Mass spectrometry (MS) instruments and experimental protocols are rapidly advancing, but the software tools to analyse tandem mass spectra are lagging behind. We present a database search tool MS-GF+ that is sensitive (it identifies more peptides than most other database search tools) and universal (it works well for diverse types of spectra, different configurations of MS instruments and different experimental protocols). We benchmark MS-GF+ using diverse spectral data sets: (i) spectra of varying fragmentation methods; (ii) spectra of multiple enzyme digests; (iii) spectra of phosphorylated peptides; and (iv) spectra of peptides with unusual fragmentation propensities produced by a novel alpha-lytic protease. For all these data sets, MS-GF+ significantly increases the number of identified peptides compared with commonly used methods for peptide identifications. We emphasize that although MS-GF+ is not specifically designed for any particular experimental set-up, it improves on the performance of tools specifically designed for these applications (for example, specialized tools for phosphoproteomics).