Ultimate Guide To
Guitar Tuners

The humble guitar tuner is one of the most essential pieces of gear that any guitarist can own. Though its function may be simple, the importance is incredibly high; and ensuring your guitar is in tune is paramount. Decades ago you would've had to use tuning forks, pitch pipes or have perfect pitch. 

But there are so many models available in a seemingly saturated market, so how do you find the right one for you? Well, this guide will highlight the key differences between common tuners, as well as explore your options at contrasting price-points.

While we’re at it, let’s target those tuner buzzwords, like: 'chromatic', 'frequency', 'strobe' and 'buffered vs. bypass'…

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Written by

Jed Van Wyngaardt

What does a Tuner do?

A guitar tuner is a device used to tune your instrument up to a specific pitch. The standardised frequency for modern music is 440Hz and this ensures that all instruments in an ensemble will be playing notes of the exact same frequency. This ensures that they sound ‘in-tune’ with each other.

So, the D note that you play on your guitar will be the same frequency as the D from the bassist, the keys player and anyone else that you're playing along with. This also means that the singer can pitch their voice to your instrument with ease.

Most modern guitar tuners are easy to use because they're visually represented by a needle that flickers back and forth against the backdrop of a small diagram, indicating whether you're in tune or not. These are easy to use, but not every tuner uses the needle system. See 'Strobe Tuners' below...

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Choosing your tuner

You'll have to consider a few options before finding the best tuner for you:

  1. Types of guitar tuner
  2. Popular brands
  3. Clip-on tuners
  4. Pedal tuners
  5. Alternatives
  6. Buffered vs true bypass
  7. Am I a...?
  8. Where does a tuner go in the signal chain?

Types of guitar tuner

There are loads of variations of tuner to choose from, all with their own positives and negatives. This guide will narrow down the best one for your needs, be it tuning at gigs, at home or extremely precisely in a studio. All tuners can be classified under the following umbrella categories:

  • Chromatic - The most common tuner. These can be found in microphone, clip-on and pedal formats. A chromatic tuner will allow you to tune to every note in the chromatic scale, which is all 12 notes between octaves. This is useful for alternative tunings as well – as long as you know which notes you’re after. Probably not the best choice for absolute beginners, but the most all-round for any guitarist with at least a small amount of understanding.
  • Polyphonic - A fairly new invention made by TC Electronic and adopted by Korg. These tuners, like the Polytune 2, allow you to play all your strings at once and easily recognize which strings are in or out of tune. They give you a holistic view of what your guitar's current tuning looks like at once. Obviously, you can only tune one string at a time unless you’re an octopus, but this allows you to see how tuning one string will affect the others by: strumming & tuning, then strumming and tuning again.
  • Strobe - The most accurate tuner available on the market. They tend to be more expensive, but the accuracy is almost always worth paying for. These are the go-to for guitar techs, producers and pro guitarists. A needle tuner uses a microprocessor to measure the average period of the waveform and convert that into an easy to read frequency. A strobe tuner generates a reference frequency and shows you the difference between that and the musical note. The screen then shows a rotating motion, even if there’s the slightest difference between the two.
  • Microphone - Uses an inbuilt microphone to pick up the frequency of the notes that you play. These are the least accurate, but will often just serve the purpose of helping you tune-up. These are not very useful live because you’ll often have background noise that’ll interfere when trying to tune. As far as home use goes, these used to be the cheapest most viable option however clip-on tuners have probably taken that spot. Most models will only show you how far off the strings are from standard EADGBe guitar tuning. They won’t include the semi-tones like Ab. Mostly an outdated type of tuner compared to other options. You'll find them in guitar starter packs or in a metronome. 

  • Korg They look the part and act it too. Offering a range of polyphonic and chromatic tuners, Korg arguably win the fight for brightest displays. The Pitchblack series also come in different shapes and sizes depending on the room you have to spare. Several pro guitarists use the Pitchblack pedal
  • Boss The kings of the tuner industry. They have one for every occasion, in every style. Cheap clip-ons like the TU-01, the midrange and most famous TU-3 and high-end with the TU-3W Waza. All chromatic and all excellently reliable. 
  • Peterson Top dogs in accuracy and price. They cost a bomb, but if you’re after strobe tuning, these guys created it. They make tuners available in rackmount, clip-on and pedal variations. The most recognisable being the pedalboard-friendly Stomp Classic.
  • TC Electronic Leaders in polyphonic tuning. They revolutionised the market with their tech. TC offer a number of excellent quality tuners like the Unitune and the Polytune in both clip-on and pedal forms. 

