Practice Proper Tuning Techniques and Stay in Tune!

Do you have problems with keeping your guitar in tune? You are not alone. Let’s start out with a CRITICAL aspect of playing guitar – proper tuning.


Poor tuning guarantees that you will NEVER EVER sound good. I’m not quite sure why this is such a problem with guitarists, but it is. There are a few basic guidelines to follow that will ensure that you are playing in tune.

First you must always tune UP to the pitch, and never down, otherwise the string will slip out of tune. If you are sharp and need to lower the pitch, you MUST lower the pitch BELOW your target note, and THEN tune it up to the pitch. This one technique alone will solve 90% of all your tuning woes.


Next, look at the windings on the tuning pegs. Do they look neat and tidy, or messy? Sloppy winding can cause the string to slip out of tune. When winding your strings, leave about 7 inches extending from the tuning machine. Keep the string under constant tension while winding. The first wind should be ABOVE the hole/string. The remaining turns should have the string BELOW the hole. This will ‘lock’ the string into place. Wind and tune the string to pitch.

Now that you have restrung your axe, we need to gently stretch the strings. Strum all the open strings pretty hard a few times. Then re-tune. Next, bend the strings at the 12th fret, one at a time and re-tune. Repeat until they all stay in tune. I HIGHLY recommend curling the unwound strings with a pick. A quick trick to accomplish this is to pinch the string end between your finger and a guitar pick and then pull it to the end of the extra string. This will curl the string end and keep it from poking you. (I have poked myself in the eye with the string before, and if I hadn’t been wearing hard contacts, I would have scratched my cornea!). You can also snip the extra piece, just know that you will be left with a sharp needle-like stub that WILL prick your finger.

When should you change your strings? This depends on a few things like: How often you play, how acidic is your sweat and where you store your guitar (cased/climate). At a minimum you should change strings four times a year. If your stings are black or feel crusty, change them! I always change strings before a gig, but make SURE that you do it at least a few hours before, and make sure they are properly stretched, or you may find yourself falling flat, in more ways than one.


Once your guitar is tuned, you should also test the intonation. This means that you are checking that the strings are at the correct length, so that the notes are at the correct pitch when the strings are fretted. You can check this by plugging into a tuner and play a harmonic at the 12th fret. To play the harmonic, lightly touch (do not press/fret) the string over the 12th fret and pick the string. The instant you pick the string, quickly lift your finger off the string. You should hear a soft bell-like tone — this is the harmonic. Notice on your tuner if it is sharp or flat, and tune it to the correct pitch. Next play the fretted note at the 12th fret. The fretted note should EXACTLY match the harmonic. If you can hear that they aren’t the same, OR if your tuner reads differently for both notes, you will need to have your guitar intonation checked or ‘set-up.’


The fact of the matter is that you CANNOT play in tune if your intonation is off. I have attempted to set up my own guitar before, ONCE. It is a lot harder than it seems and for 30-40 bucks you can have a professional set up your guitar. It should only need to be set up once every ten years, if that, and I highly recommend leaving this to a pro. So now your guitar is set-up, and your stings are properly wound and tuned. Congratulations, you have just IMPROVED the quality of your playing by 100%, without having to memorize or practice anything!

Next week we will begin to explore actual riffs, scales and techniques to improving your playing. Stay in tune!

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