If you are buying a new electric or acoustic-electric guitar, you may have noticed many options out there. Some even include a built-in tuner. But what is that, exactly?
A built-in tuner on guitar is an electronic chromatic tuner installed on the guitar’s side or headstock. To use it, pluck one string at a time and check the display. Then, turn the corresponding tuning key depending on how sharp or flat the pitch is. The LED will confirm once each string is in tune.
Read on to learn more about built-in tuners and how to tune your instrument.
How To Tune a Guitar
Before I explain what built-in tuners are and how they work, let’s review how to tune a guitar.
Guitar strings change pitch as their tension changes. The guitar player tightens and loosens the strings using the tuning keys to adjust the instrument correctly. Turning the key away from you tightens the string and raises the pitch. Conversely, turning the key towards you loosens the string and lowers the pitch.
One can tune a guitar to match multiple desired scales. However, the most common is standard tuning. There are six strings on a guitar, numbered 1 through six in descending order. In standard tuning, when played open, strings 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 should correspond to the pitches E, A, D, G, B, and E, respectively. For example, when you play the bottom string without pressing down any frets, you should hear E.
There are a couple of different ways one can accomplish standard tuning:
With a Chromatic or Pitch Tuner
Chromatic tuning is considered the most reliable. There are smart apps that perform this function and electronic chromatic tuners you can purchase separately. Chromatic tuners hear the note you are playing and tell you how close you are to the desired tuned pitch. On the other hand, pitch tuners (i.e., pitch pipes or tuning forks) playback the desired pitch, so you hear how close you are.
Without a Pitch Tuner (or to Itself)
This method is handy when you have no tuner available or are looking for a quick, decent fix. When tuning to yourself, you tune open strings to match the pitch of fretted notes. The order is as follows:
- Hold down the fifth fret on the sixth string. This note is a fretted A on the E string. Tune the open fifth string, or A string, to match the pitch of the fretted A.
- Tune your open D string to the fifth fret of the A string.
- Tune your open G string to the fifth fret of the D string.
- Tune your open B string to the fourth fret of the G string.
- Tune your open E strings to the fifth fret of the B string.
In this case, all of the open strings will be at the correct pitch interval from each other.
To a Keyboard
Tuning a guitar to a keyboard is like tuning it to a pitch tuner. In this case, you would tune the low E string to two octaves below middle C. From there, you either tune the guitar to itself or the corresponding keys going up the keyboard.
What Is a Built-In Tuner?
Remember when we talked about chromatic tuners? I mentioned how the tuner hears the string’s pitch and tells you how close it is to the desired tuning pitch. Built-in tuners are chromatic tuners that are built-in to guitars and guitar accessories. These are electronic tuners found on some electric and electric-acoustic guitars, guitar software, and pedal boxes, to name a few.
Electronic tuners have changed drastically since their proliferation in the 1980s. The earliest models had dials that displayed pitch based on the sound picked up from a microphone. However, this could leave room for error depending on the sounds of the surrounding environment.
However, as electronic tuners evolved, the technology relied more on reading sound waves. For example, electric guitarists had tuners mounted to their pedal or board. Since stage levels were too loud for a microphone to discern the sound, these tuners read the electrical signals from the guitar’s pickup. Eventually, click-on pickups were developed for acoustic guitars, allowing them to benefit from the same technology once plugged into a tuner.
Alongside these developments came advancements in the display. Electronic tuners initially relied on analog VU meters to measure and display pitch. However, with the introduction of digital technology, LEDs replaced them.
Eventually, vibration sensors were packaged into the same housing as these LEDs and attached to a spring-clip. These miniaturized devices are what we know as clip-on tuners. Clip-on tuners are standard today for pros and beginners alike.
How To Use a Built-In Tuner
If you have used an electronic tuner before, acclimating yourself to a built-in tuner will feel familiar. Like any electronic tuner, built-in tuners pick up vibrations from the guitar strings and tell you how much you need to adjust the tuning key.
Displays can vary with built-in tuners. Some models may rely on a simple light indicator, like this Chellee Guitar with a built-in chromatic tuner, as shown in this video:
Most built-in tuners have an LED display that looks similar to this:
You probably noticed that this display looks like the kind you would find on a standard clip-on tuner:
Here is a step-by-step breakdown of how to tune a guitar with a built-in tuner:
- Turn on the tuner: You will find the built-in tuner on the guitar’s side or headstock. The on/off button should be near the display. Move the button or switch to the ‘on’ position. Sometimes a built-in tuner requires an additional power supply, like batteries. Check your guitar’s manual to verify this information. In this case, look for a battery door located close to the tuner display. The display screen should light up once the tuner is on.
- Play a string, then refer to the display: If you have worked with an electronic tuner before, this part will be easy. Pluck the sixth string, E, first, then check the display. The LED will tell you how close you are to the note and whether it is sharp or flat. Turn the corresponding tuner key towards you if the pitch is too high and away from you if it is too low. Continue this process until the display confirms that you are on-pitch.
- Continue the process string by string: It is vital to play and tune your guitar one string at a time. Start with the lowest string, then work your way up. Remembering the six notes of standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, E) is essential. After you have finished tuning, you may want to fine-tune the strings one more time since tuning the higher strings may throw the lower ones slightly out of tune.
- Turn off the tuner: Use the same on/off button or switch to shut off the tuner. If your tuner relies on an additional power source, like batteries, this will help preserve battery life. Some built-in tuners have a sleep setting that shuts off the tuner after three minutes without use. However, the sleep setting may not work if you play the guitar immediately after tuning it.
In short, a built-in guitar tuner is very similar to a standard electronic tuner and runs the same way.
As long as you know how to tune a guitar with an electronic tuner, transitioning to a built-in tuner is a no-brainer.
However, studying basic music theory and ear training will help you understand what to listen for while tuning if you are still at a loss.