Tuning the Guitar

4.1.1 Tune to A-440

The standard note tuned to by all instruments is A-440. This means the note vibrates 440 times per second, or in scientific terminology the frequency is 440 Hz. All electric metronomes, many modern amplifiers, and many mobile apps can produce an A-440 tone.

Symphony orchestras tune a section at a time to an A440 played by the oboe. Chamber groups, wind and string instruments tune to an A440 played by the concertmaster or 1st violin. If there is a piano available the concertmaster might tune to a Dm/A chord (D minor with an A in the bass).


This image is from a choral concert I took part in during 2014. The string sections are tuning to the concertmaster, standing at left. This takes just a few seconds. You can see the guitar at the back of the instruments, on the right. In a setting like this you must be able to tune quickly, quietly and accurately.
Photo by Richard Taylor.

You can easily find A-440 in 4 places on the guitar. We will tune the 4th string to A-440 and then use that as a reference tone to quickly tune the other strings.

  1. Touch the 4th string very lightly exactly over the 7th fret
  2. Gently stroke the string
  3. Quickly remove your finger from the string

Notice that a harmonic is written with a diamond shaped note head.

  1. Touch the 5th string very lightly exactly over the 5th fret
  2. Gently stroke the string
  3. Then quickly remove your finger from the string
  4. Adjust the 5th string until the pitches match
  5. It is easier to start below the target tone and tune up.

Two out of tune note produce audible "beats". As two notes get closer to being in tune the beats slow down.

  1. Put your finger on the first string, 5th fret.
  2. Adjust this string until the pitch matches the 4th string, 7th fret harmonic

  1. Put your finger on the 2nd string, 10th fret.
  2. Adjust this string until the pitch matches the 4th string, 7th fret harmonic

Now you have tuned up 4 of the 6 strings. Congratulations!

Strings 1, 2, 4 and 5 are in tune, lets’ do string 3 next, and we'll do it in a nice subtle way which doesn't draw the audience's attention to the fact that we are tuning.

  1. Play the harmonic on the 5th string at the 12th fret
  2. Compare it the A which is found on the 3rd string, 2nd fret
  3. Adjust this string until the pitches match

  1. Play the 5th string open
  2. Compare it the A which is found at the 5th fret, 6th string
  3. Adjust this string until the pitches match

That's it!

Now test your tuning with this D minor chord with an A in the bass. Don't play the 6th string. Play it nicely. The audience and your fellow musicians will thank you for having tuned up quickly!

This article is an excerpt from my book "Guitar Playing and how it Works". which is available in ebook, Kindle, pdf or hard copy.