Things move on in the ukulele world, and as much as people moved on from using tuning forks and pitch pipes to clip on tuners, that world moves on too. I thought it was therefore high time I took another look at ukulele tuning devices and let you know some of the kit I am now using. A combo review if you will.But before we kick off, I did not intend that to sound like a slur on the use of a tuning fork. I ALWAYS carry one in my gig bag and know how to tune the uke to itself. In fact I would say they are a must have piece of kit for the money. Frankly you never know when batteries will die and a tuning fork will never fail to get you out of a fix. They just work! Buy one, you really should!
But moving on, we do like our gadgets too (well this player does) and the clip on tuner is a marvel that moves us massively further forward from the days of spending £50 plus on bulky guitar tuners with analogue needles on them. They are now much cheaper and, on the whole, very reliable.
I have reviewed a few, from the old favourite of The Snark to the higher end likes of the Peterson Strobe model. I used to regularly just tell people 'get a Snark' for the simple reason that I found their readout clearer and more accurate than any other (plus they were cheap). They are also kind of funky looking and I must admit I liked that too.
But they have fallen out of favour with me now. In fact I don't think I now own one that is still in one piece and I used to have half a dozen of the things. And that is the point - they break very easily, particularly on the hinge that holds the unit to the clip. I could add that they also have a tendency to buzz and rattle before they break which is almost as annoying, but generally, they just don't seem to stand up to regular use. It comes, I think, from them being bulky and sticking out from the headstock so much - an accident waiting to happen? On a stage environment I lost count of the amount of times they were ripped from the headstock by a strap, another player or a microphone stand. As such I wanted something smaller. I'm not just knocking Snarks alone here - most of the clip on tuners out there I find are overly bulky and suffer because of it.
I list below examples of what I am using now. I suspect things may change as time marches on, but for now I can't find a better mix for me.
D'Addario / Planet Waves PW-CT-12-NS Clip On Tuner (approx £12.00)
It was actually a couple of years ago I came across the D'Addario brand micro tuner and they are quite old now, but they have become my staple clip on tuner. (Thanks go to Paul Redfern of uke band The pUKEs who lent me one!) I find them just as accurate as I need them to be (and as any other clip on), but the real boon is how small they are. They are so inconspicuous it would be next to impossible to hit them on anything and they can just be left on at all times minding their own business.
As an added bonus they remove that rather awful look of warts hanging on the end of the uke on stage. Come on, I can't be the only one who thinks that a uke on stage with a hideous looking tuner hanging off it looks - well, bad? You will hardly notice the D'Addario model I can assure you and most of my main ukes now have them as a matter of course.
Like most clip on tuners, they can be adjusted to re-tune them (not something I recommend and have come across players unsure why their tuner is off because they changed the base tuning) but I suppose that is useful to get a uke in tune with something hard to tune, like an old piano. Otherwise the screen is nice and clear to read and it has a cool feature that flips it upside down if you want to go totally stealth and mount it on the underside of the headstock. It's chromatic too so none of this 'tuned for ukulele nonsense' as it will read any note. (Tuners that bill themselves that way make no sense to me - just get one that reads all notes- you never know when you may try another tuning or even another instrument.)
As a final point, the words 'clip on' don't really apply here as the D'Addario doesnt employ a normal clip - rather it has an adjustable jaw held by a notched clip that slides on to the headstock and tightens with a squeeze of finger and thumb. The important thing here is that it doesn't come off, even with shaking. In my experience, even the hardiest of the larger clip on tuners won't stand up to that.
The little D'Addario is a joy and does all I want from a clip on in a tough little box and I highly recommend it.
But that said, I only really use them for around the house and when performing as a backup. Because I tend to play amplified if on stage I am automatically using guitar leads ahead of an amp system and that leads me to what is, without doubt, my favourite electronic tuner method.
Boss TU-3 Pedal Tuner (approx £55)
I use a Boss TU-3 Chromatic tuner in a Foot pedal, and plug this first in the chain between my uke and whatever I am using it to amplify it. The TU-3 is their latest incarnation of a tuner pedal that just works impeccably. It has all the features you can shake a stick at, but in use with a uke on stage has the following important features for me:
1. It is bright and clear even when on the floor
2. It cuts the sound of the uke when tuning - meaning it removes that, frankly, unprofessional thing that some uke performers do in tuning up on stage during a show (come on - who wants to hear it? Yes, I know Joni Mitchell did it, but, well, you are not Joni Mitchell. It sounds and looks BAD!)
3. It is well made and adds no noise to the signal - Sure, there are cheaper Boss copies about , but in the world of Boss pedals my motto remains to 'buy the best' if you want to avoid superfluous noise in your signal. This is built like a tank.
4. Its Chromatic - meaning, as per the D'addario, it can register any tuning you like, any note - and will work with a variety of instruments (pretty much anything that you can give it a line signal from).
5. It picks up even the lightest signal with precision. Has never let me down on that front..
In short, if you perform on stage I just think its one of those pedals that you shouldnt be without - thousands of professional guitar performers cannot be wrong! Sure its not small and it is not the lightest tuner in the world, but it is no different from any other pedal. If you are carrying stage gear therefore this really doesn't add too much to your burden
But outside those, perhaps we don't actually need a physical device at all? Surely there's an app for that?
iPhone Apps (From, FREE!)
Well yes there are, lots of them, some free, some expensive and some like this one I've just been playing with developed by Uke4U. It's only 79 pence (or one dollar) and works just fine on the iPhone or iPad. I like particularly that it has a range of preset tunings for most scales of ukulele in both high and low G, but also other uke tunings like ADF#B (to keep the banjolele nuts happy one assumes!).
There are plenty of others and they kind of fit into the category of 'why wouldn't you' if you run a Smartphone capable of downloading apps. I have a few I've tried and I must admit when I sit with uke in hand and can't find the tuner I left clipped upstairs I do reach for my phone now. That doesn't make them a stage ready substitute, but equally they have their place. As most people tend to always have their phones or tablets to hand, then, 'why not' indeed?
So the same view I always had applies I guess. I still love clip on tuners, but I have become more picky about what I use. Either way, if you play uke I could do nothing but encourage you to invest in one. If you are on stage I don't think you can beat a pedal tuner if you are plugging in regularly though and they will last a lifetime. With any of them, you get what you pay for in terms of how long they will last, but they all tend to work the same way. Oh, and get a tuning fork! As one very well known uke professional said to me (Mr Phil Doleman!) - it's the only tuner capable of working as a fork for an after show Chinese meal too!