Photo by mhx
In the grand scheme of things, digital tuners are arguably the most important musical invention of our time. Sure, electric guitars and amplifiers are cool and all, but it doesn’t matter how great your instrument sounds if you can’t manage to tune it. Try listening to a beginner violin player sometime and you’ll get what we mean.
But the question is: what makes a great guitar tuner? If you’ve ever been curious as to what you should look for in a guitar tuner you’ve come to the right place! This article will explain the ins-and-outs of tuners, as well giving you some great recommendations!
- What Does A Guitar Tuner Do?
- How To Properly Tune Your Guitar
- What Should You Look For In A Guitar Tuner?
- Headstock Clip-On vs. Pedal
- How Did We Choose The Winners?
- 5 Best Guitar Tuners
What Does A Guitar Tuner Do?
Though the actual process can be a bit technical, a guitar tuner simply compares the pitch of a single note you play (or several at once in the case of a polyphonic tuner) from your guitar or bass to the reference pitch stored in the tuner, generally A440.
There are also certain types of tuners which boast an increased utility. A good example would be the aforementioned polyphonic tuner, which allows players to easily check the pitch of all the strings on their instrument. A more controversial example would be the “Robo-Tuners” like what you’d see on some 2015 Gibson models.
How To Properly Tune Your Guitar
If you’re going to get a good tuner, it’s worth learning the most proper way to tune your guitar, which will lead to the best results. It’s hard to believe but even some veteran guitarists don’t know these guidelines, since tuning a guitar is not something that’s typically formally taught!
- Mute the strings that are not being tuned by resting your fingers on them. Multiple notes ringing at the the same time will generate sympathetic vibrations, which can throw off even the best tuners.
- If you’re tuning an electric guitar, do so using the pickup closest to the neck, and turn up the volume on that pickup to maximum. You should also back off the tone control to give the clearest signal to the tuner.
- Pluck your string with the side of your thumb instead of a pick.
- Try not to hold on to the tuning peg the entire time.
What Should You Look For In A Guitar Tuner?
It’s both good and frustrating that there are hundreds of tuners out there to choose from. At this point even the cheaper manufacturers and no-name Asian imports have models that will do an acceptable job.
However, for a piece of gear that you use this much, you really should invest in a tuner that’s going to be consistently reliable and accurate. We like to think of it like a good pillow or mattress; They’re not exactly the most thrilling purchases to make, but you end up using them so often, that you will be doing yourself a disservice in the long run if you skimp on quality. Here are a variety of reasons why a guitar tuner pedal is a very worthwhile purchase, and some things to look out for:
- Most amps don’t have built in tuners, and even those that do are not the most accurate. If you’re even thinking of starting to put together a pedalboard, there’s no question that you should start with a solid tuner pedal.
- You can use a tuner to mute your guitar signal. Most tuner pedals will mute the output when the pedal is engaged, so your audience and bandmates don’t have to listen to you tuning up. Muting the output is also handy if you need to switch instruments.
- Some tuner pedals are much more accurate than others. Accuracy is typically measured in cents, so you’ll see things like “+/- 1 cent,” or “+/- 0.1 cents.” The smaller that number is, the greater the accuracy.
- Display brightness matters! While most tuner pedal manufacturers tend to not reinvent the wheel when it comes to showing you how close your notes are to the correct pitch, displays do tend to vary in size and brightness. The best guitar tuners will let you adjust brightness (or automatically adjust) to remain visible even in harsh lighting conditions.
- Keep in mind the power and battery life. Most tuners that are not “mini” or “compact” format can be powered using a battery. If you care about this option, make sure to read about the battery life. If you opt for a pedal tuner as opposed to a headstock clip-on, you can add it to your pedal power supply/daisy-chain and never have to worry about battery life.
- Many tuner pedals can power other pedals. In addition to a power input jack, they include a power output so that you can daisy-chain other pedals. You’ll of course need to take care that the combined current draw of the pedals doesn’t exceed what’s available.
Headstock Clip-On vs. Pedal
When you start your search for the best guitar tuner, you’re going to see two different options. There are headstock clip-on tuners as well as pedal tuners.
Headstock clip-on tuners are clipped onto the headstock of your guitar, and they read the pitch of your instrument based on the vibrations that transfer there when you play.
Pedal tuners work with electric instruments, and read the pitch of your instrument based on the signal that comes from your electronics.
