4 Ways to Tune a Classical Guitar by Ear
At some point, if you’re playing guitar you must learn how to tune your guitar strings by ear. Tuning makes the difference between sounding good and simply not. It makes the difference between beautiful or sour, gratifying or frustrating.
Many beginner guitarists think it’s an occasional chore to tune your guitar strings. They naively think that once or twice a week should do it. But alas, as you continue playing and your ear develops, you’re more able to discern “in” from “out”. Tuning your guitar strings may become a several-times-per-practice event. Or before playing at the beginning of every practice at the least.
Luckily, there are many different tools and methods you can use to tune a classical guitar (or acoustic and electric guitars). It sets the stage for a great practice. In time, tuning your guitar strings will feel natural and you’ll do it without thinking.
Any tuning method that gets you there is a good one. Each tool and tuning method has its strong and weak points. Each takes a little time to get used to.
How to Tune a Classical Guitar
Using a digital tuner, any guitar tuner will likely work. There is no special “classical guitar tuner”. To tune a classical guitar, we use the same process as electric or acoustic guitar. Most classical guitars will tune to standard guitar tuning. Each of the methods you’ll find below are for standard tuning.
In standard guitar tuning, the strings are tuned to the notes: E A D G B E (low to high sounding). This is true to tune a classical guitar or acoustic guitar tuning. There are other classical guitar tunings, but standard tuning is most common.
Tuning classical guitar by ear, you may find it easier than steel-string guitars. The nylon strings have a strong, “fat” sound that lets us hear the tuning. (The downside is that other people can also hear when it’s out of tune! But this is true for any guitar.)
The most important thing to remember when tuning a classical guitar is that this is part of the ritual. It’s part of the game. As you sit down to practice, you can use the time while you tune your classical guitar to get into the best mental space. You can relax your face – we hear better with a relaxed jaw. You can put your attention on feeling the nylon strings and hearing the guitar sounds. This focused awareness will lead to a better overall classical guitar practice.
How to Tune Your Classical Guitar with a Digital Tuner (or app)
If you’re a beginner, you’ll find it easiest to tune your guitar with an electronic tuner or app. There are many apps, both free and paid, available for iOS and Android. And there are also some free online guitar tuner websites.
Each app or device has its own special design, but as a rule, you can expect it to work as follows.
You’ll most likely see arrows before and after the letter name of the open string being tuned. Your goal is to get the arrows on each side balanced. Some quick experimentation will tell you whether you’re turning the tuning peg in the correct direction.
So play an open string, and then try to line up the arrows or lights on the digital tuner.
Things to remember:
Make sure you see the letter name of the string you’re tuning on the electronic tuner or app. If it says a different note, you will get your guitar in tune to a wrong note. (As a reminder, letter names of the strings, from low-sounding to high-sounding are E A D G B E, unless you’re in a different tuning)
After you successfully tune with a tuner or app, go through the “tuning by ear” routine below to begin training your ear and mastering that technique as well. It will only take a few seconds and it will prove very helpful over time.
General Tips to Tune a Classical Guitar
- Always play the note that is already in tune first, then the note or string you’re tuning.
- Instead of tuning down to a note, detune the note below where you need to go, and come back up to the correct pitch. Tune the guitar string from below the pitch, tuning up to it. This often stays in tune longer than coming from above, tuning down.
- Be confident. Don’t be afraid to twist those tuning pegs.
How to Tune Your Guitar by Ear
Tuning your guitar “by ear”simply means that you listen and adjust according to what you hear, instead of using a tuner or app. This first tuning method is the most common method of tuning your guitar by ear.
With this method, you effectively “tune your guitar to itself”. You either get one string in tune from an external reference point, or just decide that one string is close enough. You tune the other strings from this starting point. The end result is that the guitar may be in tune with itself (meaning it sounds “right”), but it may not be in tune with what the larger world considers “in tune” (more on this later).
Here’s the process, assuming the 6th string (thickest string) is in tune to begin with:
- First play the 5th fret of the sixth string and listen to it.
- Then play the open fifth string and listen to it.
- Tune the open fifth string to match the pitch of the 5th fret of the sixth string.
Repeat as many times as it takes until you’re convinced that the fifth string is perfectly in tune.
Play the 5th fret on the fifth string and listen to it.
- Then play the open fourth string and listen to it.
- Tune the open fourth string to match the pitch of the 5th fret of the fifth string.
- Repeat as many times as it takes until you’re convinced that the fourth string is perfectly in tune.
Repeat the same process for the third string (open G string). Note: The G string is the first nylon string on a classical guitar.
- When you tune the second string (B string), you need to first play the fourth fret (4th fret) of the third G string (not the 5th, like every other string).
- And return to the 5th fret on the second string to tune the open first string.
How to Know It’s In Tune
As you tune your classical guitar, you can listen for two notes that are out of tune. There is a “warbling” sound when out of tune. This warble is created by the two different vibration rates of the strings. The two strings cause this warble by vibrating at different rates (i.e. different pitches). The warble will slow as you approach correct tuning. “Well in tune” sounds a steady pitch, with no warbling between the two notes. So listen for the warble while playing the strings.
How to Remember This:
To easily recall this method, just think: 55545
These are the frets to which you tune the adjacent open strings. Mind the 4th fret on the 3rd string!
The Downside of This Method
This method to tune your guitar is not perfect. First, if your starting note is very far from truly “in tune” (A=440hz, see below in the harmonics section), then the guitar will have a very hard time staying in tune. If it’s too low or high, the gauges and length of the strings can make getting all six strings in tune with each other quite difficult. And nylon strings on a classical guitar may be inconsistent over the length of the string.
