A guitar tuner is probably the second most important piece of equipment a guitarist will own. The guitar is the most important, of course. But it doesn’t matter how great a guitar is or how good you can play it if the guitar isn’t in tune.
There are a number of ways to tune a guitar. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Tuners come in many different configurations. As long as certain requirements are met, there really is no single “best” tuner. With so many options available, I’ve written this guide to help you choose the best tuner for your needs.
Why Trust Me?
I have been a guitar player for more than 30 years. I have owned a number of guitar tuners over the years, since the day I received my first guitar. I have used tuners manufactured by numerous companies. Whenever I have had the opportunity, I have used unfamiliar tuners owned by friends, music stores, and other musicians.
I own or have owned many of tuners I tested for this article. Using this guide, most players should be able to determine which tuners will best match their needs and preferences.
Why Use a Tuner?
Electronic tuners are a relatively new development in the history of the guitar. For many years, tuning was done by ear. This could be accomplished by memory of the correct pitch, by tuning to match another instrument, or through the use of devices such as a tuning fork or a pitch pipe.
Tuning by ear is obviously the best option with regard to portability. You always have your ears with you. However, tuning by ear has distinct disadvantages in accuracy, reliability, and practicality. Some experienced players may be able to tune accurately due to having trained to hear and memorize the notes of the musical scale.
It is highly unlikely that beginners will be able to remember the notes well enough to tune by memory. Most guitarists learn to tune the strings to each other, such as tuning the open fifth string to the note played at the fifth fret of the sixth string.
This is a valuable method for tuning a guitar, but its value is diminished if the original reference note is incorrect. If the sixth string is not in tune, using it to tune the fifth string will result in that string also being out of tune.
Tuning to match another instrument has been very common in the past and is still done in some ensembles today. If there is no electronic tuner available, two guitarists can decide which guitar seems to be in tune and then the other player will tune to match the first. In groups with a piano, it is very common to tune to match the piano.
Tuning a piano is a long, complex process; it is much easier to tune the other instruments to match it. The disadvantage of this method is that if the reference instrument is not actually in tune, then all of the instruments will be out of tune.
The musicians will be able to play together, but may not produce the actual sounds that they wish to play. It can also be problematic if another musician wants to join in or if the group is being recorded and there may be a need to record additional parts later.
In the past, musicians often used tuning forks or pitch pipes to provide a reliable reference for tuning. These tools provided a precise reference for each musician to use when tuning. The problem with this method is that there was no universal standard for tuning. One country might define the fourth A note on the piano (A4) as 435Hz, while another country may decide that an A4 is 432Hz.
This problem persisted until 1955, when the international standard for A4 was defined as 440Hz. Before that time, a traveling musician might need to tune to a different reference note at each performance. Modern tuning forks and pitch pipes use the international standard.
These disadvantages apply to all guitarists, but tuning by ear presents a major problem to players performing with electric guitars. To tune by ear, a player has to be able to hear the guitar. Audiences do not enjoy listening to a guitarist spend a minute or more playing and adjusting each string. Electronic tuners allow guitar players to tune their instruments quickly and quietly.
Choosing an Electronic Tuner
There are a number of different types of electronic tuners. Each type of tuner has features that may or may not make it a better choice, depending on each player’s situation.
A performing guitarist may not have the same requirements as a bedroom player. For example, a performing guitar player needs a bright display that can easily be seen on a dark stage. This feature is not as important to a guitarist playing at home in a well-lit room. When choosing a tuner, consider each feature and how it will work in your playing environment.
Accuracy is one of the most important requirements for an electronic tuner. Obviously, the more accurate the tuner is, the more in tune the guitar will be. Some tuners provide very accurate displays, using a needle or a large number of lights.
Tuners are also rated on their accuracy in detecting the current note and determining when the target note has been reached. Tuner specifications will usually note the tuner’s accuracy in cents.
When comparing tuners, remember that the tuner with the smaller number is more accurate. A tuner with a listed accuracy of “± 0.25 cents” will be more accurate than a tuner with a listed accuracy of “± 0.75 cents.”
Types of Guitar Tuners
Chromatic or Non-Chromatic?
All electronic guitar tuners can be separated into one of two categories: chromatic or non-chromatic. This designation is based on what notes the tuner will determine. A chromatic tuner will tune for all 12 semi-tones in the chromatic scale (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#).
This versatility is great for players who like to play in alternate tunings. A non-chromatic tuner allows the player to tune only to traditional standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E), although some models will also allow tuning down one-half or one step.