Both of these options have their unique pros and cons. Pedal tuners are great live because of their durability. They are discreet and will mute the signal of your instrument when activated. Pedal tuners are generally more sophisticated and more accurate. However, they only work with electric instruments, take up space on the floor or pedalboard, they’re pricier, and you have to deal with more cables (both power and instrument).
Clip-on tuners are great if you mainly play acoustic instruments, but they can be a bit cumbersome to use live. They’re best for “quick and easy” tuning, like if you play casually around your house. They tend to not be quite as accurate as their pedal counterparts, and they’re more easily lost/misplaced and tend to break more easily.
Our list of the 5 best guitar tuners includes four pedal tuners, and one clip-on model.
How Did We Choose The Winners?
Tuners are easy to come by, and pretty much every manufacturer has one. We did the hard work for you and sorted through the staggering amount of tuners on the market to see which the most recommended and best reviewed ones are. That led us to a top 5 list, and we tried all 5 for ourselves before writing up our reviews.
And like every buying guide we do, it’s important to explain what “best” means in this context. More expensive tuners are generally more accurate and reliable, but that doesn’t do you much good if you can’t justify the expense. Luckily, the tuners that emerged from researching the most recommended ones span a variety of price ranges, and we denote both our picks for the best overall, and best value for the money.
5 Best Guitar Tuners
So without much further ado, here are the best guitar tuners!
TC Electronic PolyTune 2
It would appear that the crown that belonged to the Boss TU-2 for a long time now belongs to a new tuner pedal - the TC Electronic PolyTune 2. According to our research, this is the most recommended tuner pedal available today. TC Electronic took their successful v1 of the PolyTune and made it even better. Let’s face it, tuner pedals are relatively simple. After seeing how highly praised this one is, we thought, “What could possibly make a tuner that much better?” Well as it turns out, quite a few things. Unlike your fancy new delay pedal or amp, your tuner is one of those things that you wants to spend as little time as is necessary using. The TC Electronic PolyTune 2 lets you tune up extremely quickly and accurately. Let’s dig in.
The PolyTune 2 is a nicely sized stompbox; not so big to take up precious pedalboard space, but not so small that you’ll struggle to see the display. It’s also built very well and is definitely road-worthy, as evidenced by the many big names that take this pedal with them on tour. There is a soft-click footswitch to turn it on and off, which is really nice since it gets rid of that jarring and loud click that some pedal footswitches have. The footswitch is true bypass, so your tone remains completely unaffected when the PolyTune 2 is off (when engaged it mutes your signal so nobody has to listen to you tune up). On the left and right sides of the pedal you have your guitar cable input and output. On the rear of the pedal is a jack for a 9V DC power supply (not included), and also a power output which allows you to use the PolyTune 2 to daisy-chain and power other pedals (current draw on whichever other pedals you daisy chain cannot exceed 2000 mA). Also on the rear of the pedal is a micro USB port, for firmware updates from TC Electronic. This is one of those “above and beyond” features we love, not because it’s critically important, but it just shows TC Electronic wants to make updates and improvements available to guitarists who make the investment in this pedal. Finally, the rear of the pedal has two small buttons labeled tuning and display which switch the tuner into different modes. In case you want to power the PolyTune 2 using a 9V battery, the battery compartment underneath the pedal is very easy to access; Simply use your guitar pick to unscrew the one single screw.
We’ve established the pedal looks and feels good, but the big question remains - how well does it tune? Well, the answer is extremely well. The display button on the back of the pedal cycles through guitar needle, guitar strobe, bass needle, and bass strobe. The inclusion of a strobe tuner is great for touring pros and if you need hyper accuracy (+/- 0.1 Cent tuning accuracy to be exact). One of the best things about the PolyTune 2 is the Tuning Magnet, which means that as you get close to the correct pitch, the needle is really steady, unlike some tuners where the needle bounces around all over the place when you’re close to pitch, which leads to frustration. In our testing, with this feature alone we were able to tune noticeably quicker. The small tuning switch on the back cycles through various tuning modes, from standard, to capo (first through seventh fret), to drop tunings. The display is very bright and easy to read. It’s comprised of over 100 LEDs, and an ambient light sensor adjusts the brightness so you can read it really well regardless if you’re outside in the bright sun, or inside a dimly lit club.
