An acoustic guitar with nylon strings is better known as a classical guitar. Its mellow sound is well suited to flamenco, folk and classical music, although many artists prefer it for jazz and alternative too. Although nylon strings are easier on the fingers than steel strings, you tune a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar the same way as a steel-stringed acoustic guitar: either by using a device for reference or by tuning the guitar to itself (a method called relative tuning). Follow these steps to get your guitar in fine form.
Choose your tuning method. Unless you’re using an electronic guitar tuner (discussed below), you need a sound as a reference point. If you use a pitch pipe, a keyboard or a CD enclosed in many guitar-instruction books, you’ll hear the notes that correspond to each of the guitar’s 6 open strings and try to match them by ear. You’ll also use this comparison method to tune the guitar to itself, a method called relative tuning.
Sit with your guitar comfortably across your right knee, so you can fret the strings with your left hand. If you strum down gently on each individual string, these are the notes you’ll hear when the guitar is in tune, from the lowest string (the sixth or thickest string) to the highest string (the first or thinnest string): E, A, D, G, B and E.
If you’re using a pitch pipe, keyboard or CD for reference, start with the note that corresponds to the low E, or the sixth string. Listening to that note, gently pluck the sixth string on your guitar. If your string sounds too low compared to your reference sound, turn the tuning key for that string counterclockwise until the pitch rises. If your string sounds too high in comparison, wind the tuning key for that string clockwise to lower the pitch. Keep comparing the reference sound with that of your guitar string, making small adjustments until the notes sound identical. Repeat this process for the 5 other strings.
To tune the guitar to itself—without an outside reference like a pitch pipe—again start with the guitar across your knee and hold the neck in your left hand. By pressing down on certain strings and frets, you will match notes on certain open strings (basically, you’re using your guitar as the reference sound instead of an outside device like in the step above). Start by pressing down on the fifth fret of the sixth string (the low E) with your left index finger and plucking the string gently with your right. When a guitar is in tune, this note will be the same as the fifth string (the A). Keep pressing on this fret and plucking the string, then compare it with the sound of the open fifth string. Is the fifth string too high in pitch? Too low? Wind the tuning peg for the fifth string to adjust its pitch until you hear 2 identical notes when you pluck both strings. Then scoot your finger down to the fifth fret on the fifth string and repeat the process, strumming the fifth string in comparison with an open fourth string (the D). Once those 2 notes match, slide your finger down to the fifth fret of the fourth string and repeat, strumming the fourth string in comparison with an open third string (the G). Now pay attention, because here’s a change: Once the third string is in tune, place your finger on the fourth fret (not the fifth) to strum this string in comparison with the open second string (the B). When those notes match, you’ll return to the fifth fret and press down on the second string. Compare that note with the open first string (the high E) and adjust the first string using the tuning peg to make one harmonious sound.
If tuning the guitar in any of these ways seems intimidating, use an electronic or battery-powered guitar tuner. These tuners are shaped like small boxes and either rest on a surface or clip to the headstock (the end of the neck, past the tuning keys). Each tuner will have different instructions; in general, flick a switch to select on the device which string you want to tune, then pluck that string on the guitar. As the tuner picks up the pitch, it will indicate how close you are to the proper note (either through a meter with a needle or a series of lights). A tuner that clips to the headstock works off vibrations and doesn’t pick up outside noise, but one that rests on a surface should work fine if placed relatively close to the hole in the soundboard.
Tune your guitar in a quiet place—don't try to listen to the proper notes and the TV at the same time. Turn the tuning keys slowly to hear the guitar string rise and fall in pitch.
A Tampa resident, Valerie Kalfrin has more than 16 years of journalism experience, twice earning first-place reporting awards from the Florida Press Club. Her byline has appeared in "The Tampa Tribune," "Ladies' Home Journal," "Time Out New York" and "Word & Film." She has edited copy for "Ladies' Home Journal," "Vogue" and The College Board.