When it’s time to tune up your axe there are plenty of ways to get the job done, like using a tuning fork, a physical electronic tuner – or a smartphone app.
Whether you are new to playing guitar or more experienced, there are plenty of choices when it comes to tuners, some free and some that cost money. The idea of using a free app sounds great – but how good are they really?
Tuning up in a quiet room or studio are easier places to tune your guitar than a band room or noisy venue, and using a tuning app can be a great option in those quieter situations.
Are app guitar tuners very accurate?
Smartphone microphones are constantly improving, so guitar tuner apps have improved in accuracy also. Tuning Apps are usually accurate within 2-3 cents when tuning up in a quiet environment (the human ear can only detect pitch changes of 5-6 cents). Plugging an external microphone into a smartphone makes apps even more accurate.
Let’s take a closer look at the accuracy of smartphone apps and compare them to physical tuners, and paid options vs going the free route.
We’ll also take a look at the best apps for alternate tunings, like the commonly used ‘Drop D’ tuning, and some of the best apps you can use for free.
App Tuners Compared to Clip-On and Plug-In Tuners
When it comes to free guitar tuners you can’t beat free apps for your smartphone.
Last time I looked on the google play store there were over 230 free guitar tuner apps available, so many you could spend a few months road-testing them all!
Some are called ‘professional’ some are ‘ultimate’ and there’s choices of graphs, dials, strobes, the list goes on and on.
They all have a free version with limited features, and offer extra features for just a few dollars.
Quite often the features provided on the free versions are all you really need, but you may have to put up with a bit of advertising on the screen.
These are maybe considered a bit old school by many, and are used mainly by working bands as a reliable way to tune guitars in noisy environments.
They range in price from a few dollars on ebay up to hundreds of dollars for pedal-type tuners and professional rack-mounted units.
The new kid on the block, you see them everywhere now, even on the big stage.
They do a great of tuning up quickly, and you can leave them clipped on while you are playing for a quick re-tune.
How Do Apps, Clip-Ons, and Plug-In Tuners Compare?
Surprisingly, smartphone apps do a really good job of tuning your guitar …but there’s a catch (we’ll get to that).
I’ve tried over 34 apps on multiple cell phones and can assure you they all perform the same, regardless of the app developer or the claims of being the best tuner.
The main thing that should concern you when you’re looking at which app to use is whether the interface seems easy to use, and the tuning result is easy to read.
Most people don’t need strobe-tuner apps, as they try to be so accurate you’ll spend more time trying to tune your guitar perfectly than playing it.
One problem with microphone-based tuners (which apps are), is that they pick up sounds outside of your guitar like cars going by, dogs barking, and your mother yelling out that dinner is ready.
So if you live in a noisy area you might have a bit more trouble tuning up with a phone app, but they still work really well even with some normal background noise.
When it comes to comparing apps to clip on tuners and plug-in tuners, it’s interesting to find that they do pretty much the same job, and give great tuning results.
I’ve compared plenty of apps side-by-side with other tuners, and always seem to get results accurate within 2-3 cents.
How Accurate Does A Tuner Need To Be?
Maybe this is the burning question, as some professional tuners are so painfully accurate you could never tune your guitar perfectly to pitch anyway.
Don’t forget that there are environmental factors with tuning, such as heat and cold, and just playing your guitar will warm it up causing it to de-tune slightly.
If you’re a big whammy bar user you will find that most guitars go slightly out of tune with repeated use, it’s just a matter of how far out, and what your ear can actually detect.
If we look at the A note above middle C being 440Hz (what you tune your guitar’s A string to), the human ear can only detect a change of 1.5Hz (about 5-6 cents).
Given what change in pitch we can actually hear, any tuner that can tune within 5 cents should do a good enough job for most playing situations outside of high-fidelity recording.
Are Smartphone Guitar Tuners Very Accurate?
Whatever mobile device you like they both have accurate tuning apps, as the inbuilt microphones can very accurately register the pitch of outside sounds and relay that to software (the app).
Most tuning apps will allow a pitch to be detected down to 1 cent, and as we’ve discussed this is far less change in pitch that most humans can detect.
When you know that guitars always go out of tune very slightly during playing and they still sound good, you’ll know that a mobile phone tuner can get your guitar tuned accurately.
Should You Get A Free Or Paid App?
Honestly, most people don’t need to spend money buying a tuner app, and there are only a couple of reasons why you might consider getting the paid version.
- You really need extra features like drop-tuning, or strobe-effect display for harmonic tuning.
- You find the advertising on free apps annoying and want to get rid of the distraction for just a few dollars.
What Is The Best Drop Tuning App?
Any app can be used for drop tuning a guitar – if you already know what note to tune your strings to.
If you’re new to drop tuning and need guidance, then some apps have this feature built in, letting you set the tuner to alternate tunings like drop D, Open D, or Drop C.
All the options below have free tuner functionality, and they offer paid features like chord charts, save custom tunings, and scale learning tools.
A few good options I have found are:
GuitarTuna (Android & iOS)
This is the most popular tuner around at the moment, and it’s no wonder with it’s nice simple interface.
When you want to tune up you don’t need complicated, and this does the job well.
If you want alternate tunings and other advanced features, they have a monthly subscription that enables all the options (including drop tuning).
Fender Tune (Android & iOS)
Fender have done a great job with their tuner, and it has a nice simple interface where you can choose acoustic or electric guitar.
It allows you to set it in manual or automatic mode, and like other apps lets you unlock a boatload of features for – wait a minute …FREE! All you need to do is sign up with your name and email address.
Yep, it’s a blatant advert for their brand (and Fender Play) but gives you a ton of features that you normally pay for with other apps, including the inbuilt drop tuning variations.
Pro Guitar Tuner (Android & iOS)
This one has been around a while and has a classic old-world charm to the interface.
If you’ve got a 13 string guitar then you will love this app! …it has inbuilt tunings for loads of string instruments, and non-standard guitars and basses.
The great thing here is that all the altered tunings like raised, lowered, and drop tunings are built in for free.
If you want professional settings and no advertisements, there is a one-off payment to unlock the app.
Try Them Out
Now you know a bit more about smartphone tuning apps, the best way to see how well they work is simply to download a few, and give them a try.
Since they all have a free option it won’t cost you any money, and if you find a favorite, you can always pay to remove the advertising and pick up a few extra features.
I haven’t added any links to apps here, but just go to Google Play for Android, or the App Store for iOs users – where you’ll find plenty listed.