There are a few lucky musicians who possess perfect pitch—the ability to hear the exact frequency of each note and tune their instrument or voice to those notes. For the rest of us a tuner is an essential accessory. In this guide we’ll help you find the right tuner with which to tune your guitar or other instrument.
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Because tuning devices range from simple tuning forks and pitch pipes to sophisticated digital tuning equipment designed for the most critical applications, finding the right one for you involves answering some questions about your needs and budget.
Electronic guitar and chromatic tuners vary from pocket-sized devices to large rack-mounted units. The most basic models use an LED to display the relative sharpness or flatness of the note being played and may only include the six pitches used in standard guitar tuning (E,A,D,G,B,E). Chromatic tuners allow instruments to be tuned to all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale.
What kind of instrument are you tuning?
If you want to tune a guitar or bass, there are lots of choices. Ranging from the simplest guitar tuners to more complex devices, they include:
- Electronic tuners » There are many types of electronic tuners designed for use with guitars. Some use a small microphone to detect the instrument’s sound. Others detect each string’s vibration to help the player get in tune. Some models incorporate both methods of tone detection. Available with a wide range of features and capabilities, we’ll describe the most common types of guitar tuners below.
- Tuning forks » When struck, they produce the sound of an “A” note. Once the A string has been tuned to that pitch, the other strings are then tuned in relation to that string. This process is challenging for students and difficult to perform in noisy settings.
- Pitch pipes » When blown, the pitch pipe emits six tones corresponding to the guitar’s six strings. It too is challenging for use by students and in noisy environments.
If you want to tune other acoustic instruments such as wind, brass, stringed, or percussion instruments, you can do so using tone generators like the pitch pipe or tuning fork as described above. Some pitch pipes are designed for use with specific instruments such as ukulele, violin, or cello.
Any acoustic instrument can be also tuned using a chromatic tuner that’s equipped with a microphone to detect the instrument’s sound. Again, these devices have a wide range of features, capabilities, and prices, which we’ll discuss below. Some have design features that are optimized for certain instruments or instrument families.
Types of electronic guitar tuners
Clip-on or headstock tuners » These tuners clip onto the guitar or bass headstock and detect the tuning of each string through the instrument’s vibrations. A few clip-on tuners also incorporate an internal mic permitting acoustic tuning of a wide range of instruments. They usually swivel to allow easy viewing by the player. Some clip-on models are designed to work with others stringed instruments and various brass and wind instruments.
The Snark SN-1 Guitar & Bass Tuner has a colorful, very legible display that swivels for even easier viewing.
Pedal tuners » This type of guitar tuner is built into a case that can be placed at your feet, making it an ideal type for inconspicuous use by performers. Their displays are designed to be easily read on darkened stages. Many guitar multi-processors and multi-effects pedals include tuner functions among their many capabilities.
You can read the super-bright TC Electronic PolyTune 2 display in full sun while dual strobes make it super-accurate.
Rack and tabletop tuners » Ranging from very sophisticated tuners for use in studios and guitarist’s stage rigs to simpler units that perform all the basic guitar tuning functions, you’ll should be able to find several models to choose from that meet your needs and budget. In choosing the right one, you’ll want to consider the various features and functions that we discuss next.
The versatile Korg TM-50 tabletop tuner includes a speaker and metronome, and is an excellent teaching tool.
Built-in preamp tuners » Many acoustic-electric guitars and a few electric guitar models have a tuner built into their preamplifier circuit. Some electric and acoustic guitar amplifiers also include a tuner function. Being built in, they are very convenient to use, and many allow silent tuning—an advantage during performances and in noisy environments.
The innovative Shadow Sonic mounts in your acoustic guitar’s soundhole.
Apps » If you have an iOS or Android smartphone you’ll find apps that allow chromatic and guitar tuning. However, most lack the accuracy and capabilities of dedicated guitar and chromatic tuners.
Tuner features and functions
With dozens of different tuner models to choose from at Musician’s Friend, here are some of the most important factors and capabilities to think about as you pinpoint the model that’s right for you. Reading the detailed product descriptions and many unbiased reviews of fellow musicians available on our website can also help you sort through the choices.
- Displays/meters » Legibility is a critical factor when it comes to seeing what your tuner is telling you. Many models use a needle-based meter that shows how close you are to pitch as you adjust your string tension. Others use LCD displays with needle-like graphics or LED light arrays that typically change from red to green as each string approaches the correct pitch. Many displays use different colors to indicate if you are sharp or flat, and include a display to show which string is being tuned. More display segments can help you fine-tune your instrument. The most advanced tuners use strobe technology to indicate tuning showing your relative pitch in real time, and are primarily used by instrument technicians. Consider the lighting where you’ll be doing your tuning. Larger, brighter displays can be a big advantage on dimly lit stages.
- Auto pitch detection » Better quality tuners automatically detect the played tone, showing its relation to true pitch. Less advanced models require you to set the target pitch for each string.
- Special tuning modes » Many digital guitar tuners offer optional tuning modes to match specific instruments such as 7-string and baritone guitars and 6-string basses. Some also support drop tunings that are based on “Eb” or “D,” popular in heavy metal and rock, instead of the standard “A” reference. If you use a capo, look for a model that supports capo tunings. The most elaborate guitar tuners allow you to tune to many alternate tuning modes and various tempered scales.
- Microphones and speakers » Tuners equipped with microphones can detect the instrument’s tuning acoustically; handy for tuning a wide range of instruments. Those with built-in amplifiers and speakers generate audible tones which are useful for developing your ear for intonation.
- Metronomes » Many tuners also include metronome functions making them ideal for students.
- Bypass/silent tuning » With pedal tuners, those that have a bypass feature don’t color the signal sent to your amplifier. Silent tuning bypasses the output to your amplifier or sound system, allowing you tune by referencing your tuner’s visual display only.
If you’re still unsure what tuner to buy, we invite you call to one of our friendly and knowledgeable Gear Heads at (800) 449-9128.