Guitar tuners: the unsung heroes of the guitarist’s toolkit

By Dave Tudor of https://makingmusicpro.com

It seems like electronic guitar tuners have been around forever but of course in relative terms they are something of a new innovation.

Traditional methods like pitch pipes and tuning forks span centuries, but in days of yore and even in more recent times, there was less emphasis on tuning to concert pitch. When bands emerged in the 1960s, it was far more important to be in tune with each other than to any reference point.

That was certainly the case with me. I began playing guitar in the midst of the punk rock era in the mid to late 1970s but back then, even though I only knew three chords (or was it two?), I still felt the need for the bass player and me to be in tune with each other.

So that’s what we did; I would tune my low E string to his D string on the second fret. I then tuned the rest of the strings to that. Worked for us. We were in tune with each other and that’s what mattered as we bashed out frenzied renditions of ‘Anarchy in the UK’.  

Tuning by ear is a skill that will serve you well. Practice makes perfect.   

But things change. Nowadays from a tuning perspective, there’s much more need to have a reference point for musicians. I record stuff at home – things need to be in tune. Today, musicians travel much more and interact with other musos all over the world; session players come and go; depping musicians come and go – you need a tuning reference point. It all falls apart if you don’t.

Formats

Actually, before we get into the different types of guitar tuner, we should look into the different formats available and the pros and cons of each. Broadly speaking, these comprise: box type; clip-on; pedal tuners; rack; and app-based.

Box Type Guitar Tuners

Definitely one of the most common formats. No prizes for guessing where they get their name – they’re small rectangular boxes and have two ways of receiving sound from your guitar: either via a ¼” input jack to take a guitar cable from your electric or electro-acoustic guitar or through an integral built-in microphone for acoustic guitars.

They are pretty effective. My absolutely prehistoric Korg CA-30 chromatic tuner comes with a host of bells and whistles like a high precision LCD needle type meter, calibration capability, which is invaluable if you want to deviate from 440Hz standard pitch, and a sound function that plays an audible reference tone. 

Pros: a good all-round choice. Chromatic and non-chromatic options. Compact. Depending on the model they may come with additional functionality like a metronome.

Cons: the built-in mic is virtually unusable in noisy environments.

Clip-on tuners

They do what they say on the tin. Usually clipped to the guitar headstock, clip-on tuners work by picking up the vibrations from your strings through the guitar itself as you pluck the string. They are fantastically convenient – you can simply leave them clipped in place through a gig or rehearsal and tune-up in an instant.

They’re not affected by external sound per se, but they can be influenced by vibration. If your drummer’s bashing away in true Keith Moon style and you’re in close proximity, your tuner may well throw a wobbler!

I use a clip-on Peterson Strobe Tuner for tuning my bass, electric and acoustic, but there’s literally tons of different brands to choose from: check out D’Addario, Ernie Ball, Korg and Snark.      

Pros: Relatively cheap; really convenient to use as they can be a permanent fixture on your guitar headstock; great for unamplified instruments like acoustic guitar.

Cons: Susceptible to inaccuracies through vibration; clamp quality varies, especially on the cheaper models; unsightly to some – one guitarist with a highly expensive custom shop Fender Strat described using a clip-on tuner on his guitar as being like “putting a towbar on a Ferrari”.

Pedal Tuners

Think of pedal tuners and chances are it won’t be too long before the legendary Boss TU-2 rears its head. This chromatic tuner has been occupying space on pedalboards the world over since 1998. In 2009, the TU-3 was unveiled – and its accuracy had been improved from ±3 cents to ±1 cent!         

Boss may be a name synonymous with pedal guitar tuners but there’s plenty of competition from the likes of Korg, TC Electronic and Donner. Choice is always good and as a general rule, pedal tuners offer an attractive blend of robustness, accuracy and ease of use.

The undisputed niche for pedal tuners is for the gigging guitarist as part of his or her pedal board setup. Great for tuning in between – or even during – songs and providing you can get used to not hearing the plucked string while you tune (courtesy of a mute/bypass switch), they work brilliantly. Audiences really won’t want to hear your string tones thundering out while you’re tuning so this is a definite positive.

Simply press the footswitch and away you go. Nowadays pedal tuners have bright screens so playing in the dingiest, darkest depths of a bar or club won’t be a problem. Another thing you’ll want from a pedal tuner is robustness.

They really need to be literally bullet-proof so that they can stand up to the rigours of regular gigging. The last thing you want mid-stomp is for the thing to disintegrate.

Pros: rugged, accurate and simple to use. A no brainer for gigging musicians, particularly those that have an existing pedal board setup

Cons: none really. I suppose they could be termed as bulky and overkill for musicians who don’t play live but I’m nitpicking.

Apps

I remember distinctly when the first iPhone came out the accompanying TV adverts became famous for their annoying “there’s an app for that” slogan. In those days it didn’t really mean much, but in this Internet driven world we live in today, it turns out that Steve Jobs was something of a visionary. There really is an app for everything – including guitar tuners. 

