Alternative Guitar Tuning Methods
In addition to using a chromatic tuner, there are a number of alternative guitar tuning methods. I've listed several on this page. You may have your own favorite method. If so, I'd love to hear about it.
These alternative guitar tuning methods can be grouped into two broad categories: Perfect Pitch Methods, where you use a series of reference tones and try to match them perfectly, and; Relative Pitch Tuning Methods where you tune five of your strings after tuning one to a reference tone.
Use an Online Tuner
This alternative guitar tuning method is for you if you don't have an electronic tuner yet, but you want to tune as precisely as possible. It's a simple matter of listening to a note and adjusting your guitar string to match.
Using an online tuner is also great if you want to use one of the Relative-Pitch Guitar Tuning Methods (below), since those require that you begin by properly tuning at least one string.
When you use an online tuner, you usually click on the note name (these tuners usually also show the string number), then adjust the pitch of your guitar string to match the note that you hear. However, you can find a nice online chromatic tuner at Seventh String Software's Online Guitar Tuner.
The advantage of online tuning is that it's absolutely free (once you have an Internet connection).
The disadvantages are: most are unavailable when you are away from home; it's not available if the computer is in use by someone else or your Internet access is down; it's hard to use in a noisy environment; and, this alternative guitar tuning method is not very portable.
Use A Tuning Fork or Pitch Pipe
Though no longer favored by most guitarists, some still use tuning forks (sometimes called pitch forks) and pitch pipes for for perfect pitch guitar tuning.
Tuning forks are best used to match a single note. I can't imagine anyone carrying six or more tuning forks around to tune each string. A tuning fork costs about $9.
Pitch pipes are available for in two varieties: a six-note pipe, capable of producing the standard guitar tuning notes E-A-D-G-B-e; or, chromatic tuners that can reproduce 12 or 13 notes. Prices range from $3 to $20.
Using either requires that you create the sound (by striking the pitch fork, or blowing through the pitch pipe) then matching that tone with a string on your guitar. Though no longer a popular alternative guitar tuning method, it does work.
The term 'Relative Pitch Guitar Tuning Methods' refers to any alternaive tuning method where one string is tuned to a reference pitch, and the others are tuned to that string. Once complete, the pitches sound correct relative to each other. They may or may not be in tune with another guitar or other instrument. They may not even be in proper tune if your ear can't distinguish slight differences in pitch.
Perfect Pitch Guitar Tuning methods tune each string to identically match a reference pitch. If you read the Tune Your Guitar page, you'll find out that even a perfectly tuned guitar may or may not match other instruments!
The relative pitch alternative guitar tuning methods are listed from easiest to more difficult. The also happen to be listed from least accurate to most accurate.
Before you can use any of these alternative guitar tuning methods you must tune one string to a known pitch. You can do this with a chromatic tuner, a tuning fork, a pitch pipe, an online tuner, or another instrument... anything that accurately produces one of the guitar string notes.
If you're looking for an online tuner, Seventh String Software's Online Guitar Tuner, is an easy to use online chromatic tuner.
Each alternative guitar tuning method below assumes that your 6th string (the thickest string, which produces the lowest note) is in tune.
Tuning With Adjacent Strings
Tuning with adjacent strings has three distinct advantages: it's easy to remember; it's easy to compare identical notes; and, it provides good relative tuning rather quickly.
The disadvantages are: it's up to you to determine when two notes sound the same; and, slight tuning problems get worse as you move from string to string.
To tune with this alternative guitar tuning method, you pluck the A-note of the lower E-string to tune the A-string. The E-string must have been pre-tuned as part of the prerequisite step.
Take a look at the photo of a fretboard (below). The lower E-string is shown at the bottom of the photo. The location of the A-note is shown on the fifth fret of that string.
Place your finger on the fifth fret of the lower E-string and pluck it. Listen carefully for a second, then pluck the open A-string. If the open A-string sounds lower, then tune the A-string up. If it sounds higher, then tune it down. (Do not adjust the E-string.) The first time you do this it may be confusing, but you'll very quickly get the hang of it. Repeat until the two notes sound alike.