This type of tuner is often called a handheld or table-top tuner. It has a ¼ inch input jack for tuning electric guitars and a small condenser microphone for tuning acoustic guitars.
Most beginners start with a non-chromatic version of this type of tuner. While there are some more advanced models, most of these tuners are small, inexpensive, and easy to use.
A pedal tuner is a tuner that has a footswitch housing similar to those that hold various guitar effects. This type is usually quite accurate and very durable. A pedal tuner has both input and output jacks, allowing the tuner to be used in the signal chain between the guitar and amplifier.
A player can conveniently tune at any point without having to move a cable. Another excellent feature of the pedal tuner is its ability to mute the signal from the guitar. While the tuner is engaged, the guitar signal is not passed to the amplifier. A guitar player can tune without worrying about the sound annoying or interrupting anyone.
Introduced in 1995, the clip-on tuner has become the most popular type of guitar tuner. The clip-on tuner is clipped onto the headstock of the guitar, where it uses a contact microphone to detect the pitch being played.
This microphone is similar to a piezo pickup. Instead of accepting a signal via a guitar cord, the clip-on tuner’s microphone picks up the transferred vibration from the played string.
This type of tuner is well-suited for both home and stage use. It is easy to use and can be left on the headstock for convenience.
There are some disadvantages associated with using a clip-on tuner. It is generally less accurate than other tuners and is more likely to be lost or broken due to its small size. The clip-on tuner does not mute the guitar signal, so the player must remember to turn down the guitar volume before tuning in order to tune quietly.
The sound hole tuner is a type of clip-on tuner designed specifically for acoustic guitars. It clips to the edge of the guitar’s sound hole rather than onto the headstock.
The mechanical stroboscopic tuner entered the market in 1936 and is still the most accurate tuner available. The tuner compares an incoming guitar signal with its internal reference to determine if there is any difference between the two pitches. A disc is used as a visual reference for the guitarist.
The disc will spin if there is any difference between the pitches and stop when the notes are identical. The stroboscopic tuner often carries a price tag that reflects its incredible accuracy; the most expensive tuner on the market is usually a stroboscopic tuner.
Most modern stroboscopic tuners use an LED simulation rather than a physical disc. While it is still very accurate, the modern LED stroboscopic tuner is not always as accurate as the mechanical version. The stroboscopic tuner is found in recording studios more often than in homes or on stages, due to its high cost and bulky size.
A polyphonic tuner is a tuner that can detect and determine multiple pitches at one time. Instead of having to pick and then tune each string separately, a guitarist with a polyphonic tuner can just strum all six strings at once. The tuner will then show which strings are out of tune.
The ability to check the tuning of all six strings at once allows for much quicker tuning, a valuable feature for guitarists who perform in public.
A rackmount tuner is simply a tuner in a housing that is designed to fit in a guitar effects rack. It makes little sense for a guitarist to use a pedal tuner when the rest of the gear is in a rack.
This type of tuner can also have more features than the pedal versions, as the larger size allows for more electronic components and input/output jacks. It is very common to find a rackmount tuner in a recording studio.
After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.
|The backlit display is large and bright, making it easy to read both in the dark and in direct sunlight||$139.99|
|The LED display uses 21 segments to show how close the pitch is to being in tune, and provides a brightness control so that adjustments can be made based on lighting conditions||$99.00|
|Very good choice for those players in search of quick and easy tuning||$9.99|
|It is designed for only 6-string acoustic guitars, primarily in standard tuning||$33.78|
|This tuner offers incredible accuracy, extremely quick processing, and transposing capabilities to allow for tuning various instruments||$780.35|
|Its incredible versatility and accuracy make it a great choice for any situation that requires precise tuning of different instruments||$5,200.00|
|The Technology allows for quicker tuning, as all strings can be checked with a single strum||$89.99|
|Has housed this unit in a plastic housing instead of a metal housing as is more common among rackmount effects||$99.99|
I highly recommend that all guitar players purchase a chromatic tuner. The chromatic tuner offers the most flexibility, allowing players to use any possible tuning.
Non-chromatics are usually cheaper and may be easier for beginners to understand, but I think even beginners should buy the best tuner possible. Because most tuners are relatively inexpensive, it makes sense to buy one with greater accuracy and many features.
I advise guitar players to try the various types and brands of tuners to determine which they prefer. To help narrow down your search, I have listed some of my favorite tuners.
