TUNING THE GUITAR
Using the Intellitouch Tuner
I have always been an advocate of using the ear to tune the guitar and
in my brief career as a teacher I made sure my students could tune
using a tuning fork or other reference pitch and relative tuning.
However, I now play in several ensembles including the Cambridge
Guitar Orchestra and tuning in an environment where 20 other guitars
are being tuned and warmed up made using this method unsatisfactory and
ordinary acoustic tuners also suffered from extraneous noise. As a
result I broke a promise and bought myself an Intellitouch tuner some
three years ago.
They do, however, seem to be temperamental and can be quite
frustrating. For instance, it can be difficult to get the tuner to
display the 6th string E. Quite often it will show this to be B. This
is because the tuner is more sensitive to higher pitches and it is
hearing the overtones of the harmonic series of the string. Many people
try to overcome this by using the 12th fret harmonic. However, this is
really not necessary if the tuner is used properly.
The tuner can even pick up the sympathetic vibrations of undamped
adjacent strings. I was at a concert at the Dillington Guitar Festival
where a performer explained on stage what these devices were being used
for and that they are excellent for telling you what the next string
along was doing not the string you wanted!
These unwanted harmonics are eliminated by damping the other five
stings and by using only flesh to sound the strings. Using nails is
more likely to set up harmonics in the upper registers and on other
strings. This problem is worse with better quality guitars where
overtones are partly responsible for the finer sounds.
These tuners are very accurate – each arrow on the display
represents just one hertz ie 1/440th of the pitch. It is not impossible
for the setting to be inadvertently changed so that it is not
referencing to 440. I have a colleague to whom this happened. Her
guitar was always sharp when checked during collective tuning up and
couldn’t understand why. Her reference had somehow been changed to
Also at Dillington, I saw the Aquarelle Quartet who also use this
tuner. However, in their case the tuner was laid on the upper bout
adjacent to the heel of the neck rather than clipped to the headstock.
Afterwards I asked them why they did this and was told that it was
partly because they had broken the clips and partly because they worked
much better there! Another benefit of this is that you look down at the
tuner and can tune discreetly between pieces during performance. It is
quite off-putting if you are sitting next to a player with a tuner
clipped to the headstock as the player appears to be staring at you
Incidentally, all professional players I have seen remove the tuner
from the guitar before playing. This is partly because they can
unbalance the guitar a little but also they are unsightly, even when
folded back against the headstock. They are distracting to audiences
and they do spoil the aesthetic appearance of what is a beautiful
instrument. I always remove my tuner and clip it to the post of my
A couple of years ago my tuner “locked up”. It got stuck on a
particular display and wouldn’t reset itself. I checked the batteries
with a meter and they seemed to be OK. In frustration I looked up
Intellitouch on the Internet. They are located in Texas. I emailed them
with my problem and they kindly phoned me back!
I was asked to go through the process of tuning the guitar whilst
being talked through it with the phone tucked under my chin! The first
thing he noticed, from 5,000 miles away, was that I was sounding the
strings too loudly, also that I was using nails. The recommended method
is to play softly and use flesh only as mentioned above.
After quite some time, the conclusion was that the batteries where
flat. It turns out that once the batteries get below a certain voltage
the tuner will retain the last display that it was showing when the
voltage dropped below this level. When switched on again it would still
show this display. New batteries solved the problem. I was told that,
for the black tuner with the backlight, a reasonable battery life would
be about a year. Incidentally Halfords appear to sell these batteries
more cheaply than jewellers in my experience. Intellitouch recommend
that you keep a spare set of batteries in your case (although, in my
opinion, it is unwise to keep anything hard in your case as these can
escape from the compartment during transit and damage the guitar). The
shelf life of batteries is at least three years.
One spin-off benefit of this tuner (as opposed to other tuners of
this type which do not display the pitch of the note being played) is
that it can be used to find what note is being played by natural
harmonics at various fret positions. It is also very useful for
checking intonation and can indicate when stretched strings need
replacing and even whether new strings are faulty. Try checking an open
string and then checking that string at the 12th fret. There is usually
a very slight difference due to the nature of the guitar construction
but a difference of a couple of hertz (two arrows) is quite noticeable.
I have been asked several times to share my experience on how best to use these tuners, so here goes.
- Place the tuner adjacent to the heel on the upper bout. If
you prefer to use it on the headstock, experiment with the most
sensitive position. Headstock sensitivity is likely to be different for
- Switch the tuner on and make sure that the correct “440” boot up display shows.
- Sound the string with flesh only and keep sounding the note continually say once or twice per second. Do not use nail.
doing this, damp the other strings. If you are used to tuning in 4ths
the tuner will object to two strings being sounded at once.
not pluck the string loudly. In fact, in a room with other guitarists
tuning you should hardly be able to hear your own strings sounding.
- Pluck the string nearer to the bridge than the soundhole.
not mandatory for this tuner, you should follow the good practice of
de-tuning the string slightly flat and tuning up to the correct pitch.
- Wait for the display to go blank before moving to the next string (damping all strings speeds this up).
- Remove the tuner from the guitar and clip it to the music stand. Don’t put it on the floor where it can be trodden on!
- Discreetly recheck tuning as the opportunity arises during a session.
- Change batteries annually and have a spare set of batteries available but not in the guitar case.
strings regularly, particularly the bass strings. Old worn out strings
may not produce accurate intonation and are often impossible to tune
Cambridge Guitar Orchestra