How to Tune a Guitar Without a Tuner

Technology is great these days, and almost every guitarist probably has a guitar tuner of some sort lying around.  The conventional way of tuning a guitar has been with a guitar tuner, but this has changed over the years.  Now, there are so many ways to tune your guitar that there really is no reason that you should ever not be able to get perfect tune no matter where you are.  That being said, we will review several different ways to tune a guitar without a conventional tuner in case you find yourself in a pinch.  We will even go over a way for you to tune up even if the nation suffers an electromagnetic pulse attack and the entire electrical grid goes down.  After all, in a situation like that, entertaining yourself with an old-fashioned acoustic guitar may be more important to you than ever.  In any case, let’s take a look at how to tune a guitar without a tuner.

Why Do I Need a Tuner Anyway?

Well, you don’t.  If you have a good enough ear, you can tune your guitar to itself.  Most guitar players learn how to tune their guitar to itself very early on and we are going to publish an article that outlines this procedure from beginning to end in the future.  For now, let’s just say that there is a pattern of holding down the strings that allows you to tune the five strings lower on the guitar to the one on the top.  That is, you tune the strings to be “in tune” with the low E bass string.  This is only as precise as your ear, although it has been successful for guitarists for generations.  The problems arise when you want to play with someone else.

Tuning — it’s pretty important if you want to sound good.

Guitars slip out of tune with time, especially if there is moisture or significant temperature differences.  Some guitars simply are more prone to slipping out of tune than others.  Of course, your string selection may play a part in this as well.  In any case, if you only tune your guitar to be in tune with itself, you may find that if you ever want to play along with a recording or with some friends that you guitar is way out of tune despite sounding just fine when you are strumming around by yourself.  So, even if you have an ear for tuning up, you are going to need to start somewhere.  The various types of tuning mechanisms we go over below will give you that way of knowing that at least your low E string is tuned to something relevant before you worry about the other strings.

Smartphones are Lifesavers for Tuners on the Go

You no longer have to have a standalone electronic guitar tuner with you to tune up.  It was a pain anyway.  You either have to have a plug going to a wall outlet or a battery that is just sure to run out of juice at the most inopportune time.  Nowadays, almost everyone is toting a smartphone in their pocket anyway, and luckily, there are now a multitude of applications available that allow for quick and accurate guitar tuning on the go.

Most tuning applications for smartphones use the built-in microphone on the device to “listen” to you as you pluck the strings.  Then, you get real-time feedback on how high or low your pitch is.  More advanced tuner applications include some pretty amazing features, like setting different tunings and even a metronome.  There’s really no reason to not have a tuner with you at all times when it is just this easy.

The Web Can Help

There are numerous websites that help out with guitar tuning in a pinch as well.  Some just play the pitch so you can match it, and others can actually use the computer’s inputs to analyze your signal and pitch.  These are useful because they are anywhere that you have Internet access.  The drawback, of course, is that you to have a computer or something capable of viewing web pages to use one of these.  Still, it’s a good option if you are just looking for a quick step in the right direction.

Kick It Old School With a Pitch Pipe

Pitch pipes give you the ultimate portability.

Before all of this electronic nonsense, people still tuned their guitars.  Your average guitar dealer probably has one for sale still in today’s world.  These are just little pipes that are engineered so that when you blow into it, you get the exact sound of the note that you are trying to tune your guitar to.  Once you get that one string in the right pitch, matching up the others is no big deal.  The obvious advantage of a pitch pipe is that it requires no power and can be taken absolutely anywhere, so it’s a great item to have in your backpack if you like to take your guitar off the grid.  The main disadvantage to this style of tuning is it is relying on your ear for accuracy, where as most electronic tuners are going to more precise.  This may not be a big deal if you are jamming by yourself, but could be more important when playing with other people.

As we mentioned earlier, the pitch pipe may be the gold standard if anything ever happened to the United States’ electrical grid, but mainly, it’s a surefire way to make sure that you can tune your guitar no matter what the situation.

The Verdict — Tuners are Plentiful These Days

Learning to tune your guitar by ear is a great skill, but it’s not as necessary in this age as it would have been a couple of decades ago.  There are all sorts of devices and mediums to help you get your guitar tuned up and playing in a perfect key in no time.  Always be prepared by having one of the devices above available just in case you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have your normal setup.  In the meantime, we will be reviewing several styles of tuners here on Just Guitar Talk, so stay tuned.

20 Replies to “How to Tune a Guitar Without a Tuner”

  1. Honestly Im not quite at the point of actually tuning my guitar yet because I am just starting to learn to play.  Because I am just learning to play I go in search of great articles that are going to help me today and tomorrow.  Well obviously this is one of them.  Would you suggest any good ways to learn guitar easily.  Presently the course I am taking is proving to be a bit confusing.

  2. It seems that nowadays there is an app for everything, even tuning your guitar. Do older guitarists use apps or are they truly old school and do it the traditional way that you mention I wonder? We are all so dependent on our phones these days. I’m old enough to know how we all lived without them, but it’s becoming more difficult to think of living without them. 

