guitar tuning for kids
November 11, 2009 12:38 PM   Subscribe

Can people recommend diagrams and electronic guitar tuner gadgets to help a 12 year old tune a guitar?

My nephews have all the kit needed to become an awesome boy band (well, once they learn how to play, anyway) but currently the thing holding them back is that the electric guitar is always out of tune and no-one knows how to tune it. They have an electronic guitar tuner but it is totally crap and just seems to give random advice when you try to tune.

So, can anyone recommend:
1) simple instructions, understandable by kids, on how to tune by ear (e.g. what note is each string supposed to be, where do you hold the strings down to tune each one against the next, etc)
2) a decent electronic guitar tuner that actually works and is simple to use

(because even if you have (1) down, you still need (2) to get at least one of the strings right, to tune the others relative to it)

Printable instructions are preferable to videos, thanks.
posted by memebake to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is kind of the gold standard. I've had one of these for years. It's super reliable (displays the name of each note on its face) and I've never had a problem with it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that when I bought it, the dudes at the guitar store said "this is our bestseller, because it never breaks. They cost between $75.00-$100.00
posted by orville sash at 12:42 PM on November 11, 2009

Oh, and as for simple instructions for tuning:

the strings are, from north to south:


I learn to remember that through mnemonics.

posted by orville sash at 12:43 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

1) Working your way down it's the fifth fret except on the B where its the 4th.

2) Honestly I've never had a big problem with even cheap tuners, Mine's a pretty inexpensive Korg and it works fine.

Note I usually tune by harmonics (same frets for tuning by ear, 12th fret when tuning by tuner). Once you have the technique to pull off a harmonic its much easier to tune because you don't have to keep both hands on the board.

Here's a video
posted by bitdamaged at 12:45 PM on November 11, 2009

Are they plugging the tuner in to the guitar cord, or just holding it up to an amp? Plugging it in is the best way. Make sure it's plugged in before any distortion or other effects. And don't strum on the string - pluck it once, let it ring, and adjust the tuner. If it has only a microphone and no line input, follow the same instructions and make sure everyone in the room shuts up for a second.

If they can learn to tell when two strings sound the same (which takes some practice), they won't need an electronic tuner even to tune the first string. Just declare that, say, the E string on this guitar is correct, and tune the other strings and other guitars from that.
posted by echo target at 12:51 PM on November 11, 2009

excuse me (brain fart) to tune by ear with harmonics you compare the 5th fret (on the lower string) to the 7th fret. (but ignore this in general.. its not the easy method)
posted by bitdamaged at 12:55 PM on November 11, 2009

what bitdamaged said. get a cheap electronic tuner from your local guitar store like this one, it'll work fine. the tu-2 linked above is awesome, but totally unnecessary here. it's also worth noting that sometimes the electronic tuners are finicky. pluck the string, let it ring, watch the tuner. repeat, tweaking the strings if you're not getting a response.

especially starting from a young age, they should learn how to tune the guitar to itself using the 5th fret method. it will help train their ears and become less reliant on the tuner.
posted by gnutron at 12:55 PM on November 11, 2009

You didn't say if it was an electric or acoustic guitar. The Boss pedal above (I think) won't work with an acoustic guitar without any electronics because I don't think it has a microphone.

I have a couple of these and like them. They also make the same thing as just a guitar/bass tuner which might be a little simpler for a kid. OTOH the kid might turn out to be good and want to try different tunings which would make the first one a better choice.

Also, if you have a piano or keyboard in the house it might be good to show him how to tune from that.
posted by lordrunningclam at 1:03 PM on November 11, 2009

lordrunningclam: Its an electric guitar

thanks for all the advice so far
posted by memebake at 1:10 PM on November 11, 2009

What's probably confusing them is that the tuner will try to recognize the note that is being played and show that name. You usually start off fairly far from the note you want, and as you turn the peg to get it into tune the note name is jumping around as the little computer tries to keep up.

With more experience you will get a feel for when you're close to the note you want, and thus when you should ignore the tuner and when you pay attention, slow down how fast you're turning the peg, and zero in on the final pitch. This site has tones they can use for reference. Depending on what tuner you have, it may also have tones you can use.

Another good tuning tip is to always tune up to the note, not down. This helps the guitar maintain proper tension, and helps it stay in tune better.
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:16 PM on November 11, 2009

I'm a guitar n00b, but the tune-o-matic on this webpage works great for me.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:18 PM on November 11, 2009

If they can learn to tell when two strings sound the same (which takes some practice), they won't need an electronic tuner even to tune the first string. Just declare that, say, the E string on this guitar is correct, and tune the other strings and other guitars from that.

