Typically, it is advantageous to tune the sixth string, the high E, and then tune the other strings from that note. As the image shows, the strings are tuned working backward. The next string over from the tuned string is generally at a five fret difference, meaning the B string can be tuned from the high E if a finger is placed over the fifth fret of the B string, producing a high E. Adjust the pegs until the sounds match, then repeat the process until the low E is tuned. The only difference is the G string should be tuned from the fourth fret instead of the fifth to produce a B.

Tune the sixth string to a high E, then tune the B with the fourth fret and the following notes with the fifth fret. Following this step for all of the strings will get your guitar ready for playing chords.

Pros for tuning a guitar from the high E:

Cons for tuning a guitar from the high E:

Turning a peg too quickly could result in a snapped guitar string, so take care tuning.

Getting the Right Pitch

When tuning a guitar, it can be a challenge to get the hang of matching pitches at first. It takes listening carefully and striking both notes, adjusting the one that needs to be tuned slowly until the two strings produce the same sound. To tune each string, you might need to tighten and loosen the peg back and forth several times before the strings are on the same pitch. Always take care twisting the pegs, however, because moving any string instrument’s pegs too quickly could result in a snapped string. Some people actually prefer to loosen the string before they begin tightening it.

In a Nutshell

Tuning a guitar requires special care and at least one string that is accurately pitched to its matching note. As long as all strings are a certain number of frets apart in sound, the guitar will still produce a pleasant sound – it just may not be the right pitch. It is recommended to start off at the high E and work your way down the other strings, whether using another instrument to match the tunes, online resources, or a device that provides the proper pitch for you. While some devices tell you if your current string is sharp or flat, you may need to take special care to learn whether you need to tighten or loosen your string. Once at least one string is in tune, use the fourth and fifth fret rules to quickly and accurately get your EADGBE strings ready to go and enjoy!