In order to begin tuning the guitar, you'll need a "reference pitch" from another source. Once you've found a source for this initial pitch (it could be a piano, a tuning fork, another guitar, or any number of other options), you'll be able to tune the rest of your instrument by using that one note.
Without a reference pitch, you can tune your guitar, and it will sound fine on it's own. When you try and play with another instrument, however, you will probably sound out-of-tune. In order to interact with other instruments, being in tune with yourself isn't enough. You'll need to make sure that your E note sounds the same as theirs. Thus there is a need for a standard reference pitch.
Lets take a reference to E note of a Piano
If you have access to a piano, you can tune your low E to the same note on the piano.
Look at the black keys on the keyboard of the image above, and notice that there is a set of two black keys, then an extra white key, then a set of three black keys, then a white key. This pattern is repeated for the length of the keyboard. The white note directly to the right of the set of two black keys is the note E. Play that note, and tune your low E string to it. Note that the E you play on the piano may not be in the same octave as the low E string on your guitar. If the E you play on the piano sounds much higher, or lower than your low E string, try playing a different E on the piano, until you find the one closer to your open sixth string.
Now that we've got our sixth string in tune, let's move on to learning how to tune the rest of the strings.
To get our other five strings tuned to that note, we need to use just a little bit of very basic music theory and you can see how we'll do that.
We know, from lesson two : Know Your GUITAR, that the names of the six open strings are E A D G B and E. We also know, to count up a string, and find the names of the notes on that string. Using this knowledge, we can count up the low E string (which is in tune), until we reach the note A, on the fifth fret. Knowing this note is in tune, we can use it as a reference pitch, and tune the open fifth string until it sounds the same as the sixth string, fifth fret.
Because this string is in tune, we can assume that this note, A, on the fifth fret, is also in tune. So, we can play the open fifth string, also an A, and check to see if it sounds the same as the note on the sixth string. We'll use this concept to tune the rest of the strings. Observe the graphic above, and follow these rules to fully tune your guitar.
Steps to Tuning Your Guitar
Often, new guitarists have a very hard time tuning their guitar. Learning to listen to pitches very closely, then fine-tune them, is a skill that takes practice. In teaching situations, I've found some people can't easily listen to two notes, and identify which is higher, or which is lower - they only know they don't sound the same. If you're having a similar problem, try this:
Listen to, and play the first note. While the note is still ringing, try humming that note. Continue to play the note, until you've managed to match the pitch with your voice. Next, play the second note, and again, hum that note. Repeat this - playing and humming the first note, then follow that by playing and humming the second note. Now, try humming the first note, and without stopping, moving to the second note. Did your voice go down, or up? If it went down, then the second note is lower. If it went up, the second note is higher. Now, make the adjustment to the second note, until they both sound the same.
This may seem like a silly exercise, but it does often help. Soon, you'll be able to recognize the difference in pitches without humming them.
I hope this has helped. As previously mentioned, it's extremely important to tune your guitar every time you pick it up to play it. Not only will it make your playing sound a whole lot better, but the repetition will allow you to conquer tuning your guitar quickly.
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