Also, this tuning method assumes that when an open string is playing in tune, that the fifth fret will also be in tune. This sounds like a reasonable assumption, but depending on the guitar (or the individual nylon strings), this may or may not be true (see below for more on “intonation”).
We must trust and hope for the best. If you do everything right tuning your guitar and it still won’t play in tune, you may need to try another method. You want to change your strings, or take your classical guitar to a technician and let them take a look.
How to Tune a Guitar Using Harmonics
You can also tune your guitar using harmonics. This method is similar to the above method in that you tune one string to another, and that to the next.
The benefit of using harmonics for tuning your classical guitar is that you can release your left hand and use it to turn the tuning keys while the notes continue to ring. This can make tuning your guitar quicker.
To tune your guitar using guitar harmonics, get one string in tune to an outside source. One option is a tuning fork (more below on tuning using it). You could also use a pitch on another instrument, such as piano. Or you can use a pitch-pipe,
or tone from your computer or device.
Here is the basic routine:
- Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the low E sixth string and listen.
- Play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the fifth string, and listen to any difference between the two.
- Tune the fifth string until the pitch matches perfectly with that on the sixth string.
- Repeat this exactly for the fifth and fourth strings (5th fret on the fifth string to the 7th fret on the fourth string).
- Repeat this for the fourth (D) and third (G) strings (5th fret on the fourth string to the 7th fret on the third string).
- To tune the second string (the B string), first play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the sixth string. This matches the open B string (no harmonic, just the open string).
- To tune the first string, first play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the fifth string. This matches the open first string (no harmonic, just the open string).
The Downsides of Tuning Guitar with Harmonics
As with the tuning-by-ear method above, this method of tuning your guitar can become a “game of telephone”, where the final tuning is not quite in tune with the first. However, because the first and second strings are tuned to the sixth and fifth, respectively, this is less of a problem.
Tuning using harmonics also assumes that your classical guitar’s intonation is perfect and this may not be true. This means that the harmonic may not match the pitches you get when you actually fret and play the note. They may be just slightly off. This happens frequently with nylon strings.
This method is also rather quiet, so if you are in a loud or busy place, you may have trouble hearing the harmonics.
How to Tune a Guitar Using a Tuning Fork
A normal tuning fork vibrates at 440 hertz/second. This vibration rate creates what we have agreed is the “A” pitch (or “la”, if you live in a solfege country).
To tune your guitar to this pitch, you can match the tuning fork pitch to the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 4th (D) string.
You may also find tuning forks that vibrate to other notes. One common fork often sold to guitarists vibrates at an “E” (though I find A=440 easier to hear). For these non-A=440hz forks, you’ll have to find the harmonic that matches this pitch. For E tuning forks, your harmonic is the 7th fret of the fifth string.[/box]
How to Check Your Guitar’s Intonation
You can quickly check your intonation by playing the 12th fret harmonic on a chosen string, then pressing the 12th fret and playing the actual note.
If there is a slight difference between the two, your intonation is off. Do this for each string, as one string may be off while the others are not. If you find your intonation off, you can change your strings, or have a classical guitar technician or luthier take a look.)
How to Tune a Guitar Using a Reference Note and Octaves (my favorite)
In addition to, and using, the methods above, you can also tune every string to one, pre-chosen string.
One advantage to this method is that if you know that your initial note is in tune (because you tuned it to tuner/app, or another instrument, etc), you can reasonably assume that each other note will be in tune once it’s matched to this one.
I personally find I can get more “in tune” more quickly using this method, and that the guitar is more in tune across the range of the instrument (as opposed to being in tune in the first position, but less so up in the 7th or 9th position, which can sometimes happen).
Here’s the routine:
- Tune the fourth (D) string to a tuning fork or other reference.
- Play the 2nd fret fret of the fourth string (the E note) and listen.
- Play the open sixth string (the low E string) and listen. These two notes are an octave apart, but you should be able to tell when they are in tune.
- Next, play the same note (2nd fret) on the fourth string and match it to the open first string. This note will be an octave higher (just as the sixth string was an octave lower).
- Then, play the same note (2nd fret) on the fourth string, and match it to the 5th fret of the second string (B string). This note is also an E, and is also an octave higher.
- That just leaves the fifth and third strings (the open A string and open G string), which you can tune using either harmonics or the 5th fret=adjacent-open-string method.
Are You in Tune? Use This Chord to Check
Once you have tuned your strings in this way, you can check your tuning using the chord below (aka 022450). This chord is all E’s and B’s, so you can easily hear if one or more notes are not in perfect tune with the others.
Note: you will need to bar the fourth and fifth strings with your index finger, while allowing the high E string to ring. This means collapsing the tip joint on the index finger.
In Summing Up….
There are multiple methods to tune a classical guitar, and each have their strengths. Eventually, you may like to master all of these, and find others as well.
As time goes on, your ear will become more attuned to the small differences in pitch, and you’ll find tuning your guitar strings easier and easier.
You can become a master of tuning classical guitar by ear, but it will take some time and practice. Add it into your daily practice, and you’ll be an expert before you know it.
Again, if you use a tuner or app (and if you’re a beginner, you should), go through one or more of these methods after you get your guitar in tune. This allows you to practice the tuning process, but without having to match pitches by ear. It also gets you used to listening to both in-tune notes and “warbles”.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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