1. The Fret Method is a time-honored way to tune your guitar to itself, without using slick and newfangled electronic gizmos. With your guitar resting comfortably on your lap, follow these steps:
a. Take your left index finger and push down the 6th or E string at the fifth fret. There should be a dot or marker at the fifth fret. Be sure to play in the space between the two metal bars. Push down hard enough with the tip of your finger so it produces a clear note. Then, compare the pitch of that note (A) with the 5th or A string played “open” (no fingers.) If they don’t sound the same, adjust the 5th or A string.
b. Next, push your left index finger down on the 5th or A string at the 5th fret (D) and change the 4th or D string to sound like that.
c. Fret the 4th or D string at the 5th fret (G) and change the 3rd or G string played open to sound the same.
d. This time, fret the 3rd or G string at the 4th fret (B) and compare it to the 2nd or B string played open. If they don’t sound the same, change the 2nd string to match the 3rd string fretted at the 4th fret.
e. Finally, fret the 2nd or B string at the 5th fret (E) and compare it to the 1st or E string played open. If they don’t match, adjust the 1st or E string.
2. Music stores used to sell pitch pipes as the primary method to tune a stringed instrument. Nowadays, they’re going the way of the buffalo, the outhouse, and the corded telephone. If you can find a pitch pipe that’s made for a guitar, it could be useful, but is not very reliable when it gets old or if you blow too hard. Here’s what you do if you can get your hands on a pitch pipe. Each hole should be marked with the letter name of one of the strings. Gently blow on that hole and tune your string to it. Good luck!
3. Guitars can be tuned to any instrument that’s in tune. A piano, for instance, or another guitar, or a fiddle, or…you get the idea. Just make sure you’re tuning to an instrument that is in tune.
4. Last, but not least, is the electronic tuner. I mention this option last because I feel strongly that you need to be able to tune your guitar without using an electronic gizmo, as sweet as it is. The tuner is best used to fine-tune your guitar after you get it more or less in tune using one of the methods listed above. Visit your local music store and the salesperson will show you the pros and cons of the tuners they carry.
Allow me to toot my own horn for a moment. After teaching guitar for 50 years, I’ve published three books for beginning guitar. Here’s more about them.
The most recent is Easy Two-Chord Songs for Guitar. If you want to play the guitar, but don’t want to play a zillion chords, this is the book for you! The book includes helpful illustrations plus music, tab, and lyrics to 33 familiar bluegrass, old-time, folk and gospel songs, each with only TWO CHORDS. The book’s spiral binding allows it to lay flat while you play. It comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.
Painless Guitar – A Fun & Easy Guide for the Complete Beginner is for the total and absolute beginner. My co-author Ted Parrish and I call it “painless” because we have simplified learning the guitar down to its most basic level. Frankly, it doesn’t get much simpler than this. You’ll learn how to play the melody and chords to 31 folk, bluegrass, old time and gospel songs. You’ll have access to online audio files so you can hear how things are supposed to sound.
If you’re a little further along than a complete novice, I suggest Flatpicking Guitar for the Complete Ignoramus. This 80-page book takes the beginner on a musical adventure that includes more than 40 well-known flatpicking guitar tunes including Arkansas Traveler, Bury Me Beneath the Willow, House of the Rising Sun, In the Pines, Man of Constant Sorrow, Red River Valley, Wildwood Flower, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The book has a spiral binding and comes with an audio CD and a link to download or stream mp3s.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.