Understanding Guitar Setup

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Tuners and Tuning Musical Instruments

For intonation work, or even for determining the need for intonation work, it is important to be able to measure the cents-off when comparing any two notes.  An electronic tuner will only give you a rough measurement of cents-off , but a strobe or virtual strobe tuner can provide an accurate measurement.  (Note: a real strobe tuner has actual moving parts, whereas a virtual strobe tuner uses electronics and/or software to display a strobe pattern from an audio input.)  Here is a tutorial video on strobe tuners.

Although strobe and virtual strobe tuners will measure to 1/10 cent accuracy, you cannot tune your guitar that accurately.  A reading to within 1/2 cent accuracy is very good.  Overall Intonation work to 2 cents accuracy is good, but strive for within 1 cent.  Everyday tuning is practical to within 1 cent or 1/2 cent.

Be also aware that, when plucked, the pitch will momentarily go high (attack) and then die down lower (decay).  Normally, it's best to read the tuner after the attack has died down, but not too long into decay.  Someone who normally plays very fast may want to tune into the attack.  I find it best to pick the string near the 12th fret, at regular intervals of a little faster than one per second.  Depending on the tuner, you  get faster, clearer readings by changing from chromatic mode to an instrument mode or to a particular note. 


Virtual Strobe Tuners

There are a few electronic tuners that have a strobe type of display capability, but are not strobe tuners - but the strobe display is still an aid in everyday tuning.

In the past, I have produced excellent results using chromatic electronic tuners for intonation work, but it takes a lot of patience and re-testing.  There is no need for that now.  Even software strobe tuners are much more accurate, and some are free as celphone aps.  If you don't have a strobe tuner with  cents adjustment, use a software strobe tuner for intonation work (see Software Tuners, below).  

Beware: Tuner manufacturers claim very good "internal" or "detection" accuracy, but that means very little.  The important feature would be "display" accuracy, but nobody ever specifies that!  For older popular types, If you turn on the tuner and carefully hold it sideways to the light, you can see that the LCD tracks for displaying the readings are only at every 2 or 2 1/ 2 cents apart.  This can still be OK for tuning though, because the guitar reading actually wavers over a range of about 2 cents.  If you can keep it on the mark for a few seconds, the reading will be pretty accurate.

Most clip-on tuners have 2 1/2 cents between the indicators.  I haven't tried many, but I know that the Snark Tuners and the Sabine clip-on tuners are 2 1/2 cents, except for the "Super Tight" (see below).


Clip-on Tuners

Beware the accuracy of clip-on tuners, especially. Online reviews are mostly based on ease and speed of use, rather than actual accuracy.  Ironically, the least accurate ones are sometimes easiest to use!  Check to make sure that the difference between the LCD tracks is not more than 2 1/2 cents.

Though I could tune pretty accurately to a note, I found the electronic tuners to be quite inconsistent with each other on cents-off readings.  So, you can only get a rough idea of how far off your intonation is from one note to another.

For inexpensive bench tuning, find a larger one with 2 cents between the marks, such as the Boss TU-80 or another in the Boss TU Series.  There should also be several similar in the Korg lineup.

Another type of electronic tuners has LCD indicators typically 10 cents apart.  They are able to give more precise readings, by simultaneously illuminating adjacent LCD's when the pitch is off.  The pitch is correct only when the green LED is the only one on.

I found the Snark Super Tight Tuner to be the best clip-on that I had ever owned!  It uses LED's that are 10 cents apart, but along with the steady green lite, the adjacent LED's don't go out until you're dead on.  And, it costs so little!   The Snark is the only one of this type that I have tried, but, judging from illustrations, there are various others tuners that use this type of principle, including stomp tuners.

I just recently got a Korg Sledgehammer Chromatic, and I couldn't be more pleased! Though it is technically not a strobe tuner, it has a strobe display option which I always use.  It really helps to see the lines moving to the right or left until you're smack in tune - and it's very tight! Using this gives me a real good appreciation of the value of the strobe display option available for a long time on the Korg Pitchblack tuners (which I have never used).  

This is an example of a very poor tuner: I bought a Gogo clip-on tuner online, and found that the LED tracks were 5 cents apart, rather than 2 1/2!  Not only that, I checked it with a software strobe, and found that the mid-point of "in-tune" readings varied by more than 2 cents from one string to another. That allowed tuning errors of more than 5 cents! In my opinion this tuner is worthless, even though it is a pretty orange color, and it has some nice functional features!  (Please let me know if you find any others like this.)  

