The Buyer's Guide to Clip-On Tuners
No matter what level of musicianship we are at, the first thing we should always be sure of before we even play a note is to make sure we are in tune. Some people rely on their ear to tune their instrument but unless you have perfect pitch (and damn you if you do! - we are very jealous) it’s always best to use a digital tuner of some description. No matter how accomplished a guitar player we are, if you we're out of tune, everything else goes out of the window.
Clip-On tuners are a hugely convenient tool that everybody should have. They all will essentially do the same job, but they all have unique features that may make one more suited to your needs than another.
What was a relatively new invention a few years back, is now very much the norm - it seems that every musical accessories company make their own version of the clip on tuner.
So why are they so popular?
They are relatively inexpensive (a good clip on tuner will set you back around £20) which is not a huge price to pay for something so important. And, because they are relatively cheap, some players insist on having one on every guitar.
- Powered by a small watch battery so no external power needed.
- They transfer easily from one guitar to another
- Light and compact so can fit into your guitar case.
- No need to plug it in which makes them particularly useful for acoustic guitars that don’t have a jack socket so cannot use a plug-in tuner. Gone are the days of having to hold a table-top tuner up to your strings so that the built-in mic can pick up the pitch; and not to mention that they'll pick up any other instruments around you if you are in a noisy environment! Now you just clip one of these little numbers on your guitar and away you go. They may seem like a gimmick but they are in fact very accurate.
The screen size can vary quite a bit between different models. If your eyes aren’t that great we’d always recommend going for something with a slightly bigger and brighter display. Most of the clip-on tuners nowadays have a big, bright colour display which changes colour depending on whether you are sharp, flat or in tune. Most also use a simple bar system which from flat to sharp (left to right) across the screen and will also change colour depending on what pitch the string sits at. The colour screen is certainly worth going for as it allows you to see at a glance whether the string is in tune.
It’s worth considering where you will be using the tuner. If you’re just going to be using the tuner at home, chances are you won’t need to worry too much about brightness however, if you’re going to be using the tuner out in gigs it’s worth ensuring you go for a tuner with a brighter display. To be honest most of the tuners are fitted with a well back-lit display as they are not only designed for home use but also to be visible on a dimly lit stage or club too.
One noticeable difference in the clip on tuners available today is the flexibility you have in changing the position of the display screen. Depending on their individual design, some offer greater flexibility than others so it’s worth considering exactly whereabouts on your guitars headstock you will be putting the tuner. Some headstocks are smaller than others and may only have one potential area the tuner can clip on. If that’s the case, it might be a spot where the tuner may not be easily visible so worth considering going for a tuner where the screen can be easily angled for optimum visibility (the last thing you’ll want to do is crane your neck trying to see the tuner). Many tuners nowadays offer a 360 degree rotation making them suitable no matter where you clip the tuner.
In a similar vain to the above, it’s worth thinking about exactly how the tuner clips onto the guitar. Most tuners will clip on (a bit like a peg) whereas others such as the Planet Waves Micro Tuner slide on the headstock from the side. Again, whichever tuner you choose it’s worth bearing in mind where the headstock will accommodate the tuner to ensure you can take advantage of it’s maximum tuning potential.
What instrument the tuner is going on?
As mentioned before it’s worth considering what instrument the tuner is going on as you need to ensure the clip will fit in a convenient spot, otherwise you do risk not being able to see the screen or whether the tuner will be fixed in a position where it can effectively pick up the vibrations.
If you are tuning an instrument other than a guitar consider whether the tuner will be able to register the pitch of the notes in the range of your instrument. Although most tuners will be chromatic and pick up all pitches fairly easily some, like Snark tuners have specific tuners for different instruments which are designed to hone in on specific frequency ranges. So it is worth noting that some of the tuners may struggle to pick up the Low-E on a bass guitar due to the register (i.e. don't go for the Mandolin & Ukulele version)!
The Snark tuners also have a pitch calibration button which allows a player to choose a different tuning reference other than concert A=440Hz.
Although all clip-on tuners are light and highly portable, some are larger than others. As a result some are small enough that they can stay on your guitar all the time, whereas others will have to be taken off, particularly if you need to put your guitar in its case or gig bag when you’ve finished.
For example, the Planet Waves Micro Tuner is our smallest clip on tuner, it sits tucked behind the headstock and is something that is designed to stay on the guitar most of the time. In comparison, the Snark is an example of a slightly larger tuner and may have to removed before putting it in your case or gig bag, otherwise it risks being crushed.
When it comes to tuning, accuracy is king and the name of the game. The better tuners on the market will be the most reliable, fast and stable.
The faster tuners will have the least time lag between striking the note on your guitar and the pitch registering on the tuner's display. Likewise the most stable tuners will register the pitch and maintain the note displayed and not jump about to other notes. For example, with some cheaper tuners you can find that you can be looking to tune an A note then all of a sudden the screen jumps to D and then back to A. All this can be a little confusing so finding a tuner that holds the tuning stability far easier is always desirable.
Most of the time you just want a tuner to do its sole function and do it well. However, some clip-on tuners do have some additional functions that may be of interest. For example, some of the tuners in the Snark range feature a visual metronome (no click or beep unfortunately) and a transpose feature for players who use a capo… for instance.
Hopefully that gives you some insight into the world of clip-in tuners and now you'll have an idea of what you're after.