William Lewis
William Lewis
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Guitar Tuning 101

This week, I thought I'd jump back a bit and go over something basic. I had wanted to do a piece on different tunings. As things progressed, and in some cases, fragmented, I forgot about it. Yesterday, I found bits and pieces of the article and decided to finally get to it.

First thing when it comes to tuning is selecting a tuner. You have a really wide array of tuners out there. I've always stuck with the handheld units for everything but a gig. I've had the same Korg CA-40 tuner for over 8 years. It still works just as well as the day I got it. You also have the option of a rack mount tuner, pedal tuner, or a tuner that clips to the headstock of your guitar. Any of those are going to get you in tune. I'm not going to go over every one, but I will say that you can't really go wrong with any of those. But for thoroughness, what if you didn't have a tuner at all?

You can use your ear if it's good enough, or a piano. The note you'd want for the low E is E3. If your ear isn't that developed or you can't access a keyboard or piano, you can always try to find a reference tone online. These days, that's entirely possible. Way back when I first started, I had no tuner or internet access. This was back in '99. So if you have nothing at all, simply get the low E to where you think sounds good. At this point, you don't have to be in perfect tune as defined by a tuner. You can get the guitar in tune with itself and be fine for a while.

A point to make here is whether you have that low E tuned to a perfect 440 E or to a note you think sounds close, the process to tune the guitar without a tuner is the same. It can be a little confusing, but I'll try to be as clear as possible. What you want to do first is play the 5th fret of the 6th string to the open 5th string. Then it's simply a matter of tuning the string. Once the 5th string is tuned, you then play the 5th fret of the 5th string to the open 4th string. Again, tune up until the notes match. Then you play the 5th fret of the 4th string to the open 3rd string. After that, it changes a little. You then play the 4th fret of the 3rd string to the open 2nd string and tune. Once the 2nd string is in tune, you go back to the 5th fret and play that to the open 1st string. Once that string is in tune, your guitar will hopefully be in tune.

If your guitar is equipped with a Floyd Rose or some licensed variant, this way isn't going to work. If you remember back to the article I did on locking tremolos, you know that these systems operate in a push/pull kind of way. Your 6th string will be in tune, but the second you tune up the 5th string, it's going to pull the 6th string out of tune. You never want to tune a Floyd Rose like that. You always want to cross tune them. Go 6 1 2 5 3 4 instead of 6 5 4 3 2 1. That helps keep the bridge tension somewhat even. You really, really need a chromatic tuner if you've got one of these systems.

What I've described for you there is called Standard tuning. When the word Standard is used, it's referring to Standard E tuning, the notes for that are: E A D G B E.

This is what I like to call the default tuning of the guitar. There are other variants of Standard E tuning. These are still referred to as Standard, but with different notes. Another very common tuning is Standard Eb. SRV, Hendrix, and Slash have used this tuning. This one lowers the pitch of all strings by a half step. So you get:

Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb

I've seen it referred to as Standard D# too. That's a more uncommon way. But for thoroughness, the notes for that one would be D# G# C# F# A# D#.

Standard D is another fairly common tuning. Bands such as Motley Crue and Mastodon have made use of this tuning. Standard D lowers the pitch of all the strings by a full step. Here we have the notes:


Those are what I'd call the Big 3 of Standard tunings. Of course, there are others out there. For example, Standard F. This tuning raises the pitch of all the strings by a half step, giving you:

F A# D# G# C F

I've never seen this one used, but it's out there. The same goes for this next one, Standard C tuning. This one drops the tuning of all strings by 2 full steps, giving you:

C F Bb Eb G C

To sum it up, you can find any Standard tuning you want by dropping or raising all the strings by the same increments. One thing to consider when changing tunings is the changes your guitar will have to undergo to support that tuning. You don't want to try to get to Standard F with .13-.56 strings or Standard D with .09-.42. Why? 13's in F will be very hard for you to play due to the pressure the strings will be under. Standard D with 9's will result in strings that are very floppy and likely will not sound to good.

However, everyone has a different preference to strings. Once you've selected the strings that will work for you, you'll need to make the appropriate adjustments to the guitar. If you change the gauge, you'll likely have to adjust the truss rod. In some cases, you'll need to adjust the action and intonation of the guitar as well. My article on setting up a guitar can help you if you have questions. Keep in mind that the strings can and do have an effect on the tone as well. Heavier strings sound thicker. If you go from a heavier gauge to a lighter one, you may notice your tone isn't quite as thick sounding. You can compensate a bit with the EQ, but it will still be different.

This was just a quick one. The next lesson will focus on open tunings. Hopefully it'll be done soon. I recently broke my ankle and while that doesn't affect my mind or hands, the pain sort of does.

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