This is the musical equivalent to having to tell someone to wear deodorant. There’s no way to say it that isn’t awkward.
You need to tune your guitar.
There, I said it.
Maybe you never learned… Maybe you know something is off, but have no idea how to fix it… Maybe it sounds okay to you (but not to everyone else)… Maybe you have an aversion to blinking red and green lights…
Regardless, you need to tune.
Okay, the awkward part is over. Let’s talk about what we need to do to get this done.
Step 1: Invest In a Quality Tuner
Oh, it’s going to get awkward again.
Yes, you can tune by ear. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to play with a by-ear tuner that had anywhere as good an ear for tuning as they thought. A computer will always beat your ear. Tuning by ear should be be reserved for emergencies only.
I’m a big fan of the Boss TU-2 (now TU-3) pedal tuner. In addition to using as a tuner, it’s also a really convenient mute switch and great for getting your guitar unplugged at the end of the set if your sound tech isn’t paying attention.*
Make sure you pick up a power supply for your tuner. I’m willing to risk a 9V battery for a couple hours, but anything longer than that, it gets plugged in to power.
*As an aside, don’t leave your guitar plugged in when you put it on a stand. You’ll kill the battery in the guitar and will stress the cable. Mute with your tuner, pull the cable and hang it on the height adjustment knob on your mic stand.
Step 2: Plug Your Guitar Into the Tuner
While we’re discussing awkward things, let’s just get all this out in the open.
You really should have an undersaddle pickup in your guitar (sound hole pickups don’t sound great). Miking a guitar should be reserved for emergencies unless you have a really good reason; it’s too hard to get consistent tone and level with a mic. Undersaddle pickups can be purchased and installed for around $250. I like Fishman, but I’m not dogmatic. Consult with your local, reputable guitar repair shop or luthier.
Because you have a pickup in your guitar, plug that guitar into the tuner and then plug the tuner into the DI. Leave that tuner in line until you’re ready to pack up.
Step 3: Tune the Guitar
Know the names of each note for each sting before you attempt this. I once watched a worship leader break not one, but two guitar string because he just kept cranking the tuning pegs up and up until, trying to get a green light, without paying attention to the note readout.
E A D G B E
Commit that to memory. Also, know what your tuner does to designate sharps/flats. The TU-2 displays a small dot next to the note to indicate the note is a sharp. Don’t make the mistake of tuning to a sharp.
Start with the low E and work your way to the higher strings. Play each note and give it a second to settle in. Pay attention to the note display on your tuner to make sure you’re at the correct note for the string. If the light is to the left, the note is flat, to the right, it’s sharp. Shoot for the green light in the center.
Always tune up. if the string is sharp, tune down until you’re slightly flat and then tune up until the string is in tune.
Once you have tuned all the strings, start at low E and check them all again one more time. As you progress through the running process, it can cause the previously tuned strings to go a tiny bit flat.
Play a chord and check it by ear. If it sounds good, you’re all set.
See, that wasn’t too bad.
My Tuner Died, What Should I Do?
Have a smartphone? There’s great tuner apps that will get you out of a bind. I’ve use Guitar Toolkit on the iPhone and GuitarTuna on Android.
… but my phone is dead too!
I say this under great protest.
Tune by ear.
If you have a pianist, have them play each guitar note and tune to that. I find it helpful for them to play the root note and an octave up simultaneously. Then use the 55545 method to make sure the guitar is in tune with itself.