While it’s certainly possible to tune your guitar by ear, most guitarists will find having an electronic tuner to be convenient and helpful. Compared to tuning by ear, using an electronic tuner is a much simpler process.
It won’t do anything to develop your ear, so you should still learn to tune without one, but in performance and rehearsal situations they are invaluable, especially when you want to get tuned up as quick as possible because you are in between songs and an audience is waiting, or on stages where you might not be able to hear yourself that well, because you’ve got to tune up while another band is finishing their set or another instrument is being sound checked.
What kinds of electronic tuners are there?
There are a few different basic types of electronic tuner:
The most basic and often most inexpensive types of tuner are a handheld tuner. They often have built-in microphones, so that they can be used with acoustic guitars without a pickup. With an electric guitar it is better to just plug it in, especially if there is ambient noise.
A pedal tuner, also called a floor tuner, is made to sit by your feet with one cable taking the signal from your guitar to the tuner and another going from the tuner to your effects or amplifier. You step on it to turn on the tuner and stop the signal from going to your amplifier, and then step on it again. It allows for fast and silent tuning, which is handy during performances and rehearsals.
A rack tuner is made to fit in a rack case. For people that use rack amplifiers and rack effects these can be very handy. This is not something that many beginner guitarists will need to consider.
There are also tuners available in software form. They will need some sort of audio interface to bring the signal into the computer. These are useful if you are recording onto your computer.
Using an electronic tuner
As when tuning by ear, it’s better to tune a string up from slightly below pitch, and then tune it up, than it is to tune it from above, because if you just tune down from above then the string can get a little bit “caught” at the nut, only to slip later as it’s played, causing the string to be slightly flat. Play each string one at a time.
Don’t be too reliant on an electronic tuner
Developing your ear is a key step in learning guitar, and should be tackled early. Apart from that, there are times when your electronic tuner will, break or you’ll realise you just forgot to take it with you! You don’t want to be helpless in these situations, so develop your ear as well.