You’ve just walked in the door with your new guitar- you picked out the coolest one in the store, tried it out, and took the plunge! Excitedly, you run into the living room, put the case gingerly on the couch and open it up just to look at it for a minute… reach out and touch the strings, give them a little strum and think proudly to yourself “Wow, it belongs to ME now!” Now what? You put the strap on, sling your new axe on your shoulder and marvel at how good it feels to hold it, grab a pick and strum it a couple of times. The next step is to open the book and learn some chords and scales, right? Wrong! The first step, as I’ve told every student I’ve ever given a lesson to, is to TUNE IT! A major difference between a good sounding chord and one that sounds “wrong” is how the guitar is tuned. All the practice and technique in the world will not help what you’re playing sound right if your instrument is out of tune. It’s not as hard as it might seem at first, and it’s a vitally important step in learning to play. My personal feeling is that it’s the FIRST thing anyone should learn when learning to play!
The easiest way to tune up is with a small electronic tuner. Someone at the music store may have recommended one of these sweet little gizmos to you, and if you spent the extra $10-$30 (depending) to buy one with your guitar, then good for you! These make tuning quick and accurate (provided the guitar is set up properly) and they really couldn’t be easier to work! They normally have a built-in microphone as well as a jack to plug electric guitars into them, so they work with acoustic or electric models. Normally, all you need to do is turn it on, then pluck the strings one at a time and adjust the appropriate tuning peg until the needle is in the middle (or the green light comes on, or both.) Some tuners also have a feature on them that plays a tone, allowing you to compare and adjust your strings with something you can hear. This is especially handy if you ordered your guitar and had it shipped to you, as the strings are normally loosened for shipping. Once you’ve gone through all the strings and made sure they all are playing the right note, check them all again, as tightening a string will sometimes loosen the others- this is especially true if you have an electric guitar with a vibrato bar system on it (also known in different circles as a whammy bar, tremolo bar, or wiggle stick!)
Once you’ve tuned each string and gotten it “zeroed” on the meter of the tuner, it’s a good idea to double check by comparing the notes on the fretboard. This will tell you that the guitar is playing in tune with itself, so when you play chords (2 or more notes played at the same time) they will sound the way they’re supposed to. Sometimes, if the setup is out of adjustment, a string may need to be tuned “out” a little bit in order to play in tune with the others. Setup is a different matter altogether, and is best left to a shop, unless you really want to learn how to do it, and you have some time and patience to learn how to do it. To check the strings on the neck, start with the low “E” string. This is the fattest string, closest to you when you’re holding the guitar. Play the “E” string at the 5th fret- this note should be the same as the “A” string (the one immediately next to it.) If they’re a lot out of tune, the difference will be noticable- if they’re almost-but not quite- right, you’ll hear a slight “wobble” or “wave” in the sound. To fix this, adjust the “A” string until the “wobble” disappears. Next, play the “A” string at the 5th fret, and it should match the “D” string (the next one in line.)
Next, play the “D” string at the 5th fret, and it should match the “G” string. Play the “G” string at the 4th (not the 5th this time) to get the tone for the “B” string, then play the “B” at the 5th fret and this is how the “high E” (skinniest string) should sound. If you’ve had to adjust any of the strings during this proceedure, check them all again, then play a couple of chords to make sure they sound right. If you don’t have a book with the chord charts in it, you can play a “power chord (or barre chord)- to do this, play any note on the E or A strings, then add a note on the next skinnier string, 2 frets higher (toward the body of the guitar). When playing these chords, they should sound good, with none of the “wobble” we were just talking about. The notes should blend together and work together to make a bigger tone, and not sound like one is fighting the other! This is much harder to explain than it is to hear, so if you want to hear the difference, just reach up to the headstock and turn one of the tuning pegs a little bit- you might be surprised at the difference you hear when you do this!
It may seem a little bit confusing at first (a lot of my students have told me this), but as you practice this important step in playing, you’ll find that in no time, it will become habit- a habit that will make your playing better, and more enjoyable!