Clip-On Tuner

Clip-on tuners haven't been around for too long, but they have proven to be incredibly popular with modern guitarists because of their ergonomic and portable designs. You simply clip the tuner onto the headstock and it's sensors pick up the vibrations from the neck when you play an individual string.

These tuners can be fairly accurate, though cheaper clip-on tuners aren’t as good in loud and noisy environments. This is because the neck will pick up vibrations from other instruments, like bass and drums.

But for ease-of-use, it doesn’t get much better. Most guitarists opt to leave a clip-on tuner on their guitar at all times, even when keeping it in the case. This is so that you can take the guitar out, tune up, and rock on. They are quite unsightly though, especially if you have spent all your money on a beautiful looking guitar. It's kind of like putting a towbar on a Ferrari! Functional, yes, but not always the best-looking.

The Best Clip-On Guitar Tuners

  • TC Electronic PolyTune Clip Tuner - Despite being one of the more expensive clip-on tuners available, the PolyTune offers unmatched build quality along with its signature polyphonic tuning mode. This means that you can strum all of your open strings and the tuner identifies which strings are out of tune. Clever right?
  • Korg PitchClip Clip-On Guitar Tuner - Cheap and cheerful, the Korg PitchClip gives you legendary Korg design and reliability. As one of the most affordable guitar tuners around, this is perfect for beginners to seasoned pros alike.
  • Peterson StroboClip HD Tuner - No doubt the most trusted brand when it comes to guitar tuners, Peterson's products are renowned for their accuracy. As arguably the most sophisticated clip-on tuner around, the StroboClip HD is for the most fastidious of tuning nuts!

Pedal Tuner

The pedal tuner is the solution for the gigging guitarist. It makes it incredibly easy to tune in-between songs and you can simply engage the tuner by pressing the footswitch. Most pedal tuners have got bright screens so that you can easily see what pitch you’re going for in a dark environment.

This format is normally the most accurate of tuners, because the signal is sent directly from the pickups. The majority will also be true bypass, meaning the signal won't be altered or boosted.

A pedal tuner also has another handy function. It mutes your guitar signal completely and allows you to tune silently. It can be something of an art, learning to tune without actually hearing the instrument and just doing it visually. But after a bit of practice, you’ll get really good at it. It also means your audience won’t have to listen to you trying to get that B-string to pitch.

The Best Pedal Guitar Tuners

  • BOSS TU-3 Chromatic Tuner Pedal - The most popular tuner pedal ever made, the trusted BOSS TU-3 is an indestructable workhorse. Accurate and clear, this modestly-priced stompbox is still the industry standard.
  • TC Electronic PolyTune 3 Tuner Pedal - When TC Electronic launched their PolyTune range a few years back, it quickly became the main contender to dethrone BOSS' TU series. With its intelligent polyphonic mode, this 3rd iteration of the PolyTune now has a built-in buffer to ensure optimal signal strength.
  • D'Addario Pedal Tuner - The new kid on the block, the D'Addario pedal tuner is a tiny little unit that can easily fit onto any pedalboard. With a super-clear display and a 32-bit chip, this tuner can analyse and readout your tuning quicker than anything else on the market.

App Tuner

These days, pretty much everyone uses a smartphone and as you can imagine, the processing power far outweighs that of a humble microphone tuner. However, the microphone on your phone hasn't necessarily been optimised to pick up guitar frequencies.

There are plenty of good apps available for smart phones that’ll do the trick for basic home use. We wouldn’t recommend these as a pro solution because in a live situation the tuner will pick up a lot of interference. But out and about when you've inevitably forgotten your clip-on tuner, these are a great alternative. Why not check out the Boss TU-3 app or TC Electronic Polytune app?

