Imagine this: You’re on stage playing an electric guitar for a crowd. As you move onto the third song, a string snaps! Since you don’t have a spare guitar, you have to change it out in 30 seconds like a race crew at NASCAR. Plus, you don’t have your tuner with you or it totally fails, what do you do?
Situations like this are why it’s important to know how to tune electric guitar without tuner. Actually, many skilled musicians recommend a tuning device as a plan B, not the primary go-to. There are three basic methods: using your ear, another well-tuned instrument or a tuning fork.
While there are great tuning apps and devices, this article will not focus on any of that. The suggestions below rely on having an excellent ear for sound, notes and music.
A Few Preliminary Items
For those new to guitar, there are some preliminary items to understand before getting into the methods for tuning.
Reference Pitch or Note
In order to tune any string, you must have a reference for which to compare sound. This can be a previously tuned string from your own guitar, another well-tuned instrument or some other object, like a tuning fork, that produces sound. Without it, tuning your guitar will be next to impossible.
Tuning pegs are the little metal knobs at the guitar’s headstock. These connect directly to each available string. You turn these either left to loosen or right to tighten the string. When tuning, keep playing the string while smoothly and continuously turning the peg, which allows you to listen while adjusting.
Truly, the way you execute this requires some finesse. The reason being is so that you can hear the tune of the string as you manipulate the pegs. If you only hit it once, you won’t fully hear the way it’s sounding. Also, avoid choppy, quick or single turns as you may run into problems with the string holding the note.
Method #1: Tuning by Ear
Using your ear is the most common and surefire way to get your guitar up and running quickly. Plus, it helps you quickly identify when your guitar is out of tune. It can be intimidating, especially if you don’t quite trust your hearing, but it doesn’t have to be. There are two approaches to this.
The first is you can use a reference string you know has correct tuning. Then, find the note of the same string you want to tune. Since the guitar will have repeated notes on other strings, just find the corresponding one for the string you’re tuning.
The other approach is using the sixth, or low E, string. But, this must be in tune and you are certain of it.
From there you can play a series of fretted and/or unison notes on the fifth fret of each string preceding it (the exception is the third string, where you’ll use the fourth fret).
- Play the fifth fret on the sixth string, which is A. Now, tune the fifth string (or A) to match what you play on the low E. Now do the same for each string.
- Play the fifth fret on the fifth string, which is D.
- Play the fifth fret on the fourth string, which is G.
- When you get to the third string, or G, the rule changes in order to tune to B. Rather than using the fifth fret, you’ll play the fourth fret on the G string to produce B.
- Now you can return to the fifth fret pattern as before. On the second string, play the fifth fret to get the high E.
- If you have to tune the first string, or high E, use the low E to match the pitch.
Use the reference chart below as a guide. Another way to remember this kind of tuning is 5-5-5-4-5:
|Related Note (w/mnemonic)
|Fret Position/Previous String
|Low E (Eddie)
|5th fret / A
|5th fret / D
|5th fret / G
|4th fret / B
|5th fret / E
|High E (Eddie)
|Match to the 6th
However, the problem with this is if you’re new to playing guitar or if you haven’t quite trained your ear to pick out precise notes. So, it’s imperative to actually learn this from a guitar wizard and practice it consistently until you master the art of training your ear.
Method #2: Use another Instrument
If you have a piano, keyboard, xylophone, another guitar or a skilled singer’s voice handy, you can use these to tune your guitar. It’s fast, easy and it doesn’t require too much of a trained ear in order to tune it. The only thing you have to ensure is, whatever instrument you use should be properly tuned.
Another rule, however, is that the instrument must be able to play notes in accordance with how a guitar sounds. This means you can’t use drums or most percussive instruments. But, the benefits of this are huge, especially when live.
For instance, the vocalist, keyboardist, bassist or another guitar player can keep the audience calm and happy by singing or playing and holding the note for you until the guitar is in tune. So, this is the best method when you’re in a pinch.
The only real drawback to using another instrument, aside from another guitar, is that it won’t quite match the pitch of a guitar. However, in another respect, you may not always have an additional instrument on hand to tune your guitar.
Not everyone has a piano and not every vocalist has an ear for or knowledge of notes and may lack the ability to hold a note for as long as you require. Also, if you don’t know how to play piano or have someone around who knows how to play it, tuning your instrument will be an exercise in futility.
Method #3: Use Tuning Forks
Having a tuning fork always at the ready in your guitar case is imperative. This is a trusty method that’s been reliable for decades. These only have one note: A. Luckily, that’s all you need for guitar tuning, especially if it’s for the low E.
- There are two tines at the top, also known as prongs, and a stem on the bottom. The prongs will produce the A note and you use the stem to keep the fork stable.
- Hit the fork against a table, a piece of solid wood, the wall or even your kneecap. The idea is that you want something stable so a solid tone emits from the tines.
- Put the fork close to your ear and set the stem against something with resonance projection. You can use a table, the top of the guitar, a metal shelf, a wooden cabinet/dresser or even your teeth. Solid objects will absorb sound, so avoid putting the stem on your amp, a cushioned chair and etc.
- Simultaneously, strike the open 5th string and tune it to the fork’s tone until you achieve a perfect A note. Now, tune every string after according to the directions in the first method.
Finesse is the name of the game when using a tuning fork for your guitar. You have to come up with and devise your own flow and process so you can do it quickly and flawlessly. Another problem is if you’re at a live show, it will be hard to hear the tuning fork even if you put it in your mouth.
Once you think all the strings have the right tuning, play a few notes and some cords. It won’t be difficult to hear if something is amiss. In the event it’s still too sharp or flat, go back and retune until it meets your approval.
Check out these other popular posts in this category:
- Tips For Playing Electric Guitar for Beginners
- How To Tune An Electric Guitar For Beginners
- How To Play Electric Guitar With Headphones?
Is it necessary to have a trained ear to tune without a tuner?
While it’s not essential to have a trained ear, it definitely helps. If you want to be a rock god or guitar aficionado, you should definitely master this skill.
How do you keep a guitar tuned?
To maintain your guitar’s tuning, don’t expose it to extreme hot or cold temperature shifts as well as intense humidity or dryness. Also, check the strings’ tuning once per week and always store your axe in a secure case.
Final Thoughts on How to Tune Electric Guitar Without Tuner
Tuning your guitar without a tuner isn’t difficult in theory but it is challenging in practice. The key is to train your ear to hear notes and not solely rely on a tuner to do it for you. This will consume your time at first but it will become second nature as time rolls on.
No matter which method you opt for, you will also have to develop finesse in your style and execution. This is so you can hear the reference note and the guitar string at the same time.
My name is Howard Matthews and I have been playing the guitar since I was knee-high. My parents like to joke that I was pulling the strings even before I was born. In fact, one of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my dad’s guitar, wreaking havoc on the chords.
Now, 40 years later, I can attest that I play them much better than I did back then. I have followed in the footsteps of both my parents – much to their delight – and have been the main guitarist in my band for the best part of three decades.
Music has always been my passion, and until recently my life has been so consumed with it that I haven’t had a moment to have a breath (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)!