How to Use an Oscilloscope – The Beginner’s Guide

How to use an oscilloscope

Knowing how to use an oscilloscope is very useful when building electronic circuits. When your circuit is not working, it will help you figure out what is going on.

I learned how to use an oscilloscope pretty much on my own. The first time I tried one, I only got some simple instructions, then I was left to myself to figure things out.

But I found that it wasn’t really that hard…

The oscilloscope can be a bit overwhelming with all its functions. But you don’t need to know every detail of it. You can actually come a long way by knowing just a few simple things.

So I want to pass those simple things on to you so that you can start using an oscilloscope on your own.

What Does an Oscilloscope Do?

The oscilloscope measures voltage over time. This means that it lets you “see” the signal in the circuit as it changes with time.

For example if you measure the voltage to a blinking LED with an oscilloscope, you’ll see something like this:

The orange line represents the voltage. When it is on top, the voltage is high and the LED is on. And when it’s at the bottom, the voltage is low and the LED is off.

But when do you need this?

Let’s say you build a music player. But when you plug in the power, it doesn’t work. There is no sound coming…

With an oscilloscope, you can measure different points in your circuit where the sound signal should be and see if it’s actually there or not.

Something you wouldn’t be able to do with a multimeter.

This makes it much easier to debug the circuit:

First, you can measure where the sound signal enters the circuit.

No signal? Aha! Then there is a problem with the sound source.

If there is a signal there, you continue to the next part of the circuit that the sound goes through. No sound there? Well, then that part must be the problem. And so on…

How To Use An Oscilloscope

A typical oscilloscope looks like this:

Front of an oscilloscope

All these buttons are a bit intimidating, right? Well, don’t worry, I’ll teach you a shortcut in just a second.

But first, you need to connect the oscilloscope to what you want to measure.

The wires you use to measure with, are called probes. The probe comes as a cable with two leads and a BNC connector to connect it to the scope:

Oscilloscope BNC probes
Original photo by Nuno Nogueira via Wikimedia Commons

So the first thing you do, is to attach the probes to what you want to measure.

The oscilloscope measures voltage. And since voltage is always measured between two points, you need to connect both the negative and positive side of the probe.

In most situations, you connect the negative probe (the alligator clip) to ground or minus in your circuit. Then connect the positive side to the thing you want to measure.

When connected, it’s time to set the oscilloscope to the right settings.

But there are so many buttons! So here is a super-secret (or maybe not-so-secret) trick on how to use an oscilloscope:

Auto Set button

Push the «Auto Set» button.

This button will analyze the signal and try to set the settings of the scope to what is best. It doesn’t always work – but in many situations it does.

Control Your Oscilloscope Manually

What if you want to know how to use an oscilloscope without the «Auto Set» – like old-school analog oscilloscope for example?

Then, there are three main knobs to focus on:

  • Vertical Position
  • Vertical Volts/Div
  • Horizontal Sec/Div
Oscilloscope settings knobs

If the signal you are looking at has large voltage swings, you need to adjust the vertical knob marked «Volts/Div» to a large Volts/Div setting. If it has very small voltage swings, you need to set it you a tiny Volts/Div setting.

If your signal is not in the screen, then scroll up or down on the vertical knob marked «Position» to find your signal.

Then use the horizontal Sec/Div knob to set the time per division on the screen. If you have a signal with really high frequency, you need a low Sec/Div setting to see it properly. If you have a very low frequency signal, you need to set it higher.

These settings are basically all you need to get started.

Where To Buy An Oscilloscope

Now that you know how to use an oscilloscope, it’s time to get yourself one. A very good oscilloscope that’s useful for beginners, as well as more advanced circuit builders, is the Rigol DS1054Z.

If you want to save some money, look for USB oscilloscopes. These are scopes that you plug into the USB of your computer and look at the signal in some computer software.

Or you can learn how to build your own super simple Arduino oscilloscope. It’s a bit crude, but can be useful for very simple troubleshooting.

Questions?

Do you have any questions about how to use an oscilloscope? Let me know in the comments below!

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20 thoughts on “How to Use an Oscilloscope – The Beginner’s Guide”

    • Volts/div means how many volts there are per “division”. The screen is divided into squares, and these are the divisions. If you have 1V/div and your signal goes over three of these divisions, your signal is 3V.

