Whether you’re a professional guitarist or just starting out, having a well-tuned instrument is crucial for achieving the best possible sound. However, tuning a guitar by ear can be challenging, even for experienced players.
This is where guitar tuners come in – they provide an accurate and reliable way to tune your guitar quickly and easily. But with so many different types and models available, it can be difficult to know which one is right for you.
In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about guitar tuners, from how they work to the different types available, to help you make an informed decision and keep your guitar sounding great.
What is a guitar tuner?
A guitar tuner is basically a tool that helps you tune your guitar to a specific pitch. In modern music, the standard frequency is 440Hz, ensuring that all the instruments in a band or ensemble play notes of the same frequency. This, in turn, helps them sound “in tune” with each other and creates a harmonious sound.
So, when you play the D note on your guitar, it will have the same frequency as the D played by the bassist, the keyboardist, or any other musician you are jamming with. This makes it easier for the singer to pitch their voice to your instrument and create a cohesive sound.
A brief history of tuners
The Stroboconn, released by the Conn company in 1936, marked the debut of a commercially successful instrument tuner. It employed a technology known as “strobe tuning,” which provided remarkably precise pitch measurement. This was accomplished through a series of light flickers and a rotating disk, which allowed the machine to compare notes to an internal reference frequency.
Although the original Stroboconns are primarily sought-after by collectors these days, the fundamental technology is still utilized in the most precise strobe tuners currently available.
For guitar players, strobe tuners like these have never been the most suitable option due to their size, cost, and need for frequent upkeep. However, for a considerable length of time, no alternatives were available.
In the late 70s and early 80s, digital technology made it possible to measure pitch using a microprocessor and display the results on an LED/LCD screen. This allowed for the creation of cheaper and more practical guitar tuners.
Why is it important to have a guitar tuner?
Having a guitar tuner is important for a few reasons.
Firstly, it ensures that your guitar is in tune, which is crucial for creating good music. If your guitar is out of tune, the sound will be dissonant, which can be unpleasant to listen to.
By using a guitar tuner, you can make sure that your guitar is tuned to the correct pitch, so you can play in harmony with other instruments.
Secondly, using a guitar tuner can help you develop a better ear for music. By consistently tuning your guitar to the correct pitch, you will become more familiar with the sound of each note and how it should be played. This can help you improve your playing skills and develop a better sense of musicality.
Lastly, using a guitar tuner can save you time and frustration. Tuning a guitar by ear can be difficult, especially for beginners. Using a tuner can make the process much easier and faster, so you can focus on playing your music rather than struggling to tune your instrument.
Main categories of guitar tuners
With a variety of guitar tuners available on the market, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your specific needs, whether you’re tuning at gigs, at home, or in a studio.
However, according to how they work, tuners can be chromatic, polyphonic, strobe, and microphone.
Chromatic guitar tuners
Chromatic guitar tuners are the most common type of guitar tuner and are available in microphone, clip-on, and pedal formats. A chromatic tuner allows you to tune to every note in the chromatic scale, including all 12 notes between octaves. This also makes it useful for alternative tunings, as long as you know which notes you’re after.
Chromatic tuners are a great option for any guitarist with at least a small amount of understanding, but probably not the best choice for absolute newbies. They offer a versatile and all-around option for tuning at gigs, at home, or studio. By displaying the frequency of the note being played, they allow for accurate and precise tuning of individual strings.
Chromatic tuners can be clip-on and pedal and they are the recommended type of tuners to tune your ukulele.
Polyphonic guitar tuners
Polyphonic tuners are a type of guitar tuner that allows you to tune all of your guitar strings at once. This is a relatively new invention in the world of guitar tuners and was first introduced by TC Electronic and later adopted by Korg. One popular example of a polyphonic tuner is the Polytune 2.
With a polyphonic tuner, you simply strum all of your strings at once, and the tuner will display which strings are in or out of tune. This gives you a more holistic view of your guitar’s tuning than other types of tuners, which require you to tune each string individually. It also allows you to see how tuning one string will affect the others, which can be very useful when tuning your guitar quickly.
Polyphonic tuners are soundhole, pedal, and clip-on guitar tuners.
Strobe guitar tuners
Strobe guitar tuners are considered the most accurate tuners available on the market. They use a different mechanism than other types of tuners to display the frequency of the note being played.
A strobe tuner generates a reference frequency and shows you the difference between that and the musical note you’re playing. The display then shows a rotating motion that stops once the note is in tune. Even the slightest difference between the two frequencies will cause the display to move, allowing for precise tuning.
Strobe tuners tend to be more expensive than other tuners, but they are the go-to choice for guitar techs, producers, and professional guitarists who require the highest level of accuracy in their tuning.
Strobe tuners can be both pedals and clip-ons, as well as apps and virtual tuners.