The “special feature” with the TC Electronic PolyTune 2 is PolyTune mode, which is automatically engaged when you strum all your strings at once. It analyzes all of them simultaneously, and on the display lets you know which of your strings are sharp, flat, or right on the mark. This feature sounds pretty fantastic, but in practice it simply works okay. Most users of the PolyTune agree that it gets you in the ballpark of accurate tuning, but tuning individual strings is the way to go for the greatest accuracy. We wouldn’t go as far as to call it a gimmick since there are times when it works well, but the feature still seems like it has some maturing to do.
Bottom Line: TC Electronic makes some very solid pedals, and their PolyTune 2 is best-in-class. It looks and feels good, is true bypass, can power a few other pedals via daisy-chaining, has an extremely accurate strobe tuner mode, supports a variety of drop and capo tunings, has a very bright and legible display under various conditions, and tuning with it just feels crisp, swift, and accurate. The polyphonic feature isn’t great, but your milage may vary with it. The price is also pretty fantastic, coming in under the Boss tuner. All in all, the PolyTune 2 is our winner for Best of the Best.
A very close contender for the best tuner pedal crown is the Korg Pitchblack Chromatic Tuner. It doesn’t have the polyphonic tuning mode of the TC Electronic PolyTune, but this is an extremely accurate and easy to use tuner, and the price is unbelievably low for a pedal of this quality.
The Korg Pitchblack looks really rugged, and its aluminum case looks and feels indestructible. The only plastic component is the battery door on the back of the pedal. A footswitch on the front of this stompbox turns it on and off, and the switch is true bypass which is a plus in our book. The left and right sides of the pedal have a ¼” jack for your instrument cable. On the back of the pedal you’ll find a 9V DC jack (power supply not included), and a 9V DC output jack to daisy-chain a few pedals and power them using the Pitchblack. If you use the power output, keep in mind the total current consumption for the connected pedals should not exceed 200 mA (significantly less than the PolyTune’s 2000 mA), which should be enough to power a couple of pedals. Also on the rear of the pedal are small DISPLAY and CALIB buttons, which give you a few different ways to use the Pitchblack.
Tuning with the Korg Pitchblack is extremely easy and straightforward. Plug your instrument in, and the output is muted so your audience won’t hear you tune (this means you can also use this pedal as a killswitch). The DISPLAY button on the back of the unit cycles through 4 modes: Full Strobe, Half Strobe, Meter & Mirror. Nothing changes in terms of accuracy, these only alter the way the display helps you get to the right pitch. Most users (us included) prefer the primary/default mode, as it seems the other modes are not all that helpful. Detection accuracy is +/-1 cent, so not quite the same accuracy as the PolyTune 2 in strobe mode. Still, unless you are a touring pro using this to intonate your guitars, you won’t notice a difference. The tuning process is very crisp, with horizontal yellow arrows showing you if you’re sharp or flat, and red and green vertical bars showing you how close you’re getting to pitch. It’s nice and smooth and not jumpy, just like the TC Electronic PolyTune. And speaking of switching between display modes, the pedal’s display is big and bright. No matter the lighting conditions, you’ll be able to see it clearly. We actually prefer the Pitchblack’s display to the PolyTune’s. The other button at your disposal is CALIB, which lets you adjust calibration from 436 Hz to 445 Hz. One small inconvenience is that when you unplug the pedal its settings reset, which is slightly annoying if you gig frequently.
Bottom Line: The Korg Pitchblack is a pretty great guitar tuner pedal. The TC Electronic PolyTune 2 has slightly more features including polyphonic tuning, and support for capo and drop tunings. The Pitchblack is more no-frills, and while on paper its accuracy is not quite as good as the PolyTune, in practice it works perfectly and tuning up with it is a pleasure. Perhaps the biggest thing it has going for it is that the Korg Pitchblack is the cheapest reputable tuner pedal you can buy. If you can live without the few extra features of the PolyTune 2, save some cash and get yourself the Pitchblack. These are just some of the touring pros that used the Korg Pitchblack on their pedalboard at some point: Gary Clark Jr, Alex Trimble, Nick Valensi, Sam Halliday, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert (who says it’s the “easiest to read and most accurate tuner I've used”), Troy Van Leeuwen.
Boss pedal tuners are what most people think of when tuner pedals are brought up. In 1998 Boss released the TU-2, which ended up being the top selling tuner of all time. With legendary Boss reliability and several different tuning modes for guitar and bass, the Boss TU-3 does everything the TU-2 did, only slightly better!