Cards on the table: I haven’t road-tested every single guitar tuner app on the planet but I have tried a handful so I’ll talk a bit about those. I have an android phone and an Apple iPad. On the former I’ve downloaded tuners from Boss and Fender and on the iPad, I have the Peterson Strobe Tuner app. The Boss and Fender tuners were free; Peterson was paid for. 

Surprisingly, the Boss and Fender apps were definitely usable. Not brilliant but OK. I use them via my phone’s built-in microphone and there’s no doubt that having a tuner on your phone and subsequently with you at all times is pretty convenient. And although they’re free, there’s a surprising amount of functionality built-in.

The Boss app for example looks just like a virtual TU-3 chromatic tuner. You can adjust the reference pitch over a range of 415-465Hz and a nice touch is that as well as offering a visual display, it also emits a fully adjustable audible tone making it a kind of digital tuning fork.

A choice of two skin options are available and you can even switch the type of symbol used to indicate a semitone pitch difference. Sharps or flats to you and me. I’m a sharps man personally!

In use it’s pretty good. Because of the fact that it relies on your device’s microphone, it’s not going to be spot on and it will be affected by ambient noise. But hey, it’s free!

The Fender tuner is also a pretty usable app but to get into the advanced stuff like the pro tuner, you need to create an account. The app provides access to Fender Play – online guitar lessons essentially – but this also has to be paid for.

The Auto tuner is pretty basic but OK. You can select from a number of instrument flavours: electric, acoustic, bass and ukulele and there’s a chromatic option. This is similar in accuracy to the Boss.

Being honest, I wouldn’t be using these tuners as my main devices. They both were slightly out of whack with my Peterson tuner.   

The iStroboSoft app tuner from Peterson however is a different beast altogether. Peterson are world famous for their strobe tuners. They’re highly accurate and really easy to use. You’ve probably guessed I’m a big fan.

There are different variations on a theme regarding Petersen strobe tuners but the basic concept is that a series of visual coloured bands rotate round, move up and down or across the display. The direction of the rotation (clockwise or anti-clockwise) or linear movement (up and down or side to side) indicates whether the tone is flat or sharp. The speed of the rotation or linear movement illustrates how far from the desired tuning point you are.

Sounds more complicated than it actually is. It’s a piece of cake to use. Essentially once the bands ‘line up’ you’re in tune. All Peterson products provide guaranteed tuning results to within +/-0.1 cent. That’s 1/1000th of a fret or semitone.

I use the iOS version of the iStroboSoft app on my iPad. It does work via microphone but I invested in an iPad to jack cable which means I have a hard connection between the iPad and my guitar. It works fantastically well and cost about £10. Bargain.

Guitar Tuner Types

Before I wrap this article up, I should mention the various types of guitar tuners that are available.

Strobe

We’ve mentioned strobe tuners above but if you’re really obsessive about tuning, these are hard to beat. They are supremely accurate – but this comes at a price. Petersen is a name synonymous with strobe guitar tuners, and although I haven’t any experience of using it, I’m hearing great things about the Turbo Tuner ST-300 Stomp box strobe tuner.

Chromatic

Let’s look at the converse of chromatic tuners first – non chromatic tuners. If all you want is to play your guitar in bog standard EADGBE, then this may be all you need. They’re basic but they do a job.

But chances are you’ll eventually want to explore different tunings and that’s where chromatic tuners come into their own. They come in different variants: clip-on, pedals and box type but collectively, they’re the most common type of tuner.    

Chromatic tuners will enable you to tune to every note in the chromatic scale – all 12 notes between octaves. They identify the note you’re playing on the guitar and show you how sharp or flat you are relative to the nearest semitone.

You can mess around with different tunings – DADGAD for example. In fact, chromatic tuners give you the versatility to literally tune to whatever you want. Finding it hard to sing in a particular key because it’s too high? Use a chromatic tuner to tune down a semitone across all the strings.

Polyphonic

Pioneered by TC Electronic and adopted by Korg, when polyphonic tuners first hit the market they were truly revolutionary and that’s because they’re different from all other tuners as they tune ‘holistically’. Put another way, you simply strum all the strings together and the tuner display will show you which strings are out of tune.

Of course you can use polyphonic tuners in a more conventional manner i.e. tuning one string at a time but their USP is their simplicity. Tuning is much quicker and incredibly accurate. They’re available as pedals (like the TC Electronic Polytune 3) so they’re great to use live, and also as a clip-on type (like the Polytune Clip).  (Image Copyright © 2020 Music Tribe).

Summing up

Before you buy a tuner think about how you’re going to use it. Most tuners will accommodate different instruments like guitars (6 and 7 string) and basses (4, 5 and even 6 string) but will you be using it in a live gigging environment or just for strumming an acoustic in your bedroom?

Pedal tuners are great for gigging and are accurate; clip-ons are versatile, relatively cheap but not so accurate; strobes are accurate, easy to use but expensive; and polyphonics are innovative, accurate but also expensive.

And if you want to experiment with different tunings, it’s a no-brainer. Chromatic. 

A guitar tuner is not something you should skimp on. I’ve tried tons and I think generally you get what you pay for. My Peterson Strobo Clip HD cost about £55 but it’s superb. Worth every penny. See for yourself in this video.

Choose well and a decent guitar tuner will serve you well for years. It’s a sound investment!

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