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How to Tune with an Electronic Tuner

The most common way bass players tune their basses is using an electronic tuner. There are many different kinds of electronic tuners, and most work similarly.

In part 3 of this lesson I'll explain the different types of tuners, the pros and cons of them, how to use them, and common problems beginners experience with them.

Types of Electronic Tuners

There are several different ways electronic tuners can detect pitch.

Microphone Input

Some have a microphone that listens for the pitch. Tuners can only detect one note at a time. So these work okay when you're in a very quiet environment with no other instruments or music playing. These might come in little boxes or even an app on your phone.

Direct Input

Some tuners you plug your bass into directly or through an output on your bass amp. That eliminates the outside noise problem from using a microphone, and it's usually more accurate. These types of tuners are often a little box or a pedal.

Vibration Input

Another type of tuner clips on to your instrument—usually your headstock—and detects vibrations through your instrument. There are many kinds of these. Where you clip it on your instrument can make a difference with its accuracy. If it's not working well, experiment by moving it around.

Many tuners let you choose between a couple of these methods of pitch detection. Some have a microphone option and direct input option. Others have microphone or vibration.

Check the tuner switches to make sure you're using the one you want. Tuners with microphones will usually default to them when nothing is plugged into their input.

The clip-on style tuners are probably the most convenient and cheapest. I like the smaller ones that aren't so easy to break. See my recommendations in the shop section of StudyBass.

“Bass Tuner” vs “Chromatic Tuner”

You will see some tuners simply labeled 'bass tuner' or 'guitar tuner' and others labeled 'chromatic'. The ones marked bass tuner tune only to the common standard tuning notes of the bass: E A D G and maybe a few other commonly used bass tuning notes.

A chromatic tuner will tune to any note in the musical alphabet. I recommend getting a chromatic tuner because it's more versatile.

Let's look at how to use electronic tuners.

How Tuner Displays Work

Most electronic tuner displays work the same way. They tell you what note of the musical alphabet a pitch is closest to, and how above it or below it the pitch is.

“Sharp” and “Flat”

When the pitch is higher than the note, we describe it as sharp. When it's below the note, we describe it as flat. Maybe you've heard someone say something like a singer sang flat all night. Meaning they sang a bit under where the pitch should have been.


How sharp or flat a note is, is measured in cents. Just like there are 100 cents in a dollar, there are 100 cents in a note. If a note is 50 cents off, it's halfway between two notes. Many tuners show how many cents above or below the pitch is with a needle or light.

Watch That Octave!

Tuners rarely tell you what octave a note is in. That means you could accidentally tune your string 12 notes too high and break your string. As I mentioned before, if you're unsure, loosen your string enough so you know you're well below the target pitch. If you're scared you passed it or the string seems way too tight, loosen and start over so you don't break a string.

How Often Should You Tune?

How often should you tune? Well, it's good to check that you're in-tune every time you start playing. With more experience you'll have a better sense of how out of tune your strings are.

Why Does Your Bass Go Out-of-Tune?

What might cause your strings to go out-of-tune? Usually the tuning keys got bumped inside your case, or children love to play with the shiny tuning keys. Other times weather changes can make your bass to move around. If the weather changes from hot to cold or humid to dry, your bass can shift around enough to go out-of-tune.

New strings can stretch for a few days, too.

Some basses hold their tuning well, others can be troublesome.

Tuning Up with an Electronic Tuner

Pluck the string you wish to tune and watch the display. Again,until you're more sure of what you're doing, start with a very loose string.

Turn the tuning key for the correct string. As you tighten the string, you'll see the tuner going up through the musical alphabet. Remember, the tighter the string, the higher the pitch.

The first goal is to get in range of the target note for the string.

Then, get the needle, or lights, right in the center. Often you'll see two arrows light up or the display changes color when the string is in-tune.

That was easy, right? Well, beginners often run into some common problems using electronic tuners. Let's look at what might go wrong.

Common Problems with Electronic Tuners

If the tuner isn't detecting the notes or the display is jumping around a lot, there are a couple of common reasons...

Multiple Strings Ringing

Make sure only one string is ringing at a time. Otherwise the electronic tuner can't tell which string to detect.

Low Input Volume

You should turn up your bass' volume all the way so the tuner can pick up the pitch better.

Low Battery

Your tuner might not work well when the battery is low.

If your tuner says you're in-tune, but it still sounds off, there are a few problems you might be experiencing.

440Hz Standard

One common mistake I've seen students make with electronic tuners is accidentally changing the tuning standard. What does that mean?

Just as people have agreed on standards like how much a kilogram weighs, people have decided what the frequencies of notes are.

The most common standard, and the one you should use, is the note A = 440Hz. In some very rare cases someone might ask you to change to another standard, like A = 448Hz. Don't worry, it won't happen.


Some tuners have a Key setting. For bass, this should be set to C.

This is really confusing in the beginning, but some instruments are called “transposed instruments.” That means they shift all of the note names over by a certain amount. For instance, if they transpose to Bb it means when the instrument plays the note Bb it really sounds to the ear as the note C. Confusing, right? Luckily you don't need to worry about it. Just be sure you don't accidentally change the key or transpose setting on your tuner. Otherwise all of your notes will be off.

Bass Setup

Now if your open strings are in-tune, but your notes on your fretboard are off, you need to adjust the intonation on your bass. You can find bass setup information on StudyBass in the gear section.

You're Ready to Play!

Hopefully that has answered every possible question you have about tuning your bass. It takes practice to tune at first. Soon enough you'll tune up in a matter of seconds.

Now that you're in-tune, we can finally start playing the bass!