Tuning your Guitar

It doesn't matter how much great music you've mastered--it'll sound like madness and confusion on an out-of-tune guitar. Fortunately for beginning guitar players, guitar tuning is a pretty easy skill to master. And it'll improve your ear (your listening skills) which will become increasingly important as you progress with the guitar.

Guitars are arranged with the strings arranged in size from thickest to thinnest, with the thickest on the top. If you hold the guitar on your lap horizontally, the thickest string should be closest to the ceiling. The strings are often numbered one to six, with six referring to the thickest string.

Guitars naturally go out of tune as you play them for a while. With the guitar, in tune means that all strings have the proper tension in relation to one another. The proper tension produces the correct pitches, or sounds. These pitches sound good when the relationships are correct, and they sound dissonant (noisy and disorderly) when they're not. Interestingly, the main skill for tuning a guitar is to listen and identify notes that are not in tune. By listening for the out-of-tune notes and then adjusting the tuning pegs, you can tune those unwanted notes out of existence.

What does "out of tune" sound like? Two strings that are similar in pitch, but not in tune, do something interesting. When two out-of-tune notes are plucked one right after the other, the resulting sound is wavering and wobbly. Think of it as a siren that's yelling "I'm out-of-tune, I'm out-of-tune!" Why this happens is a short lesson in the physics of sound waves. Basically think of the waves and frequencies visually, and try to picture similar waves waving together, and then two waves that are different. The similar waves make a continuos tone, and the wavering ones create a "bouncing" effect, and that is the resulting waver.

If you are going to play with anyone else on any other kind of instrument your guitar will have to be tuned absolutely. That means that the low E string will actually produce an E. If you are going solo, then you must have all your strings tuned together relatively, as in, having the same relationship. In order to get the low E string correct, a tuning fork, or a piano, or a wonderful little tool - the electic tuner - is necessary to get that note right.

Assuming you have a good tone with the 6th string, you're ready to begin the actual tuning process. You're going to match the tone of the 6th with the tone of the 5th, and you'll do this by playing the same note on each string, one after the other. This is where you listen for the wave--the wavering, wobbling sound tells you that the two sound waves aren't together and aren't in tune.

Which two notes do I compare? you may be wondering. Place your non-dominant hand's index or middle finger on 5th fret of the 6th string. You don't, however, put your finger exactly on the fret--it should be just behind the fret on the side closer to the head of the guitar (i.e., further away from you.) Using your dominant hand's thumb (or a guitar pick) play the 6th string at the 5th fret. Very soon after that, play the 5th string open--no fingers on any fret. Listen to the two tones. Hear the wave? The wobbly sound?

Now what? Amazingly, the slightly obscure theory in Step 2 has a very practical application to guitar tuning. Try to change the 5th string to match the sound of the 6th string--you can do this by playing the notes with your dominant hand, and then very quickly reaching over to adjust the 5th string's tuning peg. Listen now for the speed of the wavering sounds. If the waves seem to speed up, you're putting the string even further out of tune. If you hear the waves slow down, you're getting closer to the right pitch. Once you hear the waves slow down and gradually disappear, you've got it. Well done!

And most important! Any time you try to match two tones (one which is correct and the other which isn't) start the out-of-tune string lower than the string that's in tune. That is, loosen the out-of-tune string until it's lower (much lower, if you're not sure you're going in the right direction) than the correct one. You should always arrive at the right tone from below (by tightening a string that's too loose) and not from above (by loosening a string that's too tight).

Repeat this process with the 4th and 3rd strings. Once the 5th string sounds good, fret it at the 5th fret, and play the 4th string open. Again, listen for the waves and adjust the 4th string's tuning peg to match the sounds. Keep going to tune the 3rd string: fret the 4th string on the 5th fret, and play the 3rd string open, and match the sounds. You'll tune the first string the same way: fret the 2nd string on the first fret and playing the first string open (but hold off on that for now).

Now all hell breaks loose--prepare for your world to turn upside-down as you try to tune the 2nd string. Actually, it's not bad at all. What's the difference? When you tune the 2nd string, you have to fret the 3rd string on the 4th fret (not the 5th, as you have been doing), and play the second string open, and adjust the 2nd string's tuning peg. It's that easy. And remember--any time you try to match two tones (one which is correct and the other which isn't) start the out-of-tune string lower than the string that's in tune. You should always arrive at the right tone from below (by tightening a string that's too loose) and not from above (by loosening a string that's too tight).So, loosen the out-of-tune string until it's lower (much lower, if you're not sure you're going in the right direction) than the correct one.

Listen again for the speed of the wavering sounds. If the waves seem to speed up, you're putting the string even further out of tune. If you hear the waves slow down, you're getting closer to the right pitch. Once you hear the waves slow down and gradually disappear, you've got it. The final string: Tune the first string by fretting the 2nd string on 5th fret, and play the first string open. Match the two tones, and you're done.

