Tuning – (Part 2)

Welcome back,

It’s The Guitar Head.

Last week we started a series on tuning.  We talked about what “tuning a guitar” is and briefly touched on the best ways to do it.

We left off discussing what it actually means to tune your guitar to proper standard tuning, and also briefly touched on how using a guitar tuner is easier and more accurate than the several manual methods you could use.

Trust me on this one, people…using a tuner is an absolute must.  Especially when you are a beginner.  Your “ear” (that is, your sense of hearing notes and sensing when something is radically wrong and is approaching critical-stage-4-nuclear-type-destruction) hasn’t had the chance to develop yet.  Heck, even the pros use them, right?

Now that we have a good understanding of what this tuning-stuff is all about (I’d suggest re-reading last week’s post, just in case), let’s move on to discussing the best methods and tools to use to get your tuning as accurate as possible.

Electronic Guitar Tuners

To briefly recap from last week, a guitar tuner is a device that will automatically detect the frequency of a vibrating string, and translate that info to show roughly what note you are trying to play.

There are several types of tuners, each with its own pros and cons.

Headstock tuners

Well…this one should be a little obvious…

They call it a “headstock tuner” because it mounts…you guessed it…to the headstock!

(No, this isn’t an advertisement or an endorsement for Snark tuners.  The picture just looked cool!)

Headstock tuners clip right on without any permanent mounting.  They measure the frequency of a string through the vibrations that resonate through the guitar, through the tuner clip mount and into the tuner itself.  That’s where all of the magic happens.

Looking at the picture you can see the name of the note you are trying to play (this would be a D note or your open 4th string).  The range to the left shows when you are flat, and to the right depicts when the note is sharp.  That nifty little arrow that’s directly over the letter “D”?  That pops up when your string is exactly tuned to the proper frequency to produce a D note at concert pitch.

While they are handy and extremely portable, they can tend to fall off if you keep them on while playing like a madman…

Headstock tuners can be used with either acoustic or electric guitars, but you may typically see them more used with acoustics.  Why, you ask?  Let’s just say that most (not all) electric players like to keep things at their feet.

Which brings us to…

Pedal tuners

With a pedal tuner, you don’t have to worry about clipping that thing on your headstock, forgetting about it, and having it get thrown halfway across the venue when you are doing your best rock star moves.

You ARE doing rock star moves on stage right?  You have to…that’s all part of playing the guitar! J

Pedal tuners are intended to be an integral part of your signal chain.  They are connected by the guitar cable that typically goes right from your guitar into your amp.  If you are using a pedal tuner, the cord from your guitar goes into the tuner, then you have another cord that goes to the amp (or on to another pedal; tuners are usually one of the first parts of a guitarist’s pedal board).

They determine the frequency in somewhat of a different way than with a headstock tuner.  They don’t measure vibrations through the guitar body (since they aren’t actually mounted to your guitar).  The method they use is by analyzing the frequency of the electrical signal that is coming out of your guitar’s pickups.

One big benefit of pedal tuners is that they typically mute any signal output when they are in use.  That means you can tune-up without any sound coming through your amp.  That’s kind of a big deal…I’m pretty sure no one in the audience will want to hear you tuning up!

(I’m digressing a little bit here, but it’s in the same vein – most multi-effects pedals on the market today also include a tuner as a feature.)

Pedal tuners are very handy to have and I’d recommend them as your first choice, simply because of the amount of accuracy and flexibility they offer.

Stand-alone tuner

One option that was very popular in the past with beginners was to get a stand-alone tuner, similar to the one in the picture below:

These types of tuners do have some functionality and certainly better than nothing, but given a choice, I’d recommend a pedal or headstock tuner first.

These units typically have two ways to acquire the signal:  through a guitar cord or by using an internal microphone that’s built into the unit.  While using a guitar chord is a great method, these units aren’t intended for live use where they are an integrated part of your signal chain.  Whenever I’ve used them I’ve had to tune up, then disconnect to plug back into my amp.  Not very efficient if you need to tune on the fly.

The internal microphone method works OK, but it is prone to picking up the background noise.  That’s fine if you are in a quiet place like your bedroom, but not so much if you’re in a noisy environment.

Mobile Apps

Yeah…there’s an app for that…

There’s a ton of free apps out there (for both iOS and Android) that will help you tune.  From my experience, these are just “OK”.  They use the microphone on the phone itself as the signal input and that’s not always the most robust way to do it.  I mean – really – it’s not like you can plug your ¼” cord into your iPhone!

Since the phone microphone may be somewhat limiting, your results may vary greatly.  I’ve found that the signal jumps around a lot and it’s hard to get consistent and even signal.

Some of these apps offer a function where they will actually sound out true reference notes for each string.  That’s great – but only if your ear is developed enough to be able to tell if notes are sharp or flat.  When you’re just starting out that can be kind of tough, believe it or not.  I’ve encountered beginners that simply could not tell, between two notes that were relatively close to each other, which one was higher than the other.

So, your mileage may vary.  Still, you can’t typically beat the price!


There’s no question that, if you want to tune quickly and accurately, an electronic tuner is a way to go.  But I’ll tell you something – the guitar has been around for a heck of a lot longer than tuner technology has.

There are several manual methods that you can use to tune, and that’s what we will be going over in next week’s installment of this series – we’ll be sending it out like clockwork so keep your eyes glued to your inbox.

Until next time – peace out!

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  • Kadhja Bonet
    Looks like I need to buy myself another Pi and get to work building a stomp box. :)
  • Kadhja Bonet
    Looks like I need to buy myself another Pi and get to work building a stomp box. :)

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