“Box” Tuner: Peterson Stroboplus HD
The Peterson Stroboplus HD is the best table-top tuner I have found. It offers incredible accuracy of ±0.1 cent (±0.001 of a semi-tone), and the LED “disc” movement is amazingly smooth.
The backlit display is large and bright, making it easy to read both in the dark and in direct sunlight. Unlike many “box” tuners, the Stroboplus HD has both input and output jacks, allowing it to remain in the signal chain at all times. This tuner’s dizzying array of tuning options may be overkill for a guitarist that only wants to play in traditional standard tuning.
For a player who is interested in playing in different temperaments and tunings, the Peterson Stroboplus HD is a godsend. It allows the user to adjust the reference pitch (A4) in 0.1Hz increments over a wide range (390Hz-490Hz). The tuner offers 92 preset temperaments or “sweetened” tunings.
Users are also provided with 10 preset locations to store their own favorite tunings. Guitarists with instruments that utilize the Buzz Feiten Tuning System will appreciate that the Stroboplus HD allows for proper tuning in that system. The company offers firmware upgrades that can be downloaded to the tuner by connecting it to a computer via USB.
The Stroboplus HD isn’t perfect. Power is provided by an internal lithium-ion battery. While this type of battery eliminates the need to keep standard alkaline batteries on hand, it presents a real problem if the internal battery becomes faulty.
Rather than just having to replace a battery, the user will have to replace the entire unit. That is not a pleasant thought, considering the cost of the tuner. The internal battery must be charged via a USB wall charger that is sold as a separate item. Peterson offers a metronome feature in this tuner.
However, it is not included and must be purchased as a downloadable upgrade. Given the cost of the tuner itself, paying an additional $40 for a software-enabled metronome is a bit off-putting.
Despite these shortcomings, the Peterson Stroboplus HD is an excellent tuner with great features that will satisfy most players. If a player could only own one electronic tuner, the Stroboplus HD would be a good choice. It generally sells for $115-$140.
Pedal Tuner: Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner
Like its predecessor the TU-2, the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner has become the industry standard for pedal tuners. It is accurate, durable, packed with features, and reasonably priced.
The Boss TU-3 offers tuning accuracy of ±1 cent, a dramatic improvement over the TU-2’s ±3 cents. Although many people will not be able to hear the difference, this level of accuracy is of great benefit when setting a guitar’s intonation.
The LED display uses 21 segments to show how close the pitch is to being in tune, and provides a brightness control so that adjustments can be made based on lighting conditions. Like most pedal tuners, the TU-3 mutes the signal when engaged, allowing the player to tune silently.
The Boss TU-3 can handle the tuning needs of most guitarists. The reference pitch (A4) can be adjusted in 1Hz steps over a limited range (436Hz-445Hz). The TU-3 offers different tuning modes for different needs:
- Guitar/bass, which allows tuning instruments by string number, including 6-string basses and 7-string guitars
- Flat, allowing users to “drop” tune a guitar by up to six semitones below standard tuning.
Like all Boss pedals, the TU-3 is durable, contained in a sturdy metal housing. Another useful feature of this tuner is its ability to serve as a power supply. When the TU-3 is powered with a 9V power adapter, it can in turn power up to seven Boss pedals using an optional daisy-chain cable.
If a player already owns the Boss TU-2, I don’t know if it would be worthwhile to buy the TU-3 as an upgrade. The improved accuracy is nice, but may not be noticeable. Any other player in the market for a pedal tuner should definitely consider the TU-3. The retail price for the Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner is usually around $100.
The Snark SN5X is a simple, no-frills chromatic clip-on tuner. Its tiny size precludes it from having many features, but the SN5X is a very good choice for those players in search of quick and easy tuning. Snark has given the SN5X greater accuracy and quicker processing than the previous SN5 model.
The improved display can rotate a full 360 degrees, making it visible from any angle for both right-handed and left-handed players. The SN5X is the tuner I use most often when playing my guitars at home.
I have heard reports that the rubber on the clip can interact with nitrocellulose finishes, such as those found on Gibson guitars. I have had no issues with this, but I do not leave the tuner attached to the guitar except when actually tuning. The Snark SN5X is definitely worth a purchase for any player that would like to have an inexpensive and convenient tuner. It usually sells for around $10.
The Korg RPC1 Rimpitch is a clip-on tuner that was specifically designed for acoustic guitars. It clips onto the edge of the guitar’s sound hole, allowing the tuner to be tucked out of the way while keeping it within the player’s line of sight.