Caring for your Guitar

Keep your guitar in a place with reasonably constant temperature and humidity. Inside the case is best, but if you're like me, you'll have the guitar out too often to make that worth the trouble. In that case, a guitar stand is a good investment. Leaning your guitar against things is asking to have it knocked over, especially if you have pets or children. Even if it's in the case, don't leave your guitar lying on a floor that gets cold or against an outside wall. Don't keep it in a hot attic or a damp basement. Don't leave it in the trunk of your car. Use common sense.

Keep a soft cloth on hand. Skin oil will corrode your strings, so wipe them down after you play. They'll last longer. If your guitar is dusty or smudged, wipe it with a soft cloth, damp or otherwise. It does not need to be polished. Polish leaves a residue that can build up over time and affect your guitar's sound.


It's not a good idea to use the wrong kind of strings for your guitar. Steel strings on a classical guitar will warp or break its neck, and nylon strings on a steel string guitar won't have the correct tension for the guitar's neck, so your intonation will be off. Make sure you're using the right kind of strings before you change them.

  • Acoustic steel strings come in several varieties. Usually the first two strings are plain steel and the rest are some kind of metal wire wound around a core of steel or another material.
    • Bronzewound strings are just what they sound like. The four lower strings have a steel core wound with bronze wire. They are the most commonly used steel strings for acoustic guitars.
    • Phosphor Bronzewound strings use something called "phosphor bronze" instead of plain bronze for the string windings. 100% of guitarists surveyed were unable to tell me what "phosphor bronze" actually means, but the strings do sound different. They offer a brighter tone, but are also rougher on your fingers than plain bronzewound strings.
    • Silk and Steel strings offer a mellower tone. The four lower strings have a steel core that is wound first with silk and then with metal wire -- usually nickel rather than bronze. They don't "ring" or sustain notes as well as regular steel strings do. They are also a little quieter. They're easier on your fingers when you're first starting out.
  • Electric steel strings are designed to sound good through a pickup, so they're different from acoustic steel strings. The first three strings are plain steel, and the other three are usually nickelwound. They don't sound very good on an acoustic guitar, and acoustic guitar strings don't sound very good on an electric, although there's no reason you can't use them that way if you want to.
  • Nylon strings are the modern version of gut strings, used for classical and flamenco guitars. Usually the first three strings are plain nylon, and the rest are nylon wound with silver wire. They have a much softer tone than steel strings.

A steel guitar string's diameter is called its gauge. Sets of strings are graduated so that their tension is as consistent as possible when they are in tune, to offer an even resistance when you play them. They are usually sold in sets, labeled things like "Extra Light," "Light," "Medium," or "Heavy." (Those aren't the only gauges they come in, just the most common.) Every manufacturer has a different definition of what those labels mean, so don't expect Dean Markley extra light strings to be exactly the same gauges as Gibson extra light strings. If you can't find a set of strings whose gauges suit you, you can buy individual strings in the exact gauges you like.

Changing the gauge of the strings will affect the guitar's sound and feel. Lighter gauge strings have a lower tension, and are easier to press down onto the frets. They are also harder to keep in tune, and they give less volume and sustain. Heavy gauge strings are the opposite -- harder to play, easier to keep in tune, more volume and sustain. You may want to take all of these things into account when you buy guitar strings.

One important note; if you have a very old acoustic guitar, it's best to use light or extra-light strings. Medium and heavy gauge strings are a relatively recent invention, and older guitars (aside from being made from older wood) aren't built to take that kind of tension. Some Martin guitars have an inscription in the soundhole that says "use only light gauge strings." They aren't just saying that to be annoying.

Nylon strings come in different "tensions." The different tensions are called "hard," "medium," or "light." Varying the tension of the strings affects the feel and sound of the strings. For instance, most flamenco strings are "hard," because a tight, crisp feel is suited to the style of music.

Changing Strings

You should change your guitar's strings regularly, even if you don't play very often. Over time guitar strings lose elasticity. That increases the tension on the guitar's neck, which can cause it to warp. When you do play a lot, the strings also become corroded and lose their tone and brightness. If you play for an hour or more a day, it can take as little as a week or two for your strings to lose their tone and elasticity.

It should be reasonably obvious how to attach the strings to your guitar. Look at the ones that are already there. The new ones go on the same way. On steel-string acoustics, the pegs can be hard to remove. They're cheap and easy to replace, so I just pull mine out with pliers. If the thought of having any flaw on your guitar bugs you that much, there are two things you can do. One is to buy a string winder and try to master the use of the peg remover. The other is to put your guitar on the floor and drop your keys on it. Once there's a ding or two in the finish, you'll think much more clearly.

