The Hunt for an accurate Tuner

So for years I have been fighting with guitar tuners.  I tune my guitar, the tuner says its in tune.  But it does not SOUND in tune.  I mean, its not completely out of tune, but there are subtle wobbles in the chords.  They are just not right

Now, if you’ve been playing for a while, you know that even a brand new guitar can benefit from a professional “Setup”.  And I used to even have my guitars setup twice a year!  Once in the Spring and once in the Fall, as the temperature and humidity levels changed.  So intonation was definitely not my problem.

I would tune my guitar with my “trusty” Boss TU-2 tuner, a staple on many a pedal board.  But if I put my Snark Clip On tuner on the headstock it would say I was flat!  What?!?  Ok, so tune the guitar up ever so slightly, then the Snark would say I was in tune and the Boss would say I was in tune.  But just one hair higher and now the Snark said I was in tune but the Boss said I was sharp.  AGH!!!

A few of the various tuners that we have used over the years at Arvada Guitar
The Arvada Guitar Tuner collection!

And its not as if I did not try other tuners.  In fact, I have burned through at least 10 over the years.  The Boss TU-2, a giant Intellitouch tuner, one of the first clip-ons, a newer Intellitouch PT10, a Snark, a Super Snark and a Snark Super-tight, a bizarre Planet Waves strobe tuner that you held over the strings – weird!, the tuner that is built into my very nice LR Baggs Venue preamp,  finally I tried the D’Addario PW-CT-12 NS Micro Headstock Tuner.  Heck!  I even used Tuning Forks!  THEY ALL SUCK!!!!!

Have you ever had this problem?  Let me explain to you why….

Why most (almost all) tuners suck

If your tuner uses LEDs to tell you how sharp, flat or in tune you are, your problem is right there.  Why?  Because tuners have “tolerances”.  That simple.

As I was investigating this problem I decided to write a couple tuner manufacturers to ask them about their Cent Tolerances for the LEDS.  If you don’t know, the term Cent is a gradation of tuning.  There are 100 Cents in every Minor Second, or Half-Step.  That means if you are 50 cents sharp, you are exactly between two notes on our 12 tone scale.  So the question is, exactly what is the tolerance of each LED in regard to Cents?

So I asked D’Addario about their PW-CT-12.  They wrote me back and told me that there was a +/- 2 cent tolerance with their LEDs.  So that means you could have one string that says its in tune but is -2 Cents flat, and another string that says its in tune but is actually +2 Cents sharp.  A difference of 4 cents.  Definitely not a lot, but to my ear, enough to make a difference.

So then I wrote Snark.  Here is what they sent me back: “We are very sorry we do not publish cent information. ”  Well, ok then!  Last time I ever use a Snark!

It was at this point that I began to think about the Tuner that I use in my Pro Tools rig.  Its a strobe tuner and it actually tells me exactly how many cents sharp or flat I am.  Why can’t there be a tuner that works like that??

The Ultimate Tuner

Well there is a tuner that works like that.  Well, almost*.  Ever heard of Peterson Tuners?  They make mechanical strobe tuners that range up to $4500!  Wow!  That is a LOT of money for a tuner.  But if you are working in mission critical situations where the tuning has to be exactly right, then that is what you need.  A strobe tuner.

A strobe tuner works by…. ok, yeah.  So I was going to try to explain it, but it’s so complex, I think I am going to have to refer you to this wikipedia article.    This video from Peterson explains it pretty well in just under 4 minutes. But here is the gist of the wiki article: “…As such, extremely fine tuning can be obtained, because the user can tune to a particular partial within a given note. This is impossible on regular needle, LCD or LED tuners. The strobe system is about 30 times more accurate than a quality electronic tuner, being accurate to 1/10 of a cent.”  Thats pretty much all I need to know.

Peterson StrobeStomp HD

So I finally bought myself my first Peterson tuner, the StroboStomp HD.  This thing is sweet. Very large, easy to read display.  You can even change the colors to suit your taste (mine is set to green, of course).  Tuner is very bright and very easy to read, even in sunlight.  (However!  I will let you know NOT to wear polarized sunglasses as the LCD display will appear completely blank to you.  This seriously freaked me out during my first gig with the StroboStomp.  Thought it was broken until I took my sunglasses off.  Whew!).

