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How Guitar Tuners Work & Which One You Should Buy

We get it, not all music gear is sexy. But some are more essential than others and that couldn’t be more true than when it comes to tuners. From analogue beginnings to modern digital rigs, the humble tuner has come a long way. It’s evolved so much in fact, that choosing a tuner that fits your needs can seem down right daunting… especially if you’re a beginner. Tuners can range from basic and affordable to full featured and expensive. So with that in mind, let’s explore the options for this essential piece of kit that can mean the difference between making noise and making music.

When choosing a tuner, it’s a good idea to first set your budget and work within it. Second, think about what instruments you’ll be tuning. Most tuners will work on a variety of instruments, but some will be specific to the instrument you’re using. For example, if you want to tune brass, percussion, string or wind instruments, tuning forks or pitch pipes might be your best option. Also note that some pitch pipes are designed for use with specific instruments such as cello, ukulele or violin. 

Tuner Types

Tuning Forks

When struck, a tuning fork produces the sound of an A note. After the A string is tuned to the correct pitch, the remaining strings are tuned in relation to that string. While tuning forks serve a purpose, they can be cumbersome and are less than ideal for beginners and in noisy environments.

Pitch Pipes

When blown, pitch pipes produce six notes that correspond to a guitar’s six strings. The strings are then tuned to the pitch pipe by ear. Again, these are cumbersome and not ideal for beginners or in noisy spaces.

Tabletop Tuners 

The most common type of tuners, especially for guitar, are tabletop tuners. These tuners typically use a ¼” jack for electric guitars, and a built-in microphone for acoustic guitars to detect the instrument’s sound, then display the relative sharpness or flatness of the note being played. But be aware, some models will only include the six pitches used in standard guitar tuning (E,A,D,G,B,E). Chromatic tuners however, are capable of tuning instruments to all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale (A,A#,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#). Tabletop tuners are simple and affordable, but may lack versatility, and again, tuning during noisy rehearsals or performances can be a problem. 

TuneMate

Clip-on / Headstock Tuners 

Clip-on tuners, as the name implies, easily clip onto the headstock of your instrument and use an ultra sensitive piezo sensor to accurately detect the tone of each string through vibrations. A welcomed evolution of the tabletop tuner, clip-on tuners solve the problem of noise interference while remaining compact, versatile, and affordable. Like most tuners, these can range from basic to full-featured, so choose wisely.

Pedal Tuners

Pedal tuners are a great option, particularly for performers and those using pedalboards. Operated by foot, these tuners are meant to be stomped on, making them highly durable. With direct plugin, and displays designed to be visible in all lighting conditions, these accurate and discrete workhorses are ready for whatever the stage or road can throw at them. When choosing, keep an eye out for true bypass pedals. These will prevent the tuner from “colouring” your guitar’s tone when not in use. It’s worth noting that many multi-effect and multi-processor units include a tuning function. Additionally, those playing purely acoustic instruments will have to look elsewhere.

Rackmount Tuners

Have a bit more space? Rackmount tuners run the gamut from feature rich to bare bones. They can fit conveniently into a studio setup where their larger size provides room for bigger displays, multiple inputs, outputs, and advanced capabilities. This makes rackmount tuners ideal for tackling the complex demands of studio recording.

Preamp Tuners

Preamp tuners are built directly into the preamplifier circuits of many acoustic-electric and some electric guitar models. Integrated and convenient, many of these tuners offer the advantage of silent tuning, perfect for noisy performances when you can’t hear, and others can. 

Tuner Apps

Yes, there’s an app for that. Ranging from free to paid versions, tuner apps can be great in a pinch, but suffer in noisy environments and the condition of your phone (i.e. a cracked screen). So keep it in your back pocket, but expect to run into difficulties come showtime.

Features and Function to Look Out For

Display - A good tuner is one you can read with ease! Think about where you’ll be doing your tuning. Classic needle-based meters are common, and indicate each string’s pitch in real time. But in dimly lit spaces you might consider options such as back-lit LCD graphical, or colour-changing LED light arrays for better visibility. Modern displays often indicate which string is being tuned, and offer more display segments for fine tuning your instrument. Larger and brighter displays have the advantage of visibility in both dark and very bright conditions. 

Optional tuning modes are a feature of many digital guitar tuners that allows them to easily switch to presets for different types of guitars or other instruments like violin and bass. The tuning mode options can include common drop tunings, capo tunings, and extend to even more exotic tempered scales. This can be a huge asset when switching between different songs, styles, and instruments.

Auto pitch detection is a feature of higher quality tuners that automatically detects tones, then displays them in relation to true pitch. It’s a leg up from lower quality models where you’ll need to set the target pitch of each string yourself. 

Microphones allow you to tune a wide variety of instruments acoustically. Some tuners without mics can be fitted with an additional mic to expand their range of use. 

Speakers may be included to emit audible tones that you can use to practice tuning by ear.

Metronomes are handy for learning and keeping time in groups. Included in many tuners, students may find this feature especially beneficial.

Bypass - As you add additional cable and pedals to the chain between your instrument and amplifier, you’ll be adding potential noise and interference. Just 20 feet of extra cable can result in a dull, diluted sound. A tuner with true bypass will effectively remove itself from the chain when switched off. This is a must-have feature to keep your signal unimpeded, loud and clear. 

Silent tuning gives you the useful option of solely relying on a visual display to tune.

Conclusion

Whatever your instrument or budget, a tuner that simply works, when and where you need it to, is the indispensable foundation of any musician’s toolbox. If you feel like a clip-on tuner is the way to go, check out our TuneMate Clip-on Chromatic Tuner. Featuring full chromatic tuning, a highly sensitive piezo sensor, adjustable colour display, modes for guitar, bass, violin and ukulele and a durable, low profile design, our tuner is made to work so you can play.





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