Microphone guitar tuners
Microphone guitar tuners use an inbuilt microphone to pick up the frequency of the notes played on the guitar. While they are the least accurate compared to other types of tuners, they can serve the purpose of helping with tuning-up. However, they are not very useful for live performances due to background noise that can interfere with the tuning process.
Most microphone tuner models will only show how far off the strings are from standard EADGBe guitar tuning and won’t include semi-tones like Ab. This type of tuner is mostly outdated compared to other options and can usually be found in guitar starter packs or in a metronome.
Microphone guitar tuners are usually apps and virtual tuners.
Common types of guitar tuners
According to the way they can be used, guitar tuners can be:
Clip-On Guitar Tuners
A clip-on guitar tuner is a small, portable device that can be attached to the headstock of a guitar. The clip-on tuner uses vibrations from the guitar to detect the pitch of each string and then displays the tuning information on a screen.
Clip-on tuners are very popular among guitar players because they are easy to use, convenient, and relatively accurate. They are especially useful in live performance situations where the noise level may be too high for other types of tuners to work effectively.
Clip-on tuners come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some models can even be used with other stringed instruments, such as ukuleles and mandolins. They can be polyphonic, chromatic, and strobe. Clip-on tuners are a popular choice if you want to tune your classical guitar.
How to use a clip-on guitar tuner
- Attach the clip-on guitar tuner to the headstock of your guitar and turn it on.
- Play each string individually, and the tuner will display whether the string is in tune, sharp or flat.
- Adjust the tuning until the display shows that the string is in tune.
- Once all strings are in tune, remove the tuner, and you’re ready to play.
Read more on how to tune your electric guitar.
Clip-on guitar tuner pros
- Easy to use and read
- Portable and convenient
- It can be attached to various instruments, not just guitars
- Can detect vibrations from the instrument, producing accurate readings
- Doesn’t require an input jack or built-in microphone
- Doesn’t interfere with the sound of the instrument when tuning
Clip-on guitar tuner cons
- Not very durable
- Short battery life
- It may not work well in noisy environments
- Limited display
- It may not be as accurate as other types of tuners
Handheld Guitar Tuners
Handheld guitar tuners are small, portable devices that tune guitars and other stringed instruments. They typically have a small screen that displays the pitch of the note being played and whether it is sharp, flat, or in tune.
Handheld tuners can be chromatic or non-chromatic and can use various methods to detect pitch, including built-in microphones, pickups, or direct input.
They are popular among musicians who need a reliable and portable tuning solution.
How to use a handheld guitar tuner
- Turn on the handheld guitar tuner and pluck the string on your guitar.
- The tuner will display the note being played and whether it’s in tune.
- Adjust the tuning pegs until the tuner indicates the string is in tune.
- Repeat for each string.
Handheld guitar tuner pros
- Small and portable
- Easy to use
- Accurate tuning
- Can work in noisy environments
- Some models have additional features like a metronome or tone generator
Handheld guitar tuner cons
- Not as accurate as strobe or polyphonic tuners.
- It can be affected by background noise, making it difficult to tune in loud environments.
- It can be harder to read in low light conditions.
- Some models may require manual calibration.
- Battery life may be limited, especially with heavy use.
Pedal guitar tuners
The pedal tuner is great for guitarists who perform live. You can easily tune between songs by pressing the footswitch, and the bright screen makes it easy to see in dark environments.
This format is also very accurate because the signal is sent directly from the pickups and is usually true bypass, meaning the signal won’t be altered. Additionally, the tuner mutes your guitar signal, allowing you to tune silently.
Pedal guitar tuners can be chromatic, polyphonic, or strobe.
How to use a pedal guitar tuner
- Connect your guitar to the input jack on the pedal, and then connect the output jack to your amplifier or other sound system.
- Then, press the footswitch to activate the tuner. The tuner will display the note being played and indicate whether it is in tune or not.
- Adjust the tuning pegs on your guitar until the tuner indicates the note is in tune.
- Once all strings are tuned, disengage the tuner by pressing the footswitch again, and your guitar will be ready to play.
Pedal guitar tuner pros
- Accurate tuning
- Easy to use
- It can mute the guitar signal for silent tuning.
- Most pedal tuners have a true bypass feature.
- Most pedal tuners have bright screens that make it easy to see, even in low-light conditions.
Pedal guitar tuner cons
- Tend to be more expensive than other types of tuners.
- Pedal tuners require a power supply.
- Some pedal tuners may have limited functionality, such as only being able to tune in to Standard tuning.
Rack guitar tuners
Rack guitar tuners are larger tuners that offer many features that small ones may not have. They have a big display, calibration options, and selectable alternate tunings. These tuners are often part of a multi-effects rack processor, so you’ll have access to many other cool features besides tuning.
