Guitar Tuners: Everything You Need to Know
By Brad Tolinski
Perhaps the most important thing a guitarist can own outside of a guitar is a good guitar tuner. It doesn’t matter whether you play a $5,000 Paul Reed Smith or possess the world’s best guitar amplifier, none of it will sound good if your guitar is out of tune.
Think of a tuner as the guitarist’s best friend.
But there are hundreds of guitar tuners of various shapes, sizes and features, so which one is right for you?
Best Types of Guitar Tuners
The best place to start is identifying the different kinds of guitar tuners. There are basically five different categories. Some are designed for electric guitars and some are made for acoustic guitars, but most are made for both. We’ve been careful to make those distinctions below.
Clip On Guitar Tuners
How does a clip on guitar tuner work? These guitar tuners clip on to the headstock of both electric or acoustic guitars and they work by picking up the vibrations from your strings.
- Pros: You can leave them clipped onto your headstock for quick adjustments while you play and most aren’t bothered by extraneous noises or other instruments. They are relatively inexpensive, and compact enough to fit in any gig bag or hardshell case storage compartment. Snark makes very reliable clip-on guitar string tuners for as little $12.99. On the very high-end, the Peterson StroboClip goes for $59.99.
Cons: Some people don’t think they look cool, but if you ask us, it’s less cool to be out of tune!
Pedal Guitar Tuners
Look at any professional guitar pedal board and most likely you’ll spot a tuning pedal among the effects (one can be spotted in the photo above!). In fact, sometimes the only pedal a guitarist will have is a tuner. Designed to go between your instrument and your amp, the guitar tuner stays plugged in as part of your setup, and allows you to easily tune in loud environments between songs.
Pros: They are very accurate, and the pedal will mute your amp while you are tuning so the audience won’t be subjected to the sound of your guitar as you search for the correct pitch.
Cons: They only work with electric instruments or acoustic guitars with a pickup. They can also be a bit pricey, ranging anywhere between $25 to $200, but most gigging musicians will tell you they are worth every cent. The gold standard for tuning pedals is the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, which is priced at a fairly reasonable $99.99.
Polyphonic Pedal Guitar Tuners
Polyphonic guitar tuners can scan all of the strings at once and locate which ones are out of tune, speeding up the tuning process. Like pedal guitar tuners, they are designed for electric instruments.
Pros: You can play all open strings at once, as opposed to tuning one string at a time, which instantly allows you to find out which strings are out of tune. This is a huge advantage on stage, where a minute of silence can feel like an eternity when you’re standing in front of a restless audience.
Cons: These tend to be more expensive than standard pedal guitar tuners, however the great TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Mini Polyphonic Tuning Pedal retails in the same vicinity as the popular Boss TU-3, making it an exciting alternative.
Guitar Tuner Apps
This could be a huge story by itself. While online guitar tuners have not made standard tuners obsolete, they have been doing their best! Many guitar tuner apps are excellent, available for both iOS and Android operating systems and can be used for both acoustic and electric guitars. Better yet, many are free or available for minimal cost.
Pros: If you can use your phone as your guitar tuner, it's just one less thing to carry around and maintain. Also, if you have a tuner app in your phone, it’s always with you. If you go over to a friend’s house and they have a guitar or go to a music store to try out a new instrument, you’re always prepared to get it in tune.
Cons: Since iOS and Android tuners use your phone’s microphone to pick up sound, they are subject to extraneous sounds just like standard guitar tuners. In noisy environments, you may get a false reading. Still, if you can move your phone close enough to your instrument or amp, you can usually work around that problem.
Recommended: When it comes to online guitar tuners, it’s a jungle out there! We didn’t want to leave you hanging, so let us recommend a few we found worth investigating. Let’s start with the “free” apps—because free is awesome! Piano Tuner is excellent for all string instruments, and we also like Guitar Tuna, Pitchlab and The Martin Tuner (from the folks at C.F. Martin & Co.). All four are iOS and Android compatible...and did we mention they’re free? It means you can try them all out and find which one you find more appealing.
- For those looking for apps that have more features or a bit more sensitivity, you may want to consider dropping a few bucks on any of the following. Cleartune ($3.99) and insTuner ($3.99) are both worthwhile investments. The Peterson’s iStroboSoft ($9.99) is somewhat expensive, but it’s about as good as it gets for studio and professional situations. All of these are iSO and Android friendly.
Turn On and Tune In: Gear with Built-In Guitar Tuners
Last, but not least, it’s worth mentioning that guitar tuners are being built right into instruments, amps and guitar software programs. If you already own an electric-acoustic guitar, look carefully at the input jack. You might be delightfully surprised to discover that you already have a string guitar tuner on your instrument.
How to tune a guitar with a built-in tuner
Tuning with a built-in guitar tuner is similar to using other ones. With the built-in tuner, you’ll need to turn the tuning keys, and the tuner will tell you when you’ve arrived at the correct pitch.
To tune: remember the notes E A D G B E.
These are standard guitar tuning notes, starting from the lowest string to the highest. That means the lowest (heaviest/thickest) string will be tuned to E, the next (thickest/heaviest) will be tuned to A, and so on.
Note: Beginner guitarists commonly break strings when trying to tune their guitars when they tune them an octave too high, or they do standard tuning in reverse.
Tuning your guitar with an amp
The Spark amp and app by Positive Grid.
How to Choose the Best Guitar Tuner For You
By now you can see that finding the best guitar tuner is dependent on your budget, instrument and needs.
But in short, if you are a beginning player and just need a simple guitar tuner to keep you in pitch for learning and jamming by yourself, then a standard guitar tuner, clip-on guitar tuner—or even a free app—will likely do you just fine.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to play out at clubs or venues, the convenience of a pedal guitar tuner or polyphonic pedal guitar tuner is well worth the investment. They can take a beating and will keep you tuned up for years to come.
So, yes, a tuner is a guitarist’s best friend. And isn’t it awesome to know that there are so many around? You never know when you’ll need to call on one, especially when you are...ahem...caught in a jam.
Brad Tolinski is perhaps best known for his work as the editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine for 25 years. He is also the author of Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown); and Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar (Doubleday), which was the basis for a 2019 guitar-focused exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Most recently he edited the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of CREEM magazine, and his latest book Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen (Hachette) will be coming out in October 2021.