Software Strobe Tuners

It is important to note that the accuracy of any software tuner pitch is dependent upon the reference frequency of your sound card.  Notebook sound cards are especially prone to be a bit off pitch, so check the pitch of the tuner with a tuning fork or your best tuner, and adjust accordingly.   My desktop computer is just .02 cents off, but my notebook is 11 cents sharp.   Adjust the cents as needed.  Many of the software tuners have abundant functionality, including tuning offsets.

Peterson offers Strobosoft.  Lots of features for sweetened tunings, temperaments, intonation mode, spectrum analysis, etc.  Also, there is a mobile Ap from Peterson priced at under $10.  (I haven't tried it yet.)

The TB Strobe Tuner software features a circular strobe display, and is very accurate.  It enables tuning calibration adjustments in cents, so you can accurately measure the difference between two notes (see below).  In addition to equal temperament, it  provides a list of scale selections for a variety of instruments, DADGAD, Drop D, etc (but does not provide for temperaments nor tuning offsets).  You can set a specific note to test, or use the automatic chromatic mode, or others.  It works best in an instrument mode, or by selecting particular notes (with a little practice, this goes quickly). This program is great, very accurate and very inexpensive at $4.90!  This is my choice for both convenience and accuracy!

The Seventh String Tuner by Seventh String Limited, which can produce strobe-like accuracy. It's free to use.

You can run it on the internet or download it to your computer.  It is very sensitive, and features automatic cancellation of background noise.  The tuning indicator will drive you crazy, because it is not damped and it jumps around a lot, especially with acoustic guitars.  But, it also has horizontally moving bars that are damped.  You can get an accurate reading by tuning until the bars don’t drift much left or right.

The AP Tuner, by Joseph Broms, provides a high degree of accuracy.  It displays the note and cents-off, making it really easy to determine the intonation difference of two notes.  It also has nice extra features, including tuning offsets and tone graphing.  AP Tuner is shareware, $35, but you can evaluate it as long as you want.

The tuner registers cents-off in real time, but freezes when the note amplitude drops below the sensing threshold, so adjust the slider at the left at a little below your normal note volume, so it stops recording before too much decay.  This results in a fairly consistent measurement.

Precision Strobe Tuner, available on playstore and itunes. It seems to be extremely capable. The there is a free demo version with full functionality, but it makes you spend at least 1 minute (as I recall) reading the instructions every time you run it.  The full version is $5 (big deal). 

Stroboscopic Tuner, available on playstore and itunes.  A round red display, rated highly - I havent used it except for regular tuning.

Tuner Time, Ap available on playstore and itunes, is quite interesting.  Instead of a circular format, it draws a horizontal band when in tune, also displaying bands for 3 overtones.  I find it quick and easy changing notes, octaves, and cents adjustment.  It also has a FFT spectrum analysis function.   Just beginning to test it on my classical guitar.

Plenty More There are lots and lots of tuner aps - tuners with strobe functionality don't always indicate that in their title, and the highest rated aps are not all stroboscopic, so one could spend weeks researching!


Measuring the Intonation Difference Between Two Notes 

To compare two notes for intonation, tune the first note, and then play the second note.  Adjust the calibration cents on the tuner until the display stabilizes (in tune).  The cents difference error between the two notes is equal to the cents that you have just adjusted to.

With the AP Tuner (and perhaps others) The cents-off is displayed, so after tuning the first note, you can directly read the cents off of the second note, however, cents-off displays tend to move very quickly (that's why they are usually not shown).

Now, the above sounds quite simple, but remember that you can't tune a guitar as accurately as the tuner's capability.  So, to get the most accuracy, after tuning the first note, you must experiment with the tuners cents-off +/- control to get the best in-tune display.  Record this cents value and then go to the second note and also zero onto it using the cents-off control.  The pitch error will be the second reading minus the first, but remember to be careful with the signs, both could be either plus (sharp) or minus (flat).


Cents1 = 3, cents2 = 7.    Compute pitch2 error = 7 - 3 = 4¢ sharp  (easy peasy).

Cents1 = -2, cents2 = 6.   Compute pitch2 error = 6 - (-2) = 8¢ sharp.

Cents1 = 1, cents2 = -3.   Compute pitch2 error = -3 -1  = 4¢ flat.

Cents1 = -4, cents2 =-2.   Compute pitch2 error = -2 - (-4) = 2¢ sharp.


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