Tune the D string by pressing down at the fifth fret of the A-string (the yellow circle labeled "D" in the above photo shows you where to press). When you pluck the A-string it will produce a D note. Listen for a second, then pluck the open D-string. Turn the tuning keys to adjust the D string. Repeat until the two notes sound alike.
You'll tune the remaining strings using a similar process... careful, though, with the B-string... you'll use the fourth-fret of the G-string for that one.
Tune the G string by pressing down on the fifth fret of the D string.
Now, tune the B string by pressing down on the fourth fret of the G-string.
Finally, tune the upper E string by pressing down on the fifth fret of your in-tune B string.
Relative Pitch Guitar Tuning to One String
The greatest disadvantage of the Relative Pitch Guitar Tuning to Adjacent Strings method (tuning problems getting passed from string to string) is mostly eliminated by using a SINGLE string for tuning the other five. In addition, this alternative guitar tuning method helps you learn several notes on TWO of your strings (as you'll see in a minute).
On the down side, some find moving up and down the fretboard confusing at first. Also, for the last three strings you have to tune up one octave... the notes will not be exactly alike. Some find it harder to tune this way. Stick with it, though, the advantages of this Relative Pitch Guitar Tuning method are worth the extra effort!
Since your lower E-string is in tune (see Prerequisites, above) we'll use it to tune the other five.
To tune the A-string, press on the fifth fret of the low E-string (to produce an A-note). Adjust the pitch of the A string until the two notes match.
Tune the D-string by pressing on the tenth-fret of the E-string. Play both strings, adjusting the D-string tuning, until they sound the same.
Take your time with the next two notes, and do NOT tune them to sound exactly the same. Tune them so that the string you are tuning is one octave higher than the note played on the low-E string.
Tune the G string by pressing on the third fret of the low-E string. Pluck the low E-string and listen for a second, then pluck the G-string. It's important that you tune the G string ONE OCTAVE HIGHER than the sound produced by the low E-string. It takes a little practice, but once you hear the difference, it's easy!
Tune the B-string by pressing on the seventh fret of the low E-string, then plucking the open B-string. Once again, you are tuning the B-string ONE OCTAVE HIGHER than the sound produced by the low E-string.
Finally, tune the high E-string by pressing on the 12th fret of the low E-string. Tune these so that they sound alike, not one octave higher.
Congratulations, you've tuned your guitar and you just learned the fretboard location of sixteen notes of your guitar! How? Well, now you know the open notes of each string (E, A, D, G, B, E... that's six). You also know the third, fifth, seventh, tenth, and twelfth fret notes of the low E-string (these are G, A, D, B, E... five more notes). And, since the high E-string frets match the low E-string frets (they are simply one octave apart) you automatically know five more notes, for a total of sixteen! So, in addition to learning an other alternative guitar tuning method, you've learned a bunch of notes on the fretboard.
Relative Pitch Guitar Tuning with Harmonic Tuning
Most people begin with one of the first two Relative Pitch Alternative Guitar Tuning methods, then use this one after they learn how to play harmonics. So, these instructions are brief.
You can find a brief explanation of Harmonic Tones in the Glossary , if you need it.
Advantages of the Relative Pitch Alternative Guitar Tuning with Harmonic Tuning: Your reference note rings longer, allowing more time to adjust the pitch of the out-of-tune string. It's also a fast method.
Disadvantages of this alternative guitar tuning method: It can take some practice for a new player to produce a harmonic tone. The volume of your harmonic tone (on an instrument that is not amplified) is not as loud as a plucked open string, so tuning with harmonics in a noisy environment is difficult.
To tune the A-string (the E-string is already in tune if you followed the Prerequisite), play the twelfth fret harmonic on the low E-string, then play the seventh fret harmonic on the A-string. Adjust your A string to match the pitch of the E-string.
Continue in the following pattern to complete Relative Pitch Guitar Tuning with Harmonic Tuning...
The 12th fret harmonic of the A string is used to tune to the 7th fret harmonic of the D string.
The 12th fret harmonic of the D string is used to tune to the 7th fret harmonic of the G string.
The 7th fret harmonic of the low-E string is used to tune to the 12th fret of the B string.
The 12th fret harmonic of the low-E string is used to tune to the open high-E string.
I hope you've enjoyed learning these alternative guitar tuning methods. Now, go tune up, then go play!