When I first started playing guitar, there were only three available methods of tuning: A tuning fork (which only produced the “A” note, and you had to approximate the rest by knowing which frets or harmonics to finish tuning), a pitch pipe (a truly humiliating exercise in front of people) or a good guitar teacher.
Nowadays, tuners range from rack tuners to tuning pedals to headstock tuners — which, incidentally, are my favorite — and now, the basis of this blog post, online tuners.
I initially set out to find the five best online tuners. But after much web surfing, I confess that they’re all, well … awful.
There are so many homespun, garden varieties of these online tuners that I have concluded that while all are entirely adequate, very few are indeed accurate. This is a big issue if you’re striving for your guitar to play perfectly in tune.
Try opening separate windows of two different online tuners, sound the same note and it’ll sound slightly off compared to the other. When you put an actual tuner to test these online ones, the notes will have sharp or flat fluctuations in pitch because it doesn’t take into account your personal guitar’s tolerances and intonation. In other words, one size does not fit all.
Other concerns await you if you’re just looking to be in the ballpark. Besides taking a lifetime to load onto your browser, some online tuners will have you click through several web pages to get to a disappointing version, and a few will ask for access to your camera and microphone (No thanks; I wired $3,000 to that Nigerian prince already, so I’m still waiting for the $3.5 million I’m supposed to receive in return).
As far as sound, this is where the cracks begin to show. Most online tuners have tinny piano or Casio-like sounds to achieve the notes, which just sound horrible. Some have volume issues or distort your speakers because they were recorded incorrectly, but clearly the worst offenders are the ones where the note decays so quickly, you’ll need to leave your mouse over the selected note to hear it repetitively.
The only silver lining is that in addition to offering standard tuning, most provide alternate-tuning options (half-step down, open tunings, etc.) as well. The irony here is that after much digging, I found that the online bass tuners were far superior to online guitar tuners like this one.
The Gieson Interactive seems to be most popular and has some pitch issues that I mentioned earlier; yet despite this, many users have chosen this model to embed onto their personal websites.
But if you’re going to create an online tuner, you might as well get it right the first time. Fender perfectly demonstrates this, making them my only favorite.
Let me tell you a quick story about tuning. When I first started learning to play guitar, my guitar teacher would take my acoustic and look me dead in the eye and say, “Listen.” Without a tuner, she proceeded to tune my guitar and did this for a period of several months until I started to get the hang of hearing the way she tuned it before the lesson. One day I handed her my guitar and she totally knocked it out of tune and handed it back to me and said, “You can do this. Tune it by ear.”
She was right; I tuned it up no problem and at that moment realized what she had done all along was develop my ear. I still tune that way today, thanks to her, and it also amazes other guitarists when I do it. So forget the easy way out. The path to being a great guitarist is being able to listen.
Online tuners are best left for people who don’t play guitar.
Paul Riario on Paul Riario:I try very hard to remain under the radar, despite being on camera as gear editor at Guitar World; but in this age of social media, it was only a matter of time before it came to this. So with that, I’ll make my blog painless and a quick and easy read so you can get onto more important things like practicing guitar and sweep picking. Or, if you’re like me, getting tiger blood transfusions and figuring out how to be Olivia Wilde’s boy toy. I’ll use this blog to inform you of things I find cool, like new gear I’m playing through and what I’m watching, reading or listening to at any given moment. So feel free to ask me anything that’s gear-related — or if you have a problem with your girlfriend, ya know, life-lesson stuff, I’m pretty good at that too — and I’ll do my best to answer or address it here.