The RPC1 uses a piezo pickup to detect the string’s vibration, delivering a tuning accuracy of ±1 cent. It is designed for only 6-string acoustic guitars, primarily in standard tuning.
This tuner is not a good choice for a guitarist who plays a 12-string acoustic guitar or likes to use alternate tunings. The Korg RPC1 Rimpitch can be purchased for approximately $30.
For the player who demands a high-quality mechanical stroboscopic tuner, the Peterson AutoStrobe 490 is an excellent choice. It offers tuning accuracy of ±0.1 cents and the ability to adjust the A4 reference pitch in 0.1Hz increments across a very wide range (350Hz-550Hz).
This tuner offers incredible accuracy, extremely quick processing, and transposing capabilities to allow for tuning various instruments. This level of quality certainly requires a higher budget. The Peterson Autostrobe 490 carries a retail price of $650-$750.
The Peterson Strobe Center 5000-II is the ultimate stroboscopic tuner for the player with a huge budget. Its incredible versatility and accuracy make it a great choice for any situation that requires precise tuning of different instruments.
The 12 discs allow the user to see not just the tuning of the targeted pitch, but also the tuning of harmonies and overtones. It is also possible to tune multiple notes at one time.
This tuner’s reputation as the most advanced tuner available is reflected in its price. The Peterson Strobe Center 5000-II sells for over $3,000.
Polyphonic Tuner: TC Electronic PolyTune 2
The TC Electronic PolyTune 2 combines many excellent features into one pedal:
- Chromatic tuning with ±0.5 cents accuracy
- LED stroboscopic tuning with ±0.1 cents accuracy
- A “magnet” that slows the LED needle as the correct pitch is approached, allowing for more precise tuning
- A very bright display to ensure visibility in all lighting situations
- Capability to tune down from standard tuning by five semitones, or up by seven semitones (as if there is a capo on the guitar)
- The ability to save preferred settings, such as for reference pitch or tuning mode
- The option to download firmware upgrades by using the included mini USB cord.
The greatest feature of this tuner is TC Electronic’s revolutionary PolyTune technology. The MonoPoly feature detects whether the user is playing multiple strings or just one string, and changes the tuning mode to match. The polyphonic mode determines the pitches of all strings being played and displays which strings need to be tuned.
The user can then tune an individual string; the tuner automatically switches to the monophonic mode when only one string is played. This technology allows for quicker tuning, as all strings can be checked with a single strum.
With all of these fantastic features, the most surprising thing about the TC Electronic PolyTune 2 might be its price. It regular sells for around $80. At this price, every guitar player should try the PolyTune 2.
Rackmount Tuner: Korg Pitchblack Pro
Korg produced the first rackmount tuner in 1987, and carries on that tradition with its current offering, the Korg Pitchblack Pro. Korg has housed this unit in a plastic housing instead of a metal housing as is more common among rackmount effects.
This decision likely led to reduced costs, but it also benefits the user due to the reduced weight of the effects rack. The rack protects the gear inside, leaving no reason to worry about the safety of the Pitchblack Pro.
I feel the Pitchblack Pro has a few issues that should be considered. This tuner delivers tuning accuracy of ±1 cent, which is somewhat disappointing in an LED stroboscopic tuner. I don’t feel the plastic housing is an issue, but the rack ears are also plastic. It may be possible to break these just by overtightening the screws, so potential buyers should keep that in mind.
Honestly, I think many players choose the Pitchblack Pro just because the lights look so cool when the tuner is activated. It looks like a mini light show in the rack. Three modes are offered: meter, strobe, and half-strobe.
These modes change the way the LED indicators display the pitch movement. The Korg Pitchblack Pro is an inexpensive option for any player looking for a rackmount tuner. It usually sells for $80-$100.
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- EZvid Wiki team, “10 Best Guitar Tuners, December 2016,” Wiki.ezvid.com, December 30, 2016.
- Emily Younker, “Top 3 Types of Tuners,” Top Ten Reviews.
- “Best Guitar Tuners – 9 Tuners Best For The Job!” Ground Guitar.
- Randall Tompkins, “Top 15 Best Guitar & Instrument Tuners,” Heavy, November 16, 2016.
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- Nils B., “What’s the Best Guitar Tuner? An Introduction to Electronic Tuners,” Take Lessons, December 16, 2014.
- Mason Hoberg, “5 Best Guitar Tuners,” Equipboard, September 11, 2015.