At Selborne Guitars we use a Peterson StroboPlus HDC tuner. You’ve probably heard of ‘strobe’ tuners, but what are they and what makes them special?

What is a strobe tuner?

Most guitar players have a chromatic or polyphonic tuner. These tuners measure the frequency of a note and represent it using coloured lights, a note display (e.g. ‘F#’) or a needle (or sometimes all three).

A strobe tuner is a bit different: it represents the difference between the current note and the target note. Strobe tuners are much more accurate and, accordingly, more expensive.

Superior accuracy

Peterson strobe tuners are accurate to within 0.1 cents – that’s 1/1000 of a semitone. This makes it 20-30 times more accurate than the average guitar tuner (which are usually accurate to within 2-3 cents). As a result, guitars can be tuned and intonated with great accuracy (all other factors being equal). It’s like taking a magnifying glass to your guitar’s tuning or hearing it in high definition.

What makes this possible is the strobe tuner’s unique display. Instead of using lights or a needle like most tuners, it uses motion to tell you whether a note is flat or sharp. Motion to the left means the note is flat; motion to the right means the note is sharp. The speed of motion on the display tells you just how flat or sharp the note is. Bringing this motion to a standstill tells you that the note is perfectly in tune.

This method of display is the only one capable of communicating note accuracy of 0.1 cents. Most tuners just don’t have displays sensitive enough to do this meaning that while you can still bring your guitar into tune, you can only ever get close to (but not consistently achieve) ‘perfect’ tuning.

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Sweetened tunings

Of course, for a bunch of reasons we won’t get into here, ‘perfect’ tuning doesn’t really exist. That’s why many players and professionals still tweak a guitar’s tuning even after it’s been tuned.

That’s where ‘sweetened’ tunings come in. Sweetened tunings are relative, meaning that the guitar is tuned according to the intervals between notes rather than according to the notes themselves. This means that a note can be slightly ‘off’, objectively speaking, but sound better when played together with other notes (e.g. in a chord).  

Most tuners offer a single tuning option (‘equal temperament’ tuning) which you have to use for all your instruments. Our Peterson strobe tuner has in addition hundreds of sweetened tunings for different instrument types and different tunings.

The sweetened tuning for a 6-string electric guitar tuned to EADGBE is different from the sweetened tuning for an acoustic guitar in the same tuning, or from an electric guitar in an alternate tuning (e.g. CGCGCE, or open C). It is also different from the sweetened tuning of a 7 or 8-string guitar, a bass guitar or other stringed instrument.

Sweetened tunings can make all the difference on an instrument with less than perfect intonation, when setting up instruments in alternate tunings, or even on specific songs centred on specific chords or note combinations.

The bottom line: tuning is a compromise

Tuning according to any system is a compromise. The Western system of ‘equal temperament’ tuning by which an octave is separated into 12 equal semitones, and on which most tuners are based, is a compromise. So are sweetened tunings – they will enhance some chords/note combinations and marginally worsen others. That’s the trade-off.

It’s a matter of discovering what’s right for your instrument and for the chords (e.g. open or barre?) or parts of the neck that you use most often. There’s a lot more to say about this which we’ll save for another time…

In the meantime, contact us to find out whether sweetened tuning could work for you. Watch this video for a great overview of the importance of accurate tuning!

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