Guitar Tuning Basics

SIDEBAR: was redesigned and re-launched on November 28, 2007. As a result, this page was merged into other articles, including: Tune Your Guitar.

You can alco click here to visit the new Home Page, then look at the navigation bar on the left side of the page for all of the lessons.

If you want to maximize your enjoyment, learn and use these guitar tuning basics.

They are simple to apply, and they will save you time and aggravation!

SIDEBAR: I'll cover a few tips for successful tuning here, but not specific tuning methods. These guitar tuning basics apply to ALL methods. If you were looking for the actual steps for tuning-up, click on the "Tuning Methods" tab on the left side of this page.

Keep them Clean...

At their best dirty strings produce a muted sound. At their worst they can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep in tune.


On a six-string guitar, the lower three strings have a metal winding. Dirt from your fingers, and the environment, becomes embedded in these windings. This reduces the ability of the string to vibrate and produce nice tone. Dirt also contributes to corrosion, another enemy of tone.

How can you avoid this?

Wash your hands before you play, then wipe your strings off with a soft, clean cloth every time you play. Also, consider using Elixir strings. Although they are a bit more expensive per set, their patented coating protects the wound strings from problems caused by dirt, resulting in longer string life. So, if you follow this guitar tuning basics tip, you'll probably save money!

Stablility Matters

I'll tell you two facts of life: New clothes shrink; New strings stretch.

So, when you put new strings on your guitar, they will constantly go flat (they stretch, which results in less tension... less tension means a lower note... a note that is lower than it is supposed to be is "flat").

To eliminate this problem, simply get the stretching over as quickly as possible. This is easily done. As soon as you change your strings and get them somewhat into tune, grab each one with your thumb and index finger and pull it away from the guitar a couple or so inches. S-T-R-E-T-C-H it (but don't put a lot of force on it). Then re-tune. Then stretch them again. Do this three or four times. Voila! Stable strings!

A Winning Hand

Here's a guitar tuning basics tip you probably did not consider before... Proper hand technique is important when playing AND when tuning.

Yes... Fast and accurate tune-ups become second nature if you take a few minutes to learn proper hand technique. Best of all, it's very simple. That's why it's one of our guitar tuning basics!

Start by opening your tuning hand, fingers together, as though you were going to wave Hello to someone.

SIDEBAR: For the vast majority of us, the tuning hand is the left hand. Some of you, though, play left handed, so when I talk about the tuning hand, I mean your right hand.

Next, while holding your guitar in playing position, move your tuning hand, palm first to the tuning keys. To be certain that you are holding your hand properly, the upper part of your middle finger should be touching the tuning key that is furthest away from you, and the lower palm of your hand should be touching the tuning key that is closest to you.

Now, without changing the direction your palm is facing (in toward the tuning keys) move your thumb and index finger to the tuning key closest to you. This SHOULD be the tuning key to adjust the lower E string (the thickest string and the one closest to your chin as you hold the guitar).

If you apply thumb pressure, you will increase the pitch of this string. If you apply index finger pressure, you decrease the pitch. From this position, you can easily slide your thumb and index finger up to the next tuning key to adjust the next string, and so on.

For most electric guitars, you simply tune a string, then slide up to the next tuning key. For most acoustics, you will need to slide your hand around the top of the headstock to the tuning key furthest away from you on the other side of the guitar. Then slide your thumb and index finger toward you to tune the last two strings.

Get used to NOT looking at your tuning hand while you adjust string pitch. Focus instead on listening to your guitar, and watching your electronic tuner (or listing to your reference pitch).

You will very quickly master these movements for tuning up.

Tune UP, Not Down

Some people tune up, play for a few minutes, then have to tune again. You won't be one of them if you follow this guitar tuning basics advice:

Always start with a LOWer (flat) pitch, then tune UP.



Let's imagine that your guitar is tuned too sharp... so the string is too tight. You need to loosen it. Using proper hand technique, you apply index-finger-pressure, and the pitch drops until the string is in perfect tune.

Unfortunately, friction at the nut will tend to hold some tension on the string while you losen the string... but some of that tension won't slip until after you start playing. The result? The pitch for that string is now flat.

The only way to avoid this it to intentionally turn your tuning key until the string sounds flat, then slowly tune UP until the pitch is correct.

Tune DOWN (as shown by the arrow) before you tune UP.

SIDEBAR: If you remember and practice only ONE of the guitar tuning basics on this page, make it this one!

That's A Fine Nut

If you've looked at the glossary , you know that the nut is the fulcrum at the top of the guitar neck, holding the strings off the neck and body of the guitar.

(If you haven't, go there now so you understand what this guitar tuning basic is all about.)

Why do you care? Because an improperly etched nut will make it difficult to tune your instrument.

How can you tell? If you have repeated problems with strings going flat soon after you tune up, especially if you use thicker strings or strings not recommended by the manufacturer. To fix this, take your guitar to the shop and ask a technician to check it. Don't do this yourself unless you are experienced!

Watch out for the Whammy!

Using the whammy, or tremelo bar, to rock out is a lot of fun... but on some guitars the whammy bar will throw your strings out of tune. That is, after all, exactly what the whammy bar does... and why the whammy bar made our list of guitar tuning basics.

A quick experiment will tell you if this guitar tuning basics concern applies to your guitar. Tune up, then strum your guitar and use the whammy bar. Strum some more, then re-check your tuning.

If it's off just a little, no big deal. Experiment a bit to see if you can bring it back into tune by knowing where to leave the whammy bar.

If it's way off, you may want to have a technician look at it... there may be a problem.

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