One thing every player must do is tune their guitar. After all, when you strum a chord it has to sound right. Right? But, what’s the best way to do that? Unfortunately, there are many options to choose from, and it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Keep reading and I’ll give you some tips on how to choose a guitar tuner.
One thing to keep in mind – you don’t actually need any of the tuners listed below. Really? Then why waste your time and money on one? Well, this works only if, and this is a huge if, you have what’s called “perfect pitch.” Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a note, any note, and know exactly what it is. If you are lucky enough to have this ability, then you can tune any string just using your ears. Here’s the catch. Few people have that ability, and odds are you don’t. I don’t, and in fact, I’ve never met anyone who does. Lots of training helps, but in the meantime you’re going to need to tune that guitar.
I have a friend who is a very good musician, both guitar player and singer, who has never bought a tuner. And no, he doesn’t have perfect pitch. The key for him is this – he almost always plays alone. So, he has no need to be exact. What he does is approximate the pitch for the sixth string (which is an E in standard tuning), then tune all the other strings off of it. And it works for him. Except when he has to play with others. Then he is forced to borrow someone else’s tuner. Believe me, I know. I’ve loaned my tuner to him.
Types of Tuners
If you’ve read this far, then you’re one of the majority who needs a tuner. So, I’d like to go over the options you have when making this choice. I’ll start with the general types, then go over some of the more important features to consider.
Probably the most basic tuner, and also one of the least usable, is a tuning fork. It consists of two metal arms, which when struck, give off a pitch at an exact frequency for the stated note. You can use this pitch to tune one string, then use that to tune the rest of your strings. Sounds simple, but there are two drawbacks. It requires some practice to master, and is difficult to use in noisy environments.
A pitch pipe is a device with one or more small tubes that look like whistles. When blown, each one gives off a note of a certain frequency. You then use that pitch to tune a string. From there, you either tune all the rest of the strings off different pitches on the pitch pipe, or use the first string to tune the rest. Pitch pipes have the same drawbacks that tuning forks have, namely they require practice to master, and are difficult to use in noisy environments.
With the advent of electronics came an explosion of choices for players, designed to overcome the drawbacks mentioned above for tuning forks and pitch pipes. Hand-held tuners are small electronic devices with a display that shows you how sharp or flat a string is relative to it’s exact frequency. You can put it in your lap or on a music stand and use it to tune all of your strings, one at a time. The cheaper models are limited to only the six pitches of standard tuning, while the better ones can recognize all the notes of a chromatic scale. As such, these are called “chromatic” tuners. Some even have built-in metronomes.
These clip onto the guitar and use the instrument’s vibration to detect pitch. Most of these clip onto the headstock, but a few clip onto the edge of the sound hole (although some people classify these as an entirely separate type of tuner, I don’t because they still clip on somewhere.) A few of these actually have a small built-in microphone. Those that clip onto the headstock usually swivel to make it easier to view the display.
Pedal tuners are placed at your feet and are designed to be used by performers on stage. The displays are typically designed to be read on darkened stages. These can be separate devices or included as a feature in a multi-effect pedal. Either way, they would not be the first choice of someone that doesn’t perform on stage.
Rack tuners are large devices that mount in racks and allow multiple inputs for tuning more than one instrument. These are designed for use in studios and stage rigs.
Built-in Preamp Tuner
Some preamplifiers have a tuner built in, which is very convenient if you’re playing an acoustic-electric or an electric guitar. Obviously, if you’re not amplified, this option is not an option for you.
Polyphonic tuners are the newest type available, and allow you to tune all strings with a single strum. The display shows the relative pitch of all six strings at once.
Apps and Software
A variety of apps and software tuners are available for smartphones, tablets, and computers. Unfortunately, most of the apps for smartphones and tablets aren’t really all that good. The problem is not the software, but the microphones which are designed for speech and not music. However, there are several apps that are quite good. Stay tuned and I’ll be posting a review of some of the best of these apps. Tuners built for computers are best for studio situations, at this point in time, but that may change.
Now that I’ve gone over the major types of tuners, I’d like to mention several features that are important to keep in mind.
There are two major types of displays used. The first is a meter with a needle which moves right or left as the pitch changes. Second is an LCD display. It can either simulate a needle, or has a light array that will show you how close you are to the correct pitch. These often come with different colors to show flat versus sharp or as a gauge to how close that string is to the correct pitch. One thing to keep in mind with an LCD display is where it will be used. The brightness of the display can be an issue on a dimly-lit stage.
Auto Pitch Detection
Tuners with this feature will automatically detect the played pitch. To me, this is a really nice feature, particularly if you are going to play an open tuning, or any non-standard tunings. It is typically found on higher quality tuners.
Special Tuning Modes
This feature allows a tuner to be used to match certain instruments, such as baritone guitars. Some versions of this feature support dropped tunings and capo tunings. If you are just beginning, this feature may not be important, but may become so with more experience.
Some tuners come with a metronome setting. These will play a beep or click sound as a metronome would. At least some allow you to control the volume of the sound being emitted. As you would expect, this feature is particularly useful for students.
This is a nice feature that is found on some pedal tuners. It channels the sound from the strings only to a display and not to your output. As you’d expect, this is a particularly useful feature when performing on stage.
I assume if you’ve read this far, you don’t have perfect pitch and need a tuner for your guitar. I hope I’ve given you the tools needed to start making your decision. Stay tuned and I’ll be providing reviews of specific models. In the mean time, keep making music. It helps make the world a better place.
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