An electric guitar really does sound a lot better when it’s in tune. Even the nicest, priciest, most gorgeous fourteen thousand dollar special edition Les Paul will sound terrible if the tuning is out. If you’re not sure exactly what you should tune to, here’s a guide.
What tunings are out there?
Standard tuning on a guitar is – going from the lowest pitch strings to the highest – E, A, D, G, B, E. This is the “normal” way to tune a guitar, and if you see a song written with no guide for what to tune to, this is what you should assume you tune to. Refer to the picture on the left for a guide.
You will often hear of tunings referred to as “C standard”, “E flat standard” etc. This means that every string has been lowered from standard tuning by the same number of steps, so that the low string is set to the note in the name of the tuning. Because each string has been lowered by the same amount, the guitar can be played exactly the same as a standard tuning guitar, it will just sound at a lower pitch.
Open tunings are tunings that will play a chord when you simply strike all the open strings. They are popular with slide players, because you can get a new chord just by moving.
Drop tunings are guitars tuned to standard tuning, with the lowest string “dropped” an extra whole step. “Drop D” is a standard tuning except with the lowest string tuned down to D. Drop C is a standard tuning with every string lowered a whole step, except for the lowest string which is lowered two whole steps to C, etc. Drop tunings are popular with a lot of guitarists, who like how they allow you to play a power chord by playing the bottom three strings all on the same fret.
Tuning to Concert Pitch
Until a little over a century ago, there was no standard in western music for the correct pitch for each note. Different instruments could be perfectly in tune with themselves, and then be woefully out of tune when played together. To allow instruments to play together, some standards of pitch were introduced over the centuries, however these could vary wildly between region to region, and even in the same city.
In 1939, an international conference set a standard that the A above Middle C should be set at 440 Hz, and this is now known as Concert Pitch.
So what does this mean for you as a guitarist? Well, if you’re just going to be playing alone, not a lot actually; it will be enough that your guitar is in tune with itself. But if you are going to be playing along with a band, or with a recording, then you will want your guitar to be in tune not just with itself, but with everyone else too. If you are using an electronic tuner then you can pretty much rely on it to tune you to concert pitch. If you are tuning by ear to another instrument, be aware that it might not be in concert pitch! Some pianos are tuned slightly flat, not being able to be take the strain of being tuned all the way to concert pitch, due to age or design. If you tune to one of these, and then try to jam with some dudes who have tuned using an electronic tuner then things might sound a little sour. You have to be just as careful if you are tuning by ear to a recording. Many recordings are not in concert pitch too – bands like Pantera often tuned slightly flat of the notes on purpose because they liked the sound – many older bands often didn’t have an electronic tuner available, and just tuned to a note from an electronic organ or from the bass guitar. Some even had the pitch of the recording changed by altering the speed of the magnetic tape they recorded to, sometimes by accident, and sometimes on purpose. Chuck Berry was famously sped up a great deal, because the record company wanted to “make him sound younger”.
So does this mean you will always want to tune to concert pitch? Most of the time you will probably want to. But when you are going to be playing along to recordings or with instruments that are tuned to a different pitch, then you will want to be in tune with them. Some electronic tuners can be set to a pitch sharp or flat from concert pitch.. otherwise you can tune by ear to a note from the recording, or to one of the other instruments. If there is a fixed-tune instrument in the band, such as a piano or keyboard, then tune to a note from that.