“Okay, let’s tune up!” This is usually the first thing I say to kick off a guitar lesson. It is also what I would say between line checks or during a stage reset to remind the musicians to keep everything sounding on point. After all, it only takes one small bump, change in atmosphere, or exaggerated string bend to knock a guitar or bass out of tune.
I often say that buying a tuner was the most boring purchase I ever made, but it was the most important. If that guitar is not in tune, no amount of reverb, distortion, or wah is ever going fix it and I will sound terrible forever. When I used to tell new students that their assignment for next week was to get some spare strings and a tuner, I got a look that said, “Yeah okay, buddy…” and was greeted the following week by an out-of-tune pupil with a broken string.
Do I Need A Guitar Tuner?
Unequivocally yes. If you are going to play the guitar, you must have a tuner. There really is no way around it and if you bought your guitar without getting a tuner as well, you will find out very quickly that you are dead in the water. Different situations call for different tuners, but most hobbyist guitar students only need a basic tuner as opposed to a $100 pedal tuner or rackmount tuner.
But, it is really necessary to drop even just $25 on a handheld tuner? Or should you get a tuner app for $2.50? Heck, most tuner apps can be had for free. A tuner app is a must-have for any guitar player and while I don’t think it exactly replaces a handheld tuner, it comes close.
Can You Tune A Guitar With Your Phone?
I laughed a little just now. tt feels silly to type that question out as a sub-heading because it’s a question my 72-year-old Dad would ask with his eyes squinted as though he were looking into the sun. I think we all know our smartphones are capable of tuning a guitar, but how good of a job do they do?
A guitar tuner app hears the notes of a guitar the same way a digital handheld tuner does, only the microphones of many phones are not designed with this use in mind. It’s debatable how accurate apps are versus digital or electric tuners, but technology is advancing constantly. Many apps are plus or minus 1 cent. A cent is essentially 1/100th of a fret. A good pedal tuner will be +/- 0.1 cent while rack tuners will be even more accurate.
A smart device may also experience latency issues with the tuner, meaning you will have to turn the tuner a little bit and wait for the note to register. This is another issue that is getting better with time and advancement. The point is to not let these downsides bother you too much. Just understand that they exist, work around them, and just wait for the next tech update.
The big advantage an app has over its standalone counterpart is the extra features that come with an app. A tuner app could have extras such as a metronome, help with alternate tunings, a chord library, guitar maintenance tips, and more. Let’s see your $20 Korg tuner from Guitar Center do that!
Here are some great tuner apps to check out for yourself.
BOSS – free – iOS, Google Play
This is the app version of the industry-standard BOSS TU-3 pedal tuner. It has many of the bells and whistles of the pedal, but with a few extras. Instrument-specific settings, a chromatic option (which is the setting I typically use), an audible pitch reference, and a newsfeed with the latest gear news from BOSS. It may not be quite as accurate as the pedal at +/- 1 cent.
If you are the type of person who never ever likes to pay for an app, then don’t stray too far from this one. BOSS (parent company: Roland) has been in the game for a long time. This is essentially the interface of the pedal and does its job like an old reliable truck.
Cadenza – $1.99 –iOS only
Cadenza is a combination tuner/metronome with the ability to sequence the metronome to change tempo and time signatures. This is also a very fast-responding tuner with a response latency of less than 1 millisecond. The user interface is very intuitive and easy to navigate, like pretty much anything that works with Apple.
If you are brand spanking new at the guitar with no idea of how to use a tuner or a metronome, a user guide is included to help you. Cadenza has other resources out there as well to help you on your musical journey, so that is another rabbit to chase if you so choose.
Airyware – $5 – iOS, Google Play
This is a beast of an app. It has settings for 400+ instruments and a library of 900+ different tunings. It can be calibrated in case you don’t want to tune your guitar to the standard A=440Hz. I think AC/DC tuned to something like 430Hz. It has a huge range which makes sense given that it can tune pretty much an instrument under the sun.
The cool thing about this tuner is the Denoise setting which helps to cancel out background noise so as not to interfere with your tuning if you are in a noisy space. This was my bug with tuning apps for a long time, but as I mentioned at the start, just give technology a few updates and all shall be well.
Of course, in order for this feature to work properly, you can’t pluck the strings too quietly. You can’t pluck a string too hard either otherwise, it will register a hair sharp. Find the balance.
The app starts as a free trial, so give it a shot and see how you like it. It’s most certainly worth the $5 which, may I remind you, is ¼ of the cost of the typical digital tuner/metronome combo. And all those do is tune and click!
iStroboSoft – $9.99 – iOS, Google Play
This is the Daddy of the tuner apps. It has features out the wazoo, not the least of which is the Assisted Low Note Detection which increases sensitivity to low frequencies. If you’ve ever messed with a tuner and found it difficult to tune your low E string or drop-tune to a low D, then you know what I’m talking about. It’s like some tuners just have a hard time “hearing” those lower notes.
It also has a noise filter, many different modes, and incredible accuracy. At $10, it’s a little high for the market, but again, compare it to a typical tuner. It has the accuracy of a pedal tuner, but with vast customization at a tenth of the cost. High price for an app (and even more money to spend on add-ons), but it’s high value.
Strobe tuners tend to be the more accurate of the “flesh and blood” tuners, and they just look cool. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? Yeah, we guitar players like cool lights and shiny treasures.
What Is The Most Accurate Tuner App?
Tuner apps have come a long way in a short span and they will continue to get better. The most accurate tuning apps right now are sitting at an impressive +/-0.1 cent, which is 1/1000 of a fret. It won’t be long before they get more accurate. However, the accuracy that is boasted by these apps does depend on your hardware, so you probably aren’t getting these numbers with an iPhone 4 or early Motorola.
The newer the device, the better you will be able to take advantage of the lower latencies and accurate tuning.
That said, two of the apps on this list have the 0.1 cent accuracy – the iStroboSoft for Apple and the Airyware for Andriod. More and more tuners are catching up and this is quickly becoming the standard. All that’s left is to decide which one you like best.
I think it’s cool that these apps are actually making having a tuner fun. I spent $100 on a pedal tuner on multiple occasions and “fun” is not a word I would use for that. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and I need it for the sake of practicality when I’m “in the field”, but it just doesn’t do anything for me. It’s a necessary evil like buying a car battery. At least these apps have fun features to help with practice and creativity, not just the tuning tool.
Newer players will benefit most from the more basic (and still quite accurate) tuners from BOSS and other freebies. The big boys have extra features that you don’t really need at this time, nor will you know exactly what to do with them. So start small and free, and go from there!