I often refer to guitars as “living, breathing things” because they are susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity which can affect the playability of your guitar and the ability to keep your guitar in tune. For these reasons, it’s important to have a good, solid guitar tuner for your particular musical situation. Much like a guitar pick or a guitar capo, guitar tuners are largely a matter of preference. Throughout my years of playing guitar professionally, I have tried countless different guitar tuners from clip on tuners to tuner pedals in various different musical situations. In this post, I wanted to share some of my favorites and the pros and cons of each.
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Before we get into the tuners themselves, let’s talk about a few aspects of guitar tuners and a some common tuning problems.
Tuning With a Group of Musicians
In the old days, players would often tune up to the guitar player or the lead player in a given ensemble. As a result, tuning up to the other musicians will create a more cohesive and natural sound. This is why the instruments heard in old records often are in tune with each other but sound like they are slightly out of tune when compared to your 440 Hz tuned instrument.
In the modern era, each player has their own electronic guitar tuner and the art of tuning by ear and being able to tell if a note is sharp or flat is no longer necessary. Standard electronic tuners are designed to tune notes at 440 Hz. Most tuners are set to this frequency by default but some give the option to adjust the frequency range.
The Problem of Guitar Tuner Batteries
I often advocate for everyone in the group to use the same tuner before performing together. This is because tuner A may have only 50% battery but tuner B may have just had a fresh battery put in. This will result in a slightly different response from each tuner, making the two instruments sound slightly out of tune even though the tuners indicate otherwise. If everyone uses the same tuner, you eliminate this problem.
Clip-On Vibration Style Guitar Tuners
Vibration style guitar tuners physically attach to the guitar, usually the headstock, and the vibration of the guitar itself is picked up by the tuner. There are many different brands of clip-on vibration style guitar tuners on the market. The following are my impressions of a variety of clip-on tuners I have tried and that I would recommend.
Snark Guitar Tuner
The Snark guitar tuner is probably the most popular and widely available guitar tuner currently on the market. The Snark tuner is cheap, convenient and effective. In my experience, it is a great tuner for most musical situations. The Snark guitar tuner uses a small 3V lithium battery and clips on to the headstock of your guitar.
Pros: Cheap and convenient, gives a solid tuning reading.
Cons: Not very durable, plastic parts susceptible to breakage. Short battery life under heavy use conditions.
TC Electronic Polytune Clip-On Guitar Tuner
For a more advanced alternative to the Snark tuner, try the Polytune clip on guitar tuner. While this guitar tuner comes in at a higher price point, it does offer more options and is probably the most visually appealing of all of the clip-on guitar tuners I have tried. The large color display makes for easy reading on the fly or in a live performance situation. The Polytune guitar tuner also offers the unique ability to tune all six guitar strings simultaneously.
Pros: Advanced guitar tuning options. Polytune feature allows simultaneous guitar string tuning. Durable housing, metal clamp. Clear, color display.
Cons: Expensive for a clip-on tuner.
Peterson StroboClip HD Clip-On Strobe Tuner
My preferred clip-on guitar tuner, the StroboClip offers higher degree of tuning accuracy at 1/1000th of a semitone or fret and a strobe tuner style display. It also offers many different instrument and capo settings. The StroboClip comes in at a higher price point but is a great choice for a higher quality version of the standard Snark style clip on guitar tuners.
Pros: More features than a Snark clip-on tuner. Greater tuning range and sensitivity.
Cons: Battery powered, plastic housing.
Direct Line Input Guitar Tuners
Direct input (D.I.) or line-in guitar tuners are the preferred tuner for live performance situations. Because the signal to the tuner is lined directly from your guitar to the tuner via quarter inch cable, the guitar tuner is not as susceptible to background noise which will always be a factor in a live performance environment. D.I. style guitar tuners can be in the form of a pedal that sits on the ground or a rack mount guitar tuner.
Guitar Tuner Pedals
Guitar tuning pedals come in many shapes and sizes and are generally designed to incorporate into a pedal board or as a stand-alone guitar tuner.
Pros: Consistent tuning reading, does not necessarily rely on battery power. Durable and long lasting.
Cons: Requires quarter inch cable connection. Large size, may not fit securely into a guitar case.
Rack-Mount Line-In Guitar Tuners
The largest, most solid option for consistent tuning and durability. The rack-mount style tuner is the best choice for the gigging professional with its large display and permanent, rack-mount housing that fits into a road case. When I was touring full time, this was my go-to option for tuning my guitar. I had my line going from my guitar into a volume pedal which then went to the tuner. I was able to turn my volume pedal down to tune my guitar and adjust the line level volume after tuning.
The Humble Tuning Fork
Given the almost universal use of electronic guitar tuners today, there are alternatives. Behold the humble tuning fork! It requires no batteries so it will always give you an accurate representation of the true frequency of a given note. Learn the lost art of tuning by ear with this tuning fork in the key of A!
Pros: A true and accurate representation of a given note. Does not require batteries.
Cons: Quiet and impractical. Not useful for live performance situations.