The pedal’s build quality and form factor is classic Boss. We could go on and on, but popular opinion is that this is one of the most durable, dependable, tour-worthy pedals money can buy. It’s a typical Boss stompbox, and as such you just press down on the black rubber portion to turn it on/off. It has a ¼” input for your instrument on one side, and two outputs on the other: OUTPUT and BYPASS. When you engage the TU-3, the OUTPUT is muted, so you can tune without everyone hearing you. The BYPASS output does not get muted, and in fact you can use this pedal as a splitter to send your signal to two different places (two amps for instance). The TU-3 requires a 9V DC power supply (or a 9V battery), and it also has a power output to supply power for up to seven Boss compact pedals which you can daisy-chain to it (maximum current draw being 200 mA or 500 mA, depending on which adaptor you use). Two small buttons below the pedal’s display control its various functions - a STREAM/CENT button, and a MODE button.
The Boss TU-3 will get you all tuned up with no issues, no matter if you’re playing guitar or bass, are using various tunings, or have a 7 string guitar or 6 string bass. The display is a 21-segment LED, for which you can adjust the brightness in case you’re in harsh lighting and need to see it better. As you’re tuning and get closer to pitch, the display will indicate that with yellow arrows and red and green markers on the display. The STREAM/CENT button lets you switch between CENT which is more the standard “get close to the center” mode, or STREAM where the LED lights “flow” more slowly as you get closer to pitch. People generally seem to prefer the CENT mode, since it’s more familiar. The MODE button lets you switch between Chromatic, Chromatic flat, Guitar, Guitar flat, Bass, and Bass flat modes. There are plenty of options and versatility for various types of guitars and tuning. When a note you’re tuning hits the mark, the TU-3 has an Accu-Pitch Sign function which gives you a nice visual cue that tuning is complete. When you’re trying to quickly tune up, that serves as a nice indicator. The tuning accuracy is the +/-1 cent, same as the Korg Pitchblack, and not quite as accurate as the PolyTune 2 in strobe mode.
The Boss TU-3 is not true bypass, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand true bypass is desirable since you’re guaranteed your tone remains unaltered when the pedal is off. On the other hand, you can use the Boss TU-3 as a buffer at the beginning of your chain, which is basically a way to electronically strengthen your somewhat weak high-impedance guitar signal. This can fix some tone degradation (a.k.a. the dreaded “tone-suck”) issues if you’re sending your signal over long cable lengths.
Bottom Line: The Boss TU-2 is a classic “can’t go wrong” tuner pedal, and the TU-3 improved on that design. This is an extremely dependable guitar tuner, and is found on more pro pedalboards than any other pedal in history. It’s a little more expensive than the TC Electronic PolyTune 2, and about double the price of the Korg Pitchblack. If you have an affinity for Boss pedals or just want to go with the tried-and-true guitar tuner option, pick up a TU-3. We own both the TU-2 and TU-3, and we prefer the TC Electronic PolyTune 2 slightly more since it’s just as tough, we like the display slightly more, and the ability to have +/- 0.1 Cent accuracy is very appealing.
Thus far we’ve covered only guitar tuner pedals. There is a whole other category of guitar tuners known as “clip-on,” which are small devices you clip onto the headstock of your guitar or bass, and work based on your instrument’s vibrations. The most recommended brand of clip-on tuner is Snark, and the Snark SN-8 model in particular is one of the best.
The Snark SN-8 is dead simple. It’s essentially a small display attached to a clip, and has a button to turn it on and off. There’s nothing to plug in, and it operates on a small CR2032 battery. It has a few interesting extra features like a built-in tap-tempo metronome to help you practice, and transpose and pitch-calibration functions to accommodate alternate tunings.
The Snark SN-8 (or any clip-on tuner for that matter) is the way to go if you’re a more casual guitar player, don’t really care to spend $50+ on a tuner pedal, and can tolerate a small degree of inaccuracy. We’re unable to find the exact specs, but people have mentioned the Snark tunes to +/- 5 cent accuracy, which is not quite as precise as pedal tuners with +/- 1. When testing this against something like the PolyTune 2, occasionally the Snark SN-8 reports a string is in tune whereas the PolyTune might say it’s slightly sharp or flat. Still, rest assured the SN-8 is accurate enough to get you through a practice session or gig.
