To be honest, the best way to tune an acoustic guitar can be argued many ways. This guide is really my opinion on the best way to tune. So ... I expect some comments trying to prove me wrong! Remember, there are probably 100 ways to do it correctly and this is an attempt to help you avoid the 1000 ways to do it incorrectly.
If you have no idea on how to tune your guitar then hopefully this helps you in your quest to learn about your instrument, care for it, and have it sounding good when you play it. After all, we want it to sound good, right?
Where do I start tuning?
Let's get a few things out of the way. There are many, many ways to tune a guitar and many, many keys to tune it. There are also alternate tuning possibilities like open and drop tuning. Those are all awesome topics for another day. For the purpose of this article we will be starting with good 'ol standard tuning.
I will also make the assumption that you know a little about musical notes and how that relates to your strings. If not, you'll just have to take my word for it. :-)
It all starts with the low E string. Sometimes referred to as the 6th or top string, it is traditionally the only closest to your face looking down at the guitar if you are holding it properly. It's also the thickest string. Captain Obvious moment - we call it the low E string because E is the intended note to tune it.
I've played with musicians that just know what an E sounds like. They typically have memorized middle C from a reference instrument and can "hear" it. For the rest of us mortals, we need a reference tone. In today's world there are bunches of great apps that can help you tune to low E in A440 tuning. Can you do me a favor and use that as a last-ditch effort?
OK, if no app, then what? Piano is first choice. No piano or keyboard? How about other musicians you are jamming with? No other musicians? Tuning fork - very cheap and easy to find or order off Amazon. No tuning fork? Fine ... use the app.
Why? I think part of tuning by using your ear with another reference tone teaches you how to listen which in turn makes you a better musician and will provide more enjoyment in playing your guitar. This is all opinion of course.
By the way, in the case you don't have access to an app or any other reference tones you can simply tune the low E string to any sound where the tension of the string is not too tight and not too loose. We will then tune all the other strings to that so it still sounds good. It might not be standard but it will be your standard. :-)
If you are learning to play your favorite band's songs you can also tune to their music. This is a little tougher unless you are sure of the key which can be found in tablature and other music breakdowns.
The other five strings - ADgbe
Let's assume you finally have that low E tuned and you are happy with it. You app users are going to be tempted to keep tuning through the other 5 strings. It feels nice to see that meter hit the middle hash, I know. Let's skip it because from here on out we can get a perfect tune using harmonics.
Harmonics, in my humble opinion, get the perfect acoustic tune. This can certainly be debated. Learning to tune with harmonics also gives you a keen sense of tone and teaches your ear to hear at another level. This can provide additional enjoyment and help other musicians you play with as well.
Most articles will teach you to put your finger on the fifth fret on low E to play an A note and tune the 5th string to that A. It is a good way, but I want you to try something a little more tricky.
Comment below if you want me to do a video of this which might be easier to see.
Rest, do not press, your index or middle finger on the 5th fret. Pick the string and release your finger simultaneously. It should produce a high-pitched noise with a wave-like quality. This might take many tries to get but keep trying.
Once you get that, then do the same on the 7th fret of the A string (5th string.) You are producing two harmonics that should sound exactly the same. The way to get them to sound the same is by adjusting the 5th string with the tuning key. Don't move the tuning key for the low E string - it is your baseline, standard tuning now.
The idea is to match the harmonic from the 5th fret on the low E string to the 7th fret harmonic on the A string. This might take several tries before success. Granted, it is a more advanced way to tune which will require practice. YouTube might help visualize how to make a harmonic. It will also give you some cool things to do while playing later on. Keep trying! Don't give up!
Once you get that A string's harmonic matched, it's time to move on to D. Use the same process but one string down. Create the 5th fret harmonic on A and the 7th fret harmonic on D (4th string.) Match the sounds.
For the G-string (no giggling) it's the same process, one string down again. Create the 5th fret harmonic on D and the 7th fret harmonic on G (3rd string.) Match the sounds.
Tuning that B string is tricky!
I now have to break the process. There is a harmonic on the G-string (no giggling) that will match a harmonic on the B but it doesn't follow the 5th fret/7th fret process. Plus, the B string is the one that will knock al lot of tuning out of whack. On cheaper guitars, it needs to be constantly tuned between songs. So, for a quick B string tune, press the fourth fret on the G-string to play out the B note. Play the B string (2nd string) open, pressing no frets, to match the sound of the 4th fret G-string note you played.
Once the B string is close you can finish the final string, the high E, in the same manner as the rest. Create the 5th fret harmonic on B and the 7th fret harmonic on high E (3rd string.) Match the sounds.
Let that E major chord ring.
At this point, you should be completely tuned. I usually go through the process quickly one more time, then strum an E chord to listen to my perfectly tuned guitar sing. You can actually run through any chords that are familiar to you. Sometimes a good D chord is nice to check that pesky B string.
You sound and tune like a pro.
This is not a beginners' topic so you might want to save this article for later. It is intermediate and something that should still be taught. I'm not saying this makes you a pro but it sure will train your ear like a professional musician. And it's a great way to get to know the many layers of sounds your acoustic guitar can produce.
All the best, jerry