In our last installment about how to tune a guitar properly part 1, we got into all of the science behind how string tension affects the pitch of a note. We also went into how adjusting that tension (either increasing or decreasing) is what it takes to get a string perfectly in tune.
You’ll be glad to know that the science/physics type stuff is over! Yeah, we know that may have been a bit on the dull side, but having some idea of what tuning your guitar is all about isn’t bad.
One point that we made was that there were two main ways to tune your guitar – using a tuner and also doing it manually. Today we will go into using a tuner: what one is, why it may be the best choice over manual tuning, and also describing the different types of tuners that are available (while also noting the pros and cons of each).
What is a guitar tuner?
A guitar tuner is a device that takes the vibrations from a plucked string and determines whether or not it is in tune. Without a doubt, we feel that using a tuner is the best way to go over manual tuning – and that’s for several reasons:
Most tuners give you a quick visual indicator of whether you are in tune or not.
With a tuner, you will have some sort of screen or another way of letting you know that you are either sharp, flat, or in tune.
“I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.” B. B. King
There’s typically not a lot of guesswork, with some of them having displays that change color when you’re right where you need to be.
They are incredibly easy to use, which is probably the best choice for a beginner.
With an electric guitar, all you have to do is plug your instrument cable into it. Turn up the volume on your guitar, and pluck a note. The signal goes into the tuner, and it pretty much immediately tells you whether you need to increase or decrease string tension.
With an acoustic guitar that doesn’t have an electric capability, tuners can be found with small microphones in them. Simply set the tuner close to the guitar and tune away.
A good majority of tuners can be had for not a lot of money.
Tuners, like just about anything, do have a price range. Higher-end models can run several hundred dollars. But most players just don’t need that kind of capability or exacting accuracy. These days a simple tuner can be had for under $20, with some middle-of-the-road models approaching the $100 threshold.
They have a level of accuracy that is much higher than manual tuning.
Let’s face it – no matter how good your ear is developed, you most likely aren’t good enough to beat an electrical circuit. You are much more likely to tune faster – and more accurately – with a tuner than doing it manually. That’s especially true in some live environments where background noise can make it hard to discern individual notes; tuners filter out that noise for the most part.
Types of guitar tuners
There are several kinds of guitar tuners, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. It’s worthy of your time to take a look at them all, as that will let you pick out the one that will work best for your needs.
A clip-on tuner is a simple unit – relatively inexpensive for the most part – that does exactly as the name implies. The tuning unit itself is attached to a clip that mounts with a spring mount to the head-stock of your guitar. As you tune, the string vibrations are channeled through the mount to the tuner, where there is a small display that tells you where you are at. That makes them well suited for either electric or acoustic guitars.
The benefits of a clip-on tuner are the low price and ease of use. Some of the downsides are that you typically have to take them off before you start playing, especially in a live situation where you may be moving around a bit. The spring in the clip is reasonably strong, but not necessarily robust enough when you’re planning to ‘rock and roll all nite and party every day.’
Take the guts of a guitar tuner circuit and put it into a stomp-box-sized enclosure – that’s a pedal tuner. It’s not uncommon for guitarists that play live to have some sort of pedal-board or array of loose effects, and having a tuner as the first pedal in the signal chain allows for quick and easy tuning.
Stepping on a pedal tuner turns it on, where it will completely mute the signal and allow you to tune as you need. That’s really beneficial in live situations because – really – who wants to hear you tune-up? They also tend to have bright displays on them for dark gigging environments, so they are super easy to see onstage.
On the flip side, pedal tuners are usually a bit more expensive than a clip-on unit. But, in our assessment, having to pay a little more for the benefits that a pedal tuner allows may be worth every penny. Additionally, they usually do not have any sort of microphone, so they do not play well with acoustics without any kind of pickup.
Back in the day, hand-held tuners were close to the only option you may have had. Before technology had advanced to where it is today, these tuners had a needle that would move based on the note frequency. They tended to be somewhat tricky to use as the needle could tend to bounce around and not be very stable.
They have evolved over time to be more ‘screen-based,’ with the needle being replaced by some a kind of LCD screen. Getting rid of the mechanical workings tends to make them more manageable, but we honestly would recommend against using them. Having to unplug your guitar from your signal chain to plug into a tuner is just plain inconvenient, mainly when playing live where you need to tune up quickly between songs.
Smartphone tuning apps
There’s an app for everything these days, right? You bet there is – and there are a ton of tuning apps (both free and with a small cost) that are available. Simply open the app, and tune to your heart’s desire. Sounds like a winner, right?
Well…not really. Sure, you can’t beat the price for the most part. But there are enough downsides where we would not typically suggest that you would use a tuning app unless you have no real other choices. They can tend to be unstable at best, as they all depend on the microphone within your phone for the signal output. That and the engines that drive the frequency analysis may not be all that great. Add all of that up, and it can lead to inconsistent results.
Overall, using a guitar tuner in some form is usually the best way to get your guitar tuned as fast and as accurately as you can. They are reasonably innovative devices that can let you save time tuning and spend more time playing!
That being said, you really need to look at the good and bad points for each tuner type. A particular kind of tuner that works well for one guitarist may not be the best option for another. You should investigate all of the options available and make the best choice for your needs.
In our next installment of this series on guitar tuning, we will go into details on how to manually tune your guitar. There are a few different ways to go about it, and it’ll be right for you to have that knowledge in your back pocket if you ever find yourself in a situation where a good guitar tuner isn’t available.
Until next time – tune-up, and don’t tune out!
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