Handheld and Desktop Tuners

These types of tuners usually contains microphones so you can keep them close by, but out of your pedal chain and off the headstock of your guitar. Many of these are made by the likes of Boss, Roland and Korg. They also usually have an in-built metronome, so act as a two-in-one handy box. Perfectly fine for home use where background noise it at a minimum.

Rack Tuners

A rack tuner does exactly what it says on the tin. At first it may seem nonsensical to have such a large piece of kit when a small stompbox will do. But in most cases, rack tuners have loads more features such as selectable alternate tunings to follow, a huge interface/display and calibration options.

Most will also come as part of a multi-effects rack processor, so will have loads more than just the tuner. The likes of Korg's KDM2 can be hooked up to your pedalboard easily and is super clear to see what you're doing. Peterson's VS-R Strobo is one of the most accurate and powerful tuners around. They do have their benefits. 

Acoustic Tuners

Obviously, you can use either clip-on or pedal tuners (if you have an electro-acoustic). But there are a few tuners out there built specifically for acoustics. These are fitted to the soundhole, where, as the name tells you, the sound is emitted.

These are discreet unlike the rather unsightly headstock tuners and offer an extremely close tuning because they are placed directly next to the sound source. It's also possible to tune with this whilst you're playing something as you don't get distracted looking up at the headstock. 

Buffered vs. True Bypass

True Bypass

  • This means your tone isn’t boosted at all on the other side of the pedal. So, it’s the truest reflection of your guitar tone on either side of the pedal. However, the more true bypass pedals you have in your signal chain, the higher the fidelity (resistance) which incurs signal loss. Which we don’t want.
  • A true bypass pedal will simply allow the signal to flow through.

Buffered Bypass

  • This will boost your signal ever so slightly. Almost like a push through the pedal rather than just allowing the signal to flow through. This isn’t to be confused with a boost for a guitar solo etc. The difference will be so minor, that you’ll hardly notice it – if at all.

Which tuner? I am a...

Home guitarist

Microphone or clip-on will be just fine for this application. The easier, the better. Just remember to tune up before you start playing!

Guitar Tech

You'll need the most accurate tuner available which will be a strobe tuner of some sort.

Gigging Guitarist

The easiest to use would be a pedal tuner. This will be the most accurate when there’s background noise and will also mute your guitar sound so that you can tune silently.

You can also use a clip tuner however, the background noise or low-end vibrations will probably resonate through your guitar neck, affecting accuracy.

Guitar Teacher

A clip-on tuner would probably be the easiest to use with your students. You can clip your guitar tuner on your headstock, tune up, and then easily pass the tuner to your students.

A microphone tuner will also do the trick. Though, it does mean you'll need the guitars amplified - if they're electric guitars of course.

Recording Guitarist

It goes without saying that a recording guitarist will need a highly accurately tuned guitar in order to get the best sound. A high-quality strobe tuner or pedal tuner will do the trick.

Acoustic Guitarist

Playing the acoustic guitar live means you'll probably want a pedal tuner to mute the signal whilst tuning. If it's just at home, then a clip-on tuner or microphone will both work fine.

Bassist

Bass players use the same tuners as guitar players. All of the above will apply to bassists too. This means you want a Strobe for accuracy, clip-on for ease of use or pedal tuner for live use.

Drummer

You're in the wrong place OR you need a Drum Tuner OR you need your guitarist to shut up while you're tuning your drums!

Shark

No, that's 'Tuna' you're after. Try your local supermarket.

Where does a Tuner go in the signal chain?

So you’ve bought yourself a tuner and want it on your pedalboard. Well, the answer to this question is probably easier than it would be with any other pedal. Your tuner goes first in your pedal chain. All the time. Every time.

If you want the most accurate tuning possible, then you need your signal to be the strongest it can be so that the tuner can measure exactly what’s happening with your strings. Putting other pedals before the tuner will create impedance and weaken the signal which means you might not get the most accurate reading.

Unless you have a Tuner Out on your switcher or volume pedal – The tuner out will take your pedal out of the signal chain so that when it’s not in use, it won’t be detracting from your signal. This is handy for purists or tone hounds who really want the most out of their setup.

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