Bottom Line: Our recommendation is to pick up a Snark SN-8 if all you do is play your guitar, bass, or other instrument occasionally at home. You might not need an entire pedal and everything that comes with it (a guitar cable, power supply, etc.). With the Snark, you simply clip it on, play your strings, watch the display and tune up. However, don’t be dissuaded from using it if you’re a more serious player or play gigs. We were surprised at the number of reviewers claiming this is the best tuner they’ve ever had. You might have to tolerate a small degree of inaccuracy here and there, and the Snark is not exactly the most durable piece of gear out there (if you drop it you could easily step on it and break it). Still, it works well, it’s very responsive, the display is nice and bright, and for how inexpensive it is you could use it as a backup to the tuner on your pedalboard. Best Bang for your Buck.
UPDATED August 2016: There’s an updated version of this tuner called the Snark ST-8. We haven’t gotten a chance to test it yet, and the Amazon reviews are still rolling in. However, we trust that Snark improved upon the SN-8, and with a device as utilitarian as a tuner we would generally go with the newest available version.
Sonic Research Turbo Tuner ST-300
You can think of the Sonic Research Turbo Tuner ST-300 as the boutique option when it comes to guitar tuners. It’s billed as a “true stroboscope” tuner, it’s made in the USA, it’s not very widely available, and it’s extremely accurate. Just to get the terminology straight, a mechanical strobe tuner works when the input guitar signal drives a strobe light, which illuminates a rotating disk. When the frequency of the guitar signal matches the speed of the rotating disk, the rotating pattern will appear to stand still which means the tuning of that note is spot-on. A strobe tuner shows even the slightest discrepancy between the note you’re playing and the reference frequency, so it’s more accurate than a needle-type tuner. The ST-300 does not have any moving parts, so there’s no actual rotating disk.
The Turbo Tuner ST-300 looks and feels fairly rugged and utilitarian. It doesn’t have the visual polish that a TC Electronic PolyTune does, but clearly the focus with this pedal is more on usability. The pedal has an MXR-style die-cast aluminum housing and true bypass footswitch. You have a ¼” IN on one side and OUT on the other, with the output being muted when the tuner is operating. On the back of the pedal you have a jack for a 9V DC power supply (not included), and a power output to daisy-chain other pedals and power them. There is also a micro USB port so you can customize tunings on your computer. You can of course opt to power the ST-300 with a 9V battery, and the note display will show you a low battery warning when you’re running low. On the face of the pedal are two small buttons to alter the modes of operation, CAL and FLAT.
Accuracy is the name of the game with the Sonic Research Turbo Tuner ST-300, and you get +/- .02 cents accuracy which is phenomenal and about as good as you can get for a pedal tuner. The display is nice and bright, and you should have little trouble reading it even under extreme conditions. As you play a note, the LED pattern rotates to the right if you are sharp, and left if you are flat. When the pattern is stationary, you are in tune. Most guitarists are more comfortable with the “off from center” needle-type tuning display, so if you opt for this pedal the strobe-style display might take a little getting used to. You can use the CAL button to change the A4/440.0 Hz reference frequency. This tuner is extremely customizable, and has support for multiple temperaments (equal, just, Pythagorean) and alternate tunings (chromatic, drop D, DADGAD, open A, open D, bass, bass drop D, 5 string bass, violin, cello, and more). Making adjustments to the settings might take you a little time, as you have to press the mode buttons as the pedal is powering up, and remember the correct sequence of button presses. The good thing is that once you set it up based on your needs, it remembers your settings after you power it off and back on again. One final observation is that this tuner is fast. You can play a fast lick, and the notes will immediately appear on the screen with zero lag. It’s pretty fascinating to see this in action.
Bottom Line: The Sonic Research Turbo Tuner ST-300 is probably the most accurate tuner you can buy in pedal form, due to it being a true stroboscope. It’s $30-40 pricier than the Boss TU-3, putting it firmly outside of “budget pedal” range. Still, if nothing but the most accurate will do, and you can live with the ST-300’s utilitarian aesthetic and you don’t mind not having a needle-type tuner, this seems to be the one to get. If you want to get your hands on one, you can order one straight from the manufacturer’s website.
What guitar tuner do you use? If you have any experiences, opinions, questions, or personal anecdotes that you’d like to share feel free to tell us all about it in the comments section below!