It’s very fashionable among violinists and teachers to disdain electronic tuners, and they can be used poorly. However, they are not untrammeled evil, and they are a useful tool in some instances. Let’s go over WHY and WHEN they are useful, and when they should be avoided.
First off, an electronic tuner should be used by beginners only, and they should look forward to getting off of them as soon as possible. Because of this, the best kind of tuner to buy is one that is also a metronome so that it’s not a complete waste of money after the first couple months.
Second, I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend that you either get a Wittner tailpiece with four fine tuners or a set of geared pegs for your instrument. Why I recommend this will become clear. The only time you shouldn’t get these is if you have an old instrument that you can’t in good conscience install them on. (They should be considered a permanent item, and removing them involves bushing the peg box.) Geared pegs are a better option than a Wittner since the fine tuners don’t give you as much range of control on the low strings as you’d need to tune them up. A quarter-turn to a fine tuner can make or break an A string, but a quarter-turn on the C string might not even be noticed.
Now, the normal way to tune an instrument is to tune the A string to a reference pitch — a fork or a piano, or after a while, one’s memory of what a concert A sounds like — by ear, and then tune the other strings relative to that one either by fifths or by harmonics.
So first, let me tell you — and if you are a good violinist or fiddler, let me remind you — what playing one of these devices is like for a rank beginner, and why tuning to a reference pitch is often not possible. We’re even going to assume that the beginner in question has a fork or a piano, which is not often the case. So we’re stacking the deck in your favor here.
They tap the fork. They stop and think to themselves of what the violin’s A string should sound like. They play it. It’s flat. They turn the peg to sharpen it … or rather, they try to turn the peg and fail. It’s sticky. (They’re always sticky.) They set the bow down, hold the violin with both hands, push the peg as gently as possi–
Then they pick up the bow, park the fiddle under their chin again, oops put the bow back down so that they can hit the fork, remember the pitch, pick up the bow, bow the string …
And it’s now sharp.
Set down the bow. Grab the peg, try to turn it gentl–
Go through the above rigmarole again and …
It’s now flat.
Your beginner can either go through this painful rigmarole for 15 minutes to no effect, give up, and practice on an improperly tuned instrument, which will screw up their fingering six ways from Sunday, or else just get an electronic tuner so that at least they don’t have to stop and recall the tuning each time.
Remember those geared pegs? This is why beginners should have them. You actually can just tweak them finely without dropping the bow and with the fiddle under your chin the whole time. As you improve, you can even tweak them as you bow.
No, you can’t do that with regular pegs. Yes, in a perfect world, you could do it with regular pegs. Let me know when we live in that world, because I’m a millionaire, have 20/20 vision, and am currently having sex with a 25-year-old Steve Perry there. (Actually, that means that I’m probably too distracted to tune my viola in that world at the moment. I’ll get to it later.)
Now, let’s consider tuning the other strings in fifths. Funny enough, I could always tell when any other instrument played by anyone else was flat or sharp when tuned this way. Until recently, I could not tell on my own. Why? Because until recently, I couldn’t even spell my own name and bow two strings at once much less analyze pitch and bow two strings at once. Violinists and fiddlers who have been doing this for a long time forget that bowing two strings at once takes pretty much every ounce of concentration that a beginner is capable of mustering. They just don’t have the processor cycles left over to analyze something while bowing two strings. And again, leaving the open strings improperly tuned would ruin their fingering. Assuming that they can’t always run to their teacher and that they occasionally will need to tune their strings themselves, the tuner is the best way for them to manage the open strings.
No, it’s not ideal. But unless you really want a beginner to be going *CLUNK!* flat *CLUNK!* sharp *CLUNK!* flat *CLUNK!* sharp *CLUNK!* flat *CLUNK!* sharp *CLUNK!* shit! for 45 minutes, you must bow to the necessity that they will need training wheels for a bit. Of course, no teacher (claims to) want this, but beginners need methods by which this can be avoided, or else they simply can’t play.
When should tuners not be used?
For anything other than open strings. Tuners should be used on the instrument, not the player.
This is, I believe, what teachers mean when they say that no one should ever use an electronic tuner. In this, they are absolutely correct. Once the instrument is properly tuned, the player must use their own ear to find that F#.
However, the all-important dependent clause in front of that comma requires a tuner, at least at the very beginning. It also requires or at least heavily encourages geared pegs. I can manage with the normal pegs on my viola, but I do have a Wittner tailpiece on it, and I am rapidly falling in love with the Wittner pegs on my pochette anyway. I can tune the thing in seconds with them.
It’s also important for beginners to advance as rapidly as they can to the ideal of hearing the A in their head, and then tuning from there using fifths. (And in that state, they should have an ambition to tuning by harmonics.) This is why the tuner should also be a metronome; after a while, it will be useless as a tuner anyway, and you won’t have wasted your money.
So you see, it’s slightly more complicated than TUNER BAD DIE DIE DIE. In summary:
- Use electronic tuners to tune open strings only. Never use an electronic tuner to find out whether or not your fingering is in tune. Tuners are used on instruments, not players.
- Beginners should also investigate geared pegs or tailpieces with four fine tuners. These make tuning much, much less painful than *CLUNK!* sharp *CLUNK!* flat *CLUNK!* shit!
- Beginners should advance as fast as they can to hearing the A in their heads, and then tuning by fifths. (From there, it’s harmonics, but that’s a ways away for a beginner.)
There. Electronic tuners will not leave irrevocable stains on your soul, they do not suck your free will out through your eyeballs (neither do inlaid frets, to be honest, but that’s a polemic for another day), and they are extremely useful to beginners who should never under any circumstances play on an out-of-tune instrument. Yet, just like training wheels, they should be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. The day a beginner can tune their fiddle without recourse to a tuner should be a day of celebration. 🙂