An important skill in any guitar player's repertoire is knowing how to tune a guitar by ear. With the invention and relatively inexpensive manufacture of electronic tuners, tuning a guitar by ear is also a skill that's quickly being forgotten, but there are many potential situations you might find yourself without one and in need of tuning. Luckily, learning how to tune a guitar without any sort of electronic aid is very easy, and it gets a lot easier the more refined your ear gets at comparing notes to each other. The only thing you need other than a guitar and an ear are a starting pitch.
- Begin by Finding Your Starting Pitch The lowest string on a guitar in standard tuning is an E. The lowest string is called the sixth string, the next lowest is called the fifth string, and so on until you reach the first string at the bottom of your guitar. In order to tune the guitar by ear you need to have a starting pitch. You can find pitches online, play another more tuned musical instrument nearby, or if you know the notes of a song you listen to a lot, you can find the notes through that. The really great thing about learning how to tune a guitar by ear, though, is that you don't need to have a guitar tuned to the standard E. You can simply tune the rest of the strings to whatever note your lowest string happens to be and play it completely in tune to itself.
Hold the Lowest String Down on the Fifth Fret That note (an A in standard tuning) is the pitch that the next string should be. Play the two notes back to back—first the sixth string fretted up and then the open fifth string. Tune the fifth string so that it's the same pitch as the fretted sixth string by turning the tuning peg at the top of the guitar. Turning the peg tightens or loosens the string which changes the note. As you perfect your ear for finding the correct pitches, your tuning will get more and more accurate.
Repeat This Process Continue by holding the newly tuned fifth string down at the fifth fret and compare that note to the open fourth string. Adjust the tuning accordingly by turning the tuning pegs. Compare the fourth and the third in the same way. See? Tuning a guitar by ear isn't that difficult, it just requires a little practice to make sure you can identify the proper pitches.
- Hold the Third String Down on the Fourth Fret The only thing that deviates from this process of holding down the string on the fifth fret and comparing the note to the next open string is when you're trying to tune the second string. Hold the third string down on the fourth fret instead and compare the open second string with that note. After that, you go back to holding the second string on the fifth fret to tune the first string.
Keep in mind that this is standard tuning for a guitar which is EADGBE. For any other type of tuning, find a note on the guitar to compare your pitches. For example, if you want to play a song in Dropped-D Tuning–DADGBE–you can get the correct sixth string pitch by comparing the open sixth string with the open fourth string and lowering the sixth string to match the fourth. It will be an octave lower than the fourth string, but the pitches are identical. If you learn how to tune a guitar by ear like this, you will never have to deal with an untuned guitar ever again.