      Reply
    • I think that you should know here to place the probes in the circuit first of all don’t you think,
      that’s the problem I am having in this case you would have to know all about semiconductors
      and how they work in the circuit now you’re talking a hole different ball game of course you would have to know how to set up your scope that the easy part I would think.
      Regards Roger.

      Reply
  1. Oscilloscope technology has really taken off in the last ten years or so. Scopes with advanced features that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars are now available for less than $1,000. One such oscilloscope is the Rohde & Schwarz RTC1000. The RTC1000 is not only an oscilloscope, but can also perform the functions of a logic analyzer, protocol analyzer, frequency analyzer, pattern generator, function generator, digital voltmeter and component tester. This wide range of functions addresses a broad group of users from embedded developers to service technicians to educators. Have fun! Rich.

    Reply
  2. I have a sencore 3100 auto tracker scope like new ,But I don’t know where to hook the probes in the circuit.to be tested.
    Regards Roger.

    Reply
  3. Rigol is really a pretty reliable oscilloscope. I paid $ 350.00 for one with two channels Since 2007. Now I am sure price is down. It is a good piece of equipment to have certainly when working on audio and else.

    Reply
    • 50MHz bandwidth is good for most things. A good rule of thumb is to have a bandwidth of at least 5 time the frequency you want to measure. So with a 50 MHz scope you can easily measure up to 10 MHz – which is more than enough for audio and a lot of other things.

      Reply
  4. I’ve been on the fence for years deciding whether or to buy an oscilloscope. I read a lot about it’s usefulness with audio, but are there other applications that make the expense worth it? I’m considering the Rigol model in your post.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • One thing I use it for is for when I’ve just soldered up a new microcontroller board and it’s not working. Then it’s useful to measure different things to figure out why it’s not working.

      If you are into radio circuits, it can be very useful too.

      Reply
      • I am a self taught hobbyist. Over the years I have acquired several pieces of equipment. I purchase my equipment used. So far All have been fully working. 5 scopes, used for different things. 1 has 4 channels, 100mhz, Color screen and printer. right down to small portable 2 channel scope. Id rather blow up the smaller one than my good one. I do repairs to 1980’s coin op arcade machines. Scoping out the board to find faults in either CPU issues, or video output, audio output. So handy to have a scope for this. I was very intimidated with my stuff at first, but use it, play with it, and soon you will start to pick up on how to use it.
        one EXTRA item for the scope that I would recommend for everyone is a “curve tracer”.
        This connects to your scope and you set the scope with proper settings, and you can test individual parts, non powered or out of circuit. diodes, capacitors, Zener diodes, etc.
        I leave this connected to one scope and that is its purpose in life.

        Reply
  5. Also, this is very important and frequently overlooked. Please research before hands, on how not to blow up your oscilloscope when probing, this can even be lethal in some conditions when probing an item connected to mains power line. Besides enjoy ! :)

    Reply
  6. A beginner just needs a $35.00 Digital Oscilloscope such as:

    DSO138 Fully Assembled Digital Oscilloscope 2.4″ TFT LCD Display with Alligator Probe Test Clips from AliExpress
    https://www.aliexpress.com/item/1005005228338230.html?spm=a2g0o.productlist.main.1.8cf0406alukMcI&algo_pvid=c08906ea-39b1-4262-80d2-4ceb0dce32e4&algo_exp_id=c08906ea-39b1-4262-80d2-4ceb0dce32e4-0&pdp_npi=3%40dis%21AUD%2162.94%2131.46%21%21%21%21%21%40211bf31716854359230716919d07e4%2112000032273894453%21sea%21AU%216796910&curPageLogUid=vRcCahdFXRGQ

    I use it all the time to prove that it is quite suitable for 95% of testing as it has “capture” and just about all the features you need.
    In fact it is complex enough to take a bit of learning and understanding to appreciate its full capability. Just mount it on feet to raise it off the bench and you will be amazed at its capability.
    This is where you START in this world.
    Colin Mitchell
    TalkingElectronics.com

    Reply
  7. I want to know whether you can damage an oscilloscope if you connect the leads to somewhere that exceeds measuring parameters. How does one safeguard against this? Are special leads needed?

    Reply

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