A tuner is essential regardless of your playing style – here’s a guide to the different guitar tuners available
When learning to play, it’s easy to get disheartened when you strum a chord and it all sounds a bit, well, wrong. Though this is sometimes because of incorrect technique, it is more often because the guitar is not in tune.
A guitar tuner is an essential item, particularly when taking those first steps, as you need to know that when your playing doesn’t sound right it’s because of you, not because of your instrument.
There is a huge range of different guitar tuners available, so to help simplify things, here we present a guide to the different types.
Chromatic tuners versus non-chromatic tuners
The first area of potential confusion is the term ‘chromatic tuner’. You’ll see this on a lot of tuners, but not others. What does this mean?
Basically, a non-chromatic guitar tuner is designed only to tune a guitar in conventional EADGBE tuning. This means that when you play, say, a low E, the tuner should recognise that you are trying to tune this string and indicate how sharp or flat the string is in relation to the note E.
A chromatic tuner will show tuning relative to the nearest semi-tone (i.e. the nearest note in the chromatic scale). This means that you can use a chromatic tuner to tune to alternate guitar tunings, or tune instruments other than a guitar.
If you are only ever going to tune to standard guitar tuning, then a non-chromatic tuner will be fine (and can be a little bit cheaper).
A chromatic tuner is far more flexible, however.
The most common guitar tuners are the compact, ‘box’ type that have a built in microphone for tuning acoustic guitars, and a jack input to plug in and tune electric guitars.
A clip-on tuner works in a slightly different way. It has a contact microphone built-in. This detects very low-level vibrations. The clip-on tuner is clipped on (bet you didn’t guess that… ;-)) to a guitar headstock (electric or acoustic), and it detects string pitch from the vibrations through the guitar.
The advantages of clip-on tuner designs are that they tend to be very small and convenient, and they can tune accurately in noisy environments without needing to plug in with a jack- perfect if you’re playing an acoustic guitar.
Whereas clip-on guitar tuners are perhaps slightly more useful to acoustic guitar players, pedal tuners are geared towards those guitarists who play electric or electro acoustic guitars through amplifiers.
These are built into a chassis that is much like a guitar effects pedal, have no built-in microphone and rely on the player to plug the guitar directly into it with a jack cable.
In addition to a jack input, a pedal tuner has a jack output. This is so that the player can have it permanently connected into a pedal-board and tune just by switching it on when needed. When switched off, the signal will pass straight through to the amp.
As these are designed primarily with gig situations in mind, they usually have bright displays, making them easy to use on dark stages.
Polyphonic tuners are a relatively new development in the guitar world. The technology was pioneered first by TC Electronics with its Polytune pedal.
Whereas stand guitar tuners allow the user to tune a guitar one string a time, a polyphonic tuner allows the player to strum the open strings and see the individual tuning of every string at the same time.
The advantage of this is that is a single strum will identify where any tuning problems lie, without having to play every string.
There are other less common types of tuner, such as rack tuners for example (these are basically 19” rack sized tuners, designed to be housed in a rack guitar gear for gigging guitarists to transport their whole rig in one protective case), but the above covers most of the key types.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.