The most important thing to know about changing strings is replace one string at a time. While it won't necessarily ruin a guitar if you remove the strings all at once, it won't do it any good either. Obviously there are some repairs that require all the strings to be removed, and any guitar in good condition should be able to take it -- but why put unnecessary stress on your instrument? If you replace one string at a time, you maintain an even tension on the neck and bridge. Here's a good way to change strings:

  1. Remove a string. One of the E strings is a good place to start.
  2. Put the new string on. (Which string is which should be marked on the envelope.)
  3. Tighten the new string until it's in tune.
  4. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

When you finish, your guitar will be horribly out of tune anyway. That's because each time you change a string, the tension on the neck changes a little bit, and that causes the tuning of the other strings to change. This way, though, you won't be as far off as you would have been if you had changed all six strings at once.

Periodic Maintenance

Every so often, you may want to do some basic maintenance on your guitar. None of these things are necessary, but all of them are useful. I'll describe what I do once every six months or so.

  • Remove the strings.
  • Thoroughly clean dust and grime from the guitar. Vacuum any large dust bunnies from the body. Use a soft toothbrush and some water with a little Murphy's Oil Soap to clean the fretboard.
  • Once the fretboard has dried, rub it with oil. (I use olive oil, but linseed oil or pretty much anything else that you like will do.) If your fretboard is lacquered, skip this step.
  • Grease the gears of the tuning machines. If they're sealed, leave them alone.
  • Look for any cracks or signs of damage.
  • Put on new strings.

Extended Storage

If you don't expect to be playing your guitar for several months or longer, you should store it carefully inside its case with the strings loosened. Be sure to put it somewhere dry and temperate, like a closet. There's no need to change strings if you won't be playing it, as long as they've been loosened.

Fret Buzz

Fret buzz is what happens when one or more strings are too close to the frets. The only fret a string should actually touch is the one being played. If it touches any others as it vibrates, it makes an annoying buzzing sound. A little fret buzz is hard to avoid if you like low action. In fact, some people like a tiny bit of fret buzz. They say it adds "character." But a lot of fret buzz detracts from the quality of your guitar's sound. Fortunately, it's a very easy problem to solve.

The first step is to find out where the buzz is coming from. Mute all but one of the strings and play each fret on the unmuted string until you get a buzz. If the buzz begins at one of the top frets, the problem is probably at the nut. If the buzz doesn't start until you're closer to the soundhole, the problem is probably at the bridge saddle.

If the strings buzz at only one fret, that fret is probably out of alignment. I personally wouldn't want to try to fix a crooked or loose fret myself; I'd recommend taking your guitar to a repair shop to have it fixed. The repair involves pounding the fret into place with a rubber mallet, and for some strange reason, the idea of taking a mallet to my guitar makes my hair stand on end.

If only one string is buzzing, the fix is ridiculously simple. Take a bit of paper or aluminum foil and fold it up into a tiny square. Loosen the offending string, and stick the paper or foil between the string and either the bridge or the nut, depending on where the buzz started. Tune the string back up to pitch and try playing each fret on the string again. If you still get buzz, make a slightly thicker square of paper or foil and try again. Repeat the process until the buzz stops.

Yes, it's a kludge. It's a very nice kludge, and I've had the same bit of paper under my low "E" string for eleven years. Do not mock that which you do not understand.

If you're getting buzz from more than one string, you'll have to make a shim. A shim is usually a thin strip of wood veneer, but you can use anything that is thin enough and can be cut to the correct size. A shim is placed underneath the bridge saddle or the nut to raise it to the correct height.

If all the strings are buzzing, you need to put a shim under the full width of the nut or bridge saddle. If the buzz is coming from the strings on one side or the other, put a shim under only that side of the saddle or nut. If you're getting buzz from alternating strings, it's possible that your guitar's neck is slightly twisted, or some of your frets are coming up from the fretboard. A full-length shim may solve the problem, but you should probably take it to a shop to be looked at.


  1. Remove the nut or the bridge saddle, whichever is causing the problem. Both are usually glued on, but can be removed with a little gentle prying. If they won't come loose, don't force them -- take your guitar to a professional, or get used to the fret buzz.
    • Most acoustic guitar bridge saddles are a little bit taller on one end than the other. The taller end goes under the lower strings, because they're thicker and need more clearance. Be careful not to get the bridge turned around when you're ready to put it back in.
    • If your guitar has a segmented bridge saddle -- one segment for each string -- be sure to keep track of which segment goes where and in what direction it faces!
  2. Cut a shim to the right size and set it in place. Do not glue anything yet. Start with something very thin, and work up.
  3. When the shim is in place, replace the saddle or nut, tighten the strings, and check for buzzing.
    • The nut may slip from side to side when you tighten the strings, so try to hold it in place while you do that.
  4. Repeat the process with progressively thicker shims until you're satisfied.

Now you can glue the nut or bridge saddle back in if you like. Some aren't glued on to begin with, and as long as the strings are holding them in place, there's no real need to glue them. If you leave them unglued, it will be easier to make more adjustments later, if you need to. If you do want to glue the parts back, use wood glue, and be sure to leave it plenty of time to dry.

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