    1. Everyone’s different.  Yes the “old school” folks might be less likely to trust smartphones, but most people can’t help but adopt it when they see how easy (and precise) it is.  It’s like anything else.  If you get a bad app the first time, your entire view of tuning apps might be soured.  Better to check out the options, and sometimes it’s better to go ahead and pay a couple of bucks for one that works good as opposed to settling for a free app with some design flaws.

  3. I can still remember the price you had to pay for digital tuners about two decades ago…and when you compare them to the quality of the free apps these days…they barely stand up to them (some of these tuning apps are quite excellent!). 

    I was told that the DAW Logic on the Mac has a built in tuner, but I use Ableton on the PC – do you know if Ableton Live has a built in tuner anywhere (because I have not been able to locate it!). 

    1. I’m not sure if Ableton Live has a tuner, but there are plenty of free ways to do it on the internet.  Yes, DAW Logic on the Mac does have a tuner built-in, as well as the free GarageBand app that comes with every Mac.  

  4. being able to tune a guitar by ear is really old school in my view and also shows a musicians talent as I couldn’t do it! 

    I do love the guitar but I’ve never been able to get the hang of playing. 

    I was really surprised to read about smartphone apps helping to tune guitars with instant feedback, where would we be without them! 

    You mention air moisture can effect the tuning of a guitar, can this be excelled by the type of wood the guitar is made from? 

    1. Yeah the type of guitar is going to be a factor, as well as the strings themselves.  It’s not a big deal, and a lot of times the strings will go higher or lower proportionally, so that you might not even notice it being out of tune when you pick it up because it is still mostly in tune with itself.  When you go to play at practice though, you will figure it out real quick.

  5. Thanks for the great info. I learned to play the guitar all on my own when I was 11 or 12. Unfortunately, I did not learn to tune my guitar as I always had my brothers and cousins to do it for me whenever necessary. But when my job forced me to relocate, I had no choice but to buy a tuner, otherwise I could not play my guitar.

    While a traditional guitar tuner was helpful, the trouble I had with it was that I had to replace the battery from time to time. Imagine my excitement when I found out that there are downloadable tuner apps, for free! Smartphones are indeed lifesavers for tuners on the go. 

    1. Oh yes, I have encountered the dreaded dead battery at the worst possible time too.  It’s always a weird battery, too, like a 9-volt that no one is likely to have extras ones laying around.  Smartphone apps for tuning definitely solve that problem, because even if your smartphone is low on juice, just about everyone has a charger handy for that.

  6. I remember people using the pitch pipe back then, it was pretty good in my opinion, engineered perfectly for its purpose. The sound you get when you blow into was pretty good as well.

    Do you know where I can buy a good quality one nowadays? I was planning on playing guitar again since i am bored out of my mind lately. 

  7. Great informational article on guitar tuning. When I started playing the guitar 25 years ago, I used a tuning fork for tuning the A string and then tuning all other strings accordingly. In the beginning I couldn’t get it right and the guitar sounded horrible. But my ears got accustomed to it and it was a good training. However, I’m glad there are great tuning apps in place today and I haven’t bought a tuning device in the last 10 years. Just wondering, what you use for tuning?

    1. If I’m on the go, I’m going smartphone all the way these days.  At home, I do have a pedal tuner on my pedalboard that allows me to tune on the fly in between songs.  It has bright LED lights too so you can see it when standing on a dark stage.  I’ll be reviewing my tuner in a future article.  Thanks for stopping by Felix!

  8. Thank you very much for the information, Amazing how can we tune a guitar with our smartphone.

    But As i know, everyone has his tuning method, it depends on the type of music he will play !

    Can you share with us the 3 best tuning apps ? and if it’s possible the the pros and cons of each one .

    And will be much better if you share some tuning website too.

    Thank you very much for the “verdict” ! 

  9. Hey Brandon,

    I remember back then I used an electrical tuner to tune my guitar and it was quite expensive at that time when it was released, it was about $50 if I’m not mistaken. I took care of it for over 10 years and one day when we moved, I lost it. I went to the shop again to buy another and the shopkeeper told me to just use an app for it so I search and found GuitarTuna and it’s working well! 😀

    After that, I only used my phone to tune but my friend told me that another way to tune is to remember each note and tune it by heart. Is that even possible? 

    1. It’s possible for sure.  You only have to really know the first note and then you can tune the other strings to it.  However, knowing that you are started from the right place is the key, and from your heart, you probably won’t be sure.  GuitarTuna is a great little app.  I have it on my phone right now.

  10. Hi Brandon

    This is a really interesting post about guitar tuning.

    I think that most people who are learning the guitar nowadays, or have recently learnt, naturally assume that they need an electronic tuner, so this post was really refreshing to use.

    I have always used the method of tuning by ear.

    As I do have a piano, I usually tune the top E string using the piano, and then tune the rest to that string, and that has always worked well for me, although a pitch pipe is also useful if I am not near a piano.

    However, recently I have ben using a guitar tuning app on my phone, and as you say, that does work really well.

    I really don’t feel the need for an electronic tuner. Do you ever use one.

    Many thanks for returning the simplicity to guitar tuning, I really appreciate this post.

    Chrissie 🙂

    1. I think the phone has kind of replaced the electronic tuner, mainly because of just sheer convenience.  Having a piano or another instrument that you know is in tune is a great way to get started if you don’t have some of these modern luxuries handy, though.  That’s a great point.

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