Peterson StroboClip HDWell, I fell in love with the StroboStomp so much that when I was finally ready to buy a new clip on tuner, I ponied up the dough and bought the StroboClip HD.  Now, I do believe that this is the most expensive Clip On tuner on the market.  While $69.99 really isn’t that much for tuning perfection, it really does feel weird when the closest competitor comes in at $53.49 and they work their way down to a mere $16.99.  But I don’t care.  I am tired of being “close, but no cigar” with my tuning.  I am telling you right now, I will never buy another tuner again.  It’s a Peterson Strobe or nothing.  Because not only is it the most accurate tuner on the market, but it gets even better!  Hang on….


“How do you make a guitar sound like James Taylor?”

So, I was reading an article by a famous Recording Engineer / Producer who was discussing how to get the best sounding tracks when recording.  He rhetorically asked the question: “How do you get a guitar to sound like James Taylor?”  The answer: “Hand a guitar to James Taylor.”  His point being, to record a great sounding track, it needs to be played by a great sounding player.

So it turns out Mr. Taylor has a website and even has some instructional videos on it!  One of those videos is about how he tunes his guitar, and let me tell you, its more than a little unorthodox.  But who is going to argue with the venerable Mr. James Taylor!  Not me.  Apparently, over the years, Sweet Baby James has figured out that he likes his guitar tuned as follows:  Hi E -3 Cents, B -6 Cents, G -4 Cents, D -8 Cents, A -10 Cents and Low E a whopping -12 Cents!  How weird is that?  Now, he does mention that he often uses a capo. And we all know that capos tend to pull strings sharp.  So that is definitely a factor for him.  But what I find odd is that the number of Cents flat is different for each string.  Interesting.

“Sweetened” Tunings on the Peterson Strobe

So I was already impressed with my tuning improvements the minute that I bought the StroboStomp HD for my pedal board for my electric guitar.  But it was when I bought my new Gibson SJ-200 and got the StroboClip HD that I was really blown away.  I had read about “sweetened” tunings for years.  Everybody (?) has heard of the Buzz Feiten Tuning System, right?  Well, Buzz compensates for intonation issues that are common on guitar by actually adjusting the Nut itself.  Buzz Feiten nuts are carved to different lengths just like the saddles on an electric guitar are set to different positions.  And so Buzz Feiten systems require a tuning that is slightly tweaked from normal.  A “sweetened” tuning, as they call it.  Well guess what Peterson Strobes have?  Sweetened tunings!  So I set my StroboClip to the Acoustic Guitar sweetened tuning and man!  Wow!  Every chord rings perfectly in tune with no wobbles.  Amazing.

And so then I set my StroboStomp to the Electric Guitar sweetened tuning.  Same result.  Awesomely intonated chords with no wobbles or weirdness.  I am so blown away.


Well, if it wasn’t already obvious, the conclusion is that a real strobe tuner will get you more in tune than any LED based tuner you have ever used.  I know Korg is great, but do you really need to tune all 6 strings at once?  And with that little 3 segment LED to tell you how out of tune you are, I am afraid to see what their LED segment tolerances are.

I will never buy another tuner besides a Peterson Strobe.  Not only does it get me better in tune straight out of the box than I have ever been in my 40+ years of playing, but it also includes a bazillion sweetened tuning for just about any instrument you might own.  Ukulele, Banjo, Dobro, Steel Guitar, Sitar, Oud, even orchestral instruments.

So why don’t you put your tuning in the hands of a company that has focused its entire existence on keeping you properly in tune for well over 50 years.  Buy a Peterson Strobe!  I guarantee you will not regret it! 

*Ok, so why did I say “Almost”?  Because the Peterson StroboStomp and StroboClip unfortunately do NOT tell you how many cents you are sharp or flat.  I have requested that they include this option in a future update.  I guess we will have to wait and see if they ever implement this awesome upgrade.