Most rack guitar tuners are chromatic tuners, but some models may have additional features like a microphone or strobe tuning display.
How to use a rack guitar tuner
- To use a rack guitar tuner, you will need to connect your guitar to the tuner using a cable.
- Then, turn on the tuner and select your desired tuning mode.
- You can then tune your guitar by plucking each string and adjusting the tuning pegs until the tuner shows that the string is in tune.
- Make sure to consult the user manual for specific instructions on how to use your particular rack guitar tuner.
Rack guitar tuner pros
- More features include alternate tunings, calibration options, and a large interface or display.
- They have better accuracy than other tuners, as they are often more sensitive to small pitch differences.
- Durability – rack tuners are usually built to last, as they are made from high-quality materials and are designed to withstand the rigors of regular use.
Rack guitar tuner cons
- Requires additional space and investment to accommodate the rack.
- Not as portable as other types of guitar tuners.
- The more complex interface may be overwhelming for some users.
Soundhole guitar tuners
A soundhole guitar tuner is a compact and affordable option for tuning an acoustic guitar. It is a device that clips onto the guitar’s soundhole and detects the strings’ vibrations to determine their pitch.
Soundhole guitar tuners are easy to use and do not require any cables or connections, making them a great choice for musicians on the go. They are also small and discreet, so they won’t interfere with your playing or performance.
Soundhole guitar tuners are mostly chromatic, but some models may have features like a built-in microphone.
How to use a Soundhole guitar tuner
- First, clip the tuner onto the soundhole of your guitar.
- Then, pluck a string, and the tuner will display the note being played, whether it’s sharp, flat, or in tune.
- Adjust the tuning pegs on your guitar until the tuner indicates that the string is in tune.
- Repeat this process for each string until all the strings are properly tuned.
- Finally, remove the tuner from the soundhole of your guitar.
Soundhole guitar tuner pros
- Easy to install and remove
- Does not require any additional equipment or accessories
- Allows for discreet tuning without the need for an external tuner
- It can be used with a variety of acoustic instruments, not just guitars
Soundhole guitar tuner cons
- It may not fit all guitar soundholes
- Requires manual tuning of each string
- It may not be as accurate as other types of tuners
App guitar tuners
App guitar tuners are mobile applications that can be downloaded on your smartphone or tablet, turning them into a guitar tuner. They work by using the device’s microphone to pick up the guitar’s sound and analyze its pitch.
How to use an App guitar tuner
- Download and install a guitar tuning app on your smartphone or tablet.
- Once you have the app, you will need to connect your guitar to your device via an audio cable or an interface.
- Then, open the app and select the tuning you want to use.
- You can play each string one at a time, and the app will display the pitch of each note and show you if it’s sharp, flat, or in tune.
- You can adjust the tuning of your guitar by turning the tuning pegs until the pitch is in the correct range.
App guitar tuner pros
- Convenient and easily accessible through smartphones or tablets.
- Many app tuners are free or low-cost compared to physical tuners.
App guitar tuner cons
- It can be less accurate than other types of tuners
- Reliance on microphone quality
- Battery life can be drained quickly
- Some apps may require in-app purchases for full functionality
- Inaccuracy in noisy environments
- Distractions from notifications or other apps running in the background.
Virtual guitar tuners
Virtual guitar tuners are software-based tuners that can be used on a computer or mobile device with an internet connection. They use the device’s microphone to pick up the guitar’s sound and display the pitch of each string on a visual interface. Virtual guitar tuners can be downloaded as apps or used on websites for free.
How to use a Virtual guitar tuner
- Simply open the virtual tuner website or app and allow access to your device’s microphone.
- Then, play each string one at a time, and the virtual tuner will analyze the pitch and show you whether the string is in tune or not.
- Some virtual tuners may also allow you to select different tuning modes and calibrate the tuner to match other instruments or tuning standards.
Virtual guitar tuner pros
- Convenient as it can be accessed through a smartphone or computer.
- Offers a variety of tuning options, including alternate tunings.
- Many virtual tuners are free or low-cost.
- Some virtual tuners can be used without an internet connection.
Virtual guitar tuner cons
- Requires a stable internet connection
- May have latency issues affecting tuning accuracy
- It may not work well in noisy environments
- Lack of physical presence can make tuning feel less intuitive
- It may drain the device battery quickly
In conclusion, guitar tuners are an essential tool for any guitarist. With a wide range of options available, from clip-on tuners to virtual tuners, it’s important to consider your specific needs and preferences when choosing a tuner.
Each type of tuner has pros and cons, such as ease of use, accuracy, and portability. Ultimately, finding the right tuner will depend on your playing style, budget, and personal preferences.
Regardless of the type of tuner you choose, having a properly tuned guitar is crucial to producing high-quality music and getting the most out of your playing experience.
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