No, this is not a good idea. This would lead to a variety of problems, including broken strings.
posted by Jaltcoh at 1:32 PM on November 11, 2009

Re-reads post. *DOH!*
posted by lordrunningclam at 1:41 PM on November 11, 2009

In addition to the "fifth fret method" for tuning by ear, I find that using the natural harmonics on the fifth and seventh frets really helps too, for training the ear (as bitdamaged mentioned above).
posted by King Bee at 1:48 PM on November 11, 2009

When I started to learn how to tune (by ear), I tuned without a tuner and for an electric guitar tuned with distortion on. Distortion amplifies the wave produced by the instrument until it would be clipped, effectively turning the wave into a square wave. When two notes are close in pitch, you will hear a pronounced wub-wub-wub, which is the points where the overlapping waves max out. The rate of wubs is the frequency by which the strings differ (ooooh! physics).

The kids won't care about this. They need to learn to hear the wubs and how they change when the tuners get turned. When notes get really close in tune, the wubs slow way down and will eventually go away (for all intents and purposes).

Tuning by harmonics is a good start since harmonics tend to generate purer tone which makes the wubs stand out more. The down side to tuning by harmonics is that harmonics (IIRC) aren't in tune. They're close and certainly close enough for beginner rock and/or roll, which is why they're encouraged early on.

The reason to use a tuner is to make it easier to start with a tuned instrument. The reason NOT to use a tuner is to develop your ear, which in time will help develop good intonation. Guitars that are in tune can still be played out of tune without the right nuance. Tuning without a tuner is a skill that will help build good intonation. It will also save your bacon when your batteries die.
posted by plinth at 1:56 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

memebake, also, its possible that the guitar is crappy and goes out of tune too easily (a common problem with the crappy ones). But if it's electric, learning to use a plug-in tuner is super easy.
posted by emjaybee at 3:00 PM on November 11, 2009

If the guitar's intonation isn't setup right then it's possible for a beginner to get very confused by using an electronic tuner, because when you do that you are setting the open string pitch to a given value. But if the setup is wrong (namely the length compensation at the bridge) then what happens is that the tone of a fretted note is sharp or flat but the tone of the open string is in tune. Essentially in this situation a fret is too long or too short for the effective length of the string and registers more than a semitone of pitch change.

You know you're encountering this when you tune each string's open notes perfectly and then go to play a power chord (or any chord really) and it sounds like crap. It's very easy to tell with a power chord (7 semitones/major fifth) and lots of distortion whether the interval between the two notes is correct, so use this to double-check that the intonation is true. If it's not, then you need to take the guitar to someone and have it set up correctly otherwise it will forever play like shit.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:15 PM on November 11, 2009

You might want to focus on seeing if there's a way to make their guitar stay in tune. Maybe change the tuners, or if it has a vibrato (whammy bar), remove the bar, tighten the springs, and 99% of the tuning problems will go away.

Strat-style guitars are very popular (and cheap) for beginners but the floating bridge/tremolo is a terrible thing for beginners. ESPECIALLY if they ever use it. $1500 guitars can barely stay in tune when the whammy bar is used. Cheap ones don't have a chance.

Get any Boss or Korg tuner, hook it up to the guitar through a cable (NOT through whatever amp they're using), turn the guitar's volume up to 10, and it should be very easy to tune. Most of the tuners have a "guitar mode" where you can very simply select a string (i.e. Low E) and it will tell you whether you need to go higher or lower. You can turn that off and use the full chromatic mode after they know what they're doing.
posted by mmoncur at 6:13 PM on November 11, 2009

P. S. I started playing guitar at age 38 after playing other instruments for 20 years and I didn't understand what "tuning by harmonics" was or why I'd want to do it until a year later. Don't confuse 12-year-olds with that stuff. Let them rock out on a guitar that stays in tune for a while. Eventually they'll want to learn about harmonics to sound like their favorite metal band anyway.
posted by mmoncur at 6:19 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here is one I use since my real one broke.
Eventually, he will learn to tune by ear. I am so close to that moment, and yet so far away.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 6:38 PM on November 11, 2009

Thanks for the answers, I have ordered a Korg CA-30, and all the tuning tips (dont strum, just pluck once when using the tuner, tune up not down, disable the whammy bar) will be very helpful.
posted by memebake at 2:02 PM on November 20, 2009

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