When I got my first guitar (a few decades ago), I didn’t have an electronic tuner.
I had a small set of panpipes that I had to blow to get each note, and tune by ear!
If you’ve been wondering how to tune a guitar without a tuner, you’re in luck. I’ll be going through some easy methods.
The good news is that there are a few different ways to do it.
No matter what your situation or budget, there should be a way that works for you!
Do You Need a Tuner to Tune a Guitar?
No! Don’t get me wrong, a tuner is a super handy thing to have.
But do you really need one? Nope.
It’s perfectly possible to tune a guitar manually. It will require a good musical ear, but the good news is that you can develop one.
In fact, learning how to tune a guitar without a tuner can help you develop your musical ear quite quickly.
So, how do you manually tune a guitar?
How to Tune a Guitar by Ear
If you find yourself without a guitar tuner, there are other ways to tune your guitar so it sounds good when you play it.
Nothing makes a guitarist sound bad quite like an out-of-tune instrument!
Most guitar tuners use colored lights to show when the string is in tune. If you pluck the string and the light is red, it’s out of tune. When the light goes green, it’s in tune.
But tuning by ear requires you to listen to the note the string should be, and try to tune the string to match the sound.
Here are some ways to tune a guitar without a tuner.
Alternatives to Tuners
When using one of these methods, you really only have to tune your top string (low E). Once you’ve got that right, you can tune the other strings with no equipment at all.
You can download a guitar tuning app to your phone if you don’t want to carry a guitar tuner around.
Tuning apps are super useful. No matter where you are, chances are you have your phone with you!
Many of these apps work the same way a regular tuner does. It shows you a green light when the string is in tune.
Some of them work the same way as the panpipes, and play the note for you to match.
But they’re pretty much exactly the same thing as a guitar tuner. Unless you specifically download one that plays a note, you aren’t really going to develop your musical ear.
I recommend learning to tune using one of the other methods as well so you can tune your guitar even when electronics aren’t an option.
Tuning with Panpipes
This was my first tuner! It’s a small instrument that has 6 different pipes you can blow on.
Each pipe makes the note of one of your guitar strings. The idea is to blow on each one and tune your strings to the same sound.
I still have mine to this day. It’s a good alternative if you forget to take your tuner, or if your tuner’s battery dies!
Tuning to a Piano
If you have a piano in the house, you can tune your guitar to the notes on the piano.
Piano keys go out of tune much slower than guitar strings, so chances are they’re still (almost exactly) the right note.
When using this method, you’ll tune from the high E (the bottom string) upwards.
- Find “middle C” on the piano. This is the white key below and to the left of the two black keys in the middle of the piano or keyboard.
- Move two white keys upwards. This is E!
- Tune your high E to this note (by ear).
- From middle C, go down one white key to find the note for your B string.
- From B, go down two more white keys to find the note for your G string.
- From G, go down three white keys to find the note for your D string.
- From D, go down three white keys to find the note for your A string.
- From A, go down three white keys to find the note for your E string.
Then you’re done!
If that was hard to follow, here’s a short video showing you exactly where to find these keys on a piano.
Using a Tuning Fork
If you’ve never used a tuning fork before, it’s something I recommend every guitarist learns to do.
You can get tuning forks that are tuned to different notes. The most common is A, which is the note you can use to tune your A string.
It’s a simple little thing. It’s fork-shaped, and when you hit it on something and place the base against your guitar, it plays the note that it’s been designed for.
This is super for tuning that one string. Just match the sound, exactly like you would on a piano!
It’s a good idea to only hit your tuning fork on something softish, like your knee or a soft chair.
Hitting it on something hard or wooden could cause damage, either to the object or to the tuning fork!
You may be wondering how to tune the rest of your strings if you’re using a tuning fork. You could get an entire set, but not all the notes are easy to find in fork form.
And just imagine how much noise all those tuning forks would make jangling around in your guitar case!
The easiest way is to tune your other strings to the one string you’ve just tuned.
Tuning the Rest of the Strings
Surprisingly, you really only need to tune one string with some kind of reference note. The rest of them you can tune using just that single string that’s in tune.
How do you actually do this?
There’s a useful trick you can learn. Once you understand this, you’ll be able to tune your guitar to itself wherever you are.
Here’s how you do it, starting with the low E (top string):
- Play the note on the 5th fret of your 6th string (low E).
- This note is the same note as the following string, A.
- If your A string is out of tune, you can tune it to the 5th fret note of your E string (as long as your E string is in tune!).
And so on! The note on the 5th fret is the same note as the string below it.
There is one exception, though – your G string needs to be plucked on the 4th fret to accurately match the B note.
If you used the tuning fork method from above, there’s just one other thing to remember:
If you started by tuning the A string with a fork, use that A string as your first reference (instead of the low E). Then, after you’ve tuned the A, D, G, B, and high E, go back to the low E and match it to the high E.
Does It Matter What Kind of Guitar I Have?
It really doesn’t matter if you have an acoustic or an electric guitar. Learning how to tune a classical guitar without a tuner is exactly the same as an electric!
7- and 8-string guitars have extra strings above the low E, so you’ll need to make double sure you know which notes to tune to.
Bass guitars have only 4 or 5 strings (in rare cases, 6). A 4-string bass will be exactly the same as the top 4 strings on the guitar. A 5-string bass has an extra low B string above the low E.
Tips and Tricks
When you’re new to tuning your guitar, it can take a bit of practice! Here are some quick tips to get it right.
Use a Pick
Plucking the string with a guitar pick gives it better resonance and a brighter sound. It’s easier to tune when the note rings out clearer and longer, so you can hear it better.
Using your finger can make the note sound a bit dull. Using your fingernail is better. As long as the note rings out clear and bright!
Don’t Use an Amp
I recommend tuning your guitar without an amp. You may feel that hearing the note through an amp would be easier, but it’s a good idea to learn to use just the guitar.
There’s also the possibility of an amp (especially not your own) being set up with effects on the guitar sound.
It’s harder to tune when you have a chorus effect or reverb on your note!
Of course, you can play through an amp if you really want to. It does make the note louder, which can be useful.
If you do decide to tune through your amp, make sure any effects you may have had on your guitar amp are turned off. That way, you’ll make sure you’re hearing the actual note from the guitar.
Hopefully now you have a better idea of how to tune a guitar without a tuner!
It may seem intimidating at first, but it’s not as hard as you may think.
You’ll find that your musical ear begins to develop after just a short while of tuning your guitar by ear.
I recommend that even if you do have an electronic tuner, you learn to tune by ear as well.
That way, if you ever find yourself without a tuner, you’ll still be able to make the guitar sound good!
Thanks for reading!