Whether you’re performing on-stage, or just practicing at home through your headphones…
The first step after picking up your guitar has always been the same…
You gotta get in-tune.
While purists might argue that it’s better to tune by ear (and I’d mostly agree)…
In the real world, there are a million-and-one situations when tuners are simply more practical.
Which is why it’s always smart to keep one close-by.
However…with so many styles to choose from, finding the ideal tuner for your circumstance is a challenging task.
So to help you out, I’ve created the following guide explaining each of the different options, and how they compare.
First, let’s start with a brief history lesson…
The “Original” Instrument Tuners
Back in 1936, the Conn company released the first commercially successful instrument tuner known as the Stroboconn.
Using a technology now known as “strobe tuning” this machine offered incredibly accurate pitch measurement…
By comparing the notes to an internal reference frequency using a series of light flickers and a rotating disk.
And while the original Stroboconns are now mainly collector’s items…the same basic technology is still used in the most accurate strobe tuners of today.
Like this one for example:
Of course, strobe tuners such as these aren’t ideal for guitar players, because they’re large, expensive, and require regular maintenance. But for a long time, there were no other options.
Luckily for us, today there are plenty…
The 8 Categories of Guitar Tuners
Starting in the late 70’s/early 80’s, digital technology made it possible to measure pitch with a microprocessor and display the readings on an LED/LCD screen.
This opened up a whole new world of possibilities, which allowed for a ton of new guitar tuner designs that were cheaper and more practical for daily-use.
Over the next 3 decades, these are the 8 that became most popular:
1. Handheld Tuners
In 1975, the next major advancement in guitar tuner technology came with arrival of the Korg W10.
While they weren’t nearly as accurate as strobe tuners…they were accurate enough…
And they became extremely popular because they were smaller, cheaper, and more convenient to use.
Many copycats followed soon after, and this new category of “handheld tuners” became the industry standard for guitar players, both electric and acoustic.
- For electric guitars, there was a standard 1/4″ jack connection.
- For acoustic guitars, there was a built-in microphone…which made it possible to tune other instruments as well.
Today, there are tons of options for handheld tuners. Simpler models are extremely affordable, while the pricier options offer a range of premium features such as:
- chromatic tuning
- instrument presets
- tempered tuning
Currently, here are the top 4 models I recommend:
- Korg Tuners
- BOSS TU-12EX – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)
- GUITARX X7 – (Amazon)
- Peterson Stroboplus HD – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
Despite all the benefits of handheld tuners…
Their biggest flaw is that they’re ineffective in loud environments…
Where many background noises are competing.
The solution to this problem finally came in 1995, when the first “clip-on tuner” known as the Intellitouch PT1 was invented.
This tuner worked by clipping to the guitar’s headstock, and measuring pitch with a contact microphone that sensed vibrations from the wood.
Many more clip-on tuners soon followed, and today this style of tuner is perhaps the most popular of all designs, especially for acoustic guitar.
The top models I recommend are:
- Snark SN
- Korg Clip – (Amazon)
- Intellitouch P10 – (Amazon/GuitarC)
- Intelli IMT500 – (Amazon)
- D’Addario NS – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusicianF)
- Peterson Stroboclip – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- D’Addario Clip-On – (Amazon)
3. Pedal Tuners
When pedal effects first began growing in popularity…
It was only a matter of time before someone made one into a guitar tuner.
The obvious advantage of this design was that it allowed players to instantly tune-up on-stage without plugging-in to a separate channel.
While they’re not usually as “feature-rich” as some of the previous tuners we’ve seen, that’s ok because they’re not meant to be.
Because with these, “quick-n-easy” is the primary concern.
Of course, the actual features vary significantly between models, so I suggest checking them all out…
Currently, these are the top 4 I recommend:
- Boss TU-3 – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Snark SN-10S – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)
- Digitech Hardwire HT-6 – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusicianF)
- Peterson VSS-C Strobostomp – (Amazon)
4. Polyphonic Tuners
Polyphonic tuners are the new breed of pedal tuners that allow you tune all 6 strings of your guitar in a single strum.
The original version, the TC Electronics Polytune, quickly became popular because it was a huge time-saver, especially on-stage.
Since then, it has been replaced by the followed two updated versions.
- the Polytune 3 – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- the Polytune Mini 3 – (Amazon/B&H/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
It offers 12 separate strobe displays for each chromatic note, allowing you to observe each of the fundamentals and overtones of the most complex chords.
Typically, it’s only used by technicians for commercial purposes to tune complex musical instruments. And while you’ll probably never need one, it’s still cool to know that such a machine exists.
5. Rack Tuners
While pedal tuners were an effective solution to on-stage tuning for most guitar players…
They didn’t make sense for those who mainly used rack gear.
So in this case, a “rack tuner” was the obvious solution.
As a HUGE side-benefit, the extra large 19″ casing allowed for more sophisticated hardware…and a ton of advanced features.
They also provided an ideal solution for recording studios, since they offered multiple ins/outs, and could be easily incorporated into the most complex setups.
Currently, these are the top models I recommend:
6. Sound Hole Tuners
For acoustic guitar players, the problem with handheld and clip-on tuners is…
They’re just one more accessory to keep track of.
And since musicians are sometimes less-than-responsible…there was clearly a demand for a better tool.
To solve this problem, sound hole tuners were eventually invented, which allowed players to permanently mount a tuner inside the guitar body.
Some of the better models even allowed for silent tuning, which is perfect in loud environments.
Currently, these are two of the top models:
7. App Tuners
These days, you can do almost anything with a smartphone app.
And guitar tuning is no exception.
But while there are tons of different tuning apps available…
Guys who tried them well tell you…most aren’t very good.
Many people speculate that because the mics on smartphones are designed for speech (not music), the problem with these app tuners has more to do with the hardware than the software.
However…according to many reviews, there are a few exceptions out there which are still pretty damn great.
The top 3 I recommend are:
8. Virtual Tuners
Back in 2008 before app tuners ever existed…
The Peterson Company invented the first computer-based virtual strobe tuner known as the StroboSoft.
In one sense, this new strobe technology was less sophisticated than a standard mechanical strobe because it could not pick up harmonic partials.
But in a larger sense, it was superior because…
- It took up zero space.
- It required zero maintenance.
- It allowed for way more presets and options.
And it’s the perfect solution for recording studios, because it offers a single source to get every instrument tuned in-sync.
And you even have the option to use it either as stand-alone software, or a plugin within your DAW.
So if much of your music is made on a computer, you might wanna check it out: