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 A=442!

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 whilst tuning!

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 music stand.

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.

  1. 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 each string.
  2. Switch the tuner on and make sure that the correct “440” boot up display shows.
  3. Sound the string with flesh only and keep sounding the note continually say once or twice per second. Do not use nail.
  4. Whilst 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.
  5. Do 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.
  6. Pluck the string nearer to the bridge than the soundhole.
  7. Although 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.
  8. Wait for the display to go blank before moving to the next string (damping all strings speeds this up).
  9. 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!
  10. Discreetly recheck tuning as the opportunity arises during a session.
  11. Change batteries annually and have a spare set of batteries available but not in the guitar case.
  12. Change strings regularly, particularly the bass strings. Old worn out strings may not produce accurate intonation and are often impossible to tune accurately.

Tony Ainsworth
Cambridge Guitar Orchestra
February 2007