So your guitar doesn’t want to stay in tune — what’s going on?
Let’s look at some common causes and their cures:
Let’s look at your machine heads / Tuners first:
Machine heads wear out — it’s a fact of life, mechanical devices do not last forever! Why would you expect them to? This is especially true if you own a vintage instrument that may have had many owners, or just years of use. So this is an important point to investigate. With the strings removed check the tuning posts for excessive play (side to side, or up and down). Do they rattle if you shake the guitar? ( If you experience only a minute amount of play, you may not need to replace the machine heads yet, and slippage as a result of worn gears may not be your problem — please read on).
NOTE: Consult a skilled luthier if you are not confident in your ability to assess, replace, or repair your instruments machine heads. Some replacements require enlarging the holes drilled through the head stock, while others are interchangeable, and require little or no modifications.
Machine heads with screws holding the peg head onto the tuning post, can often be tightened by snugging up these screws (be careful not to “over tighten” or strip the threads .
Conversely, wobbly tuning posts, severe rattles, loose screws, and corrosion are excellent indicators that you need to consider replacing your machine heads. Retighten loose screws and nuts if you can. Styles vary, (as do prices), and depending on your desire to keep the instrument as “original” as possible, or your need to have a reliable tool to play on stage, your choice can be made from one of the many manufacturer’s producing replacement parts. I have successfully used a number of different brands, and if price is not your first concern, stick with the highest quality available. I suggest you ask your favorite luthier for recommendations, and examine as many different types as you can get your hands on before you decide — remember, it’s your “baby” and you ultimately know what you want / need!
Numerous guitars now feature locking machine heads designed to prevent string slippage. If you have these on your instrument, and they are working properly, string slippage will likely not be your problem. However, most guitars still have more conventional machine heads, so the question begs to be asked: Are you stringing up in a sloppy manner? Not putting enough wraps around the posts? etc. Believe it or not, a great number of guitars and basses are being played with poorly installed strings, which is a simple matter to rectify. Generally you’ll find the greatest slippage occurs on the “plain” non wound, thinner strings, and these should have more wraps around the tuning posts than say your “fat” E string. Among the best ways to prevent slippage is to install the strings with the initial projection of the string end sticking out beyond the post, and then ensuring that the first wrap goes over and then under the projected end. SEE FIGURE No.1 Thereafter, following wraps should be uniformly made going downwards on the tuning post. It’s especially important on the thicker wound strings, to bend the string before cutting or shortening it’s length. Failure to do this often results unraveling of the wound around the string core, and slippage will occur, and the string will have to be replaced.
Figure No. 1
NOTE: For the “fat” E string, just 2 or 3 wraps around the post are required. For the small plain E , B, and G string, 4 to 5 turns should do the trick.
Still have a problem?
Time to check a couple of other things: Got a whammy bar? If so, then you need to really stretch out those strings and re-tune numerous times (especially important if you’ve also got a locking nut — do this before you lock the nut in place), before the springs have adjusted and settled. It may also be necessary to adjust the spring tension since the bridge must be able to return back to it’s neutral position after use. On occasion, it may be necessary to replace old springs, or even add an additional spring. Adjustment can be readily done by tightening or loosening the screws retaining the spring claw (again be careful not to strip the threads in the body — they’re only in wood — not inserts). Wait! There’s more:
Some whammy bar systems use rollers either at the bridge and the nut (or both), and you’ll need to check these for smooth operation. Sometimes they just need a good cleaning and fresh lubricant to get them moving, however badly corroded, or deep wear grooves in metal surfaces may require replacements.
But I don’t have a whammy bar!
Okay, but you still need to investigate if your bridge saddles or nut slots are binding the strings. Sometimes worn nuts or saddles will grab hold of the string after bending notes, and not allow them to release fully. Consequently you strum a chord, and YEECH! What happened? Don’t fret! String slot grooves and bridge saddles can often be carefully filed, (or replaced), to eliminate the problem. Even guitars without whammy assemblies need to be set up correctly to eliminate this problem. Unfortunately, most musicians don’t have the required files to do this properly, and you may need to see your local repair guy.
Caution: Watch out when using lubricants — too much applied at the nut can actually cause loosening of the nut or discoloration of the fingerboard. Also use only a quality product specifically formulated for use on guitars. Some lubricants contain additives that can damage your guitar’s finish, so it pays to be prudent. Common guitar lube formulas contain graphite particles for super slippery results, which is fine and dandy, but graphite can be messy, and can penetrate deeply into the fingerboard after prolonged usage.
I’m still having problems!
Yeah, there are other causes to tuning problems, and some can be more serious. Neck stability can play a part, and can frequently be solved by truss rod adjustment and string gauge selection (heavier string gauges are less affected by intonation flaws and remain more stable after tuning or note bending ). String Intonation may be a factor — is the tuning problem evident only after you’ve tuned up and bar chords sound fine but chords with open strings sound off? If you’ve answered yes, then you need to adjust the intonation. If your intonation has been correctly set, and you still experience similar problems, (this does happen due to fret placement or string height action), you may have to live with it (or see your luthier for repair options). I read a great article some years back in Guitar Player magazine that may help you out. It dealt with this issue, and recommended a method of tuning that minimizes intonation problems, which I’ll summarize here for you:
Step 1: Tune your A string to pitch (A440 concert pitch).
Step 2: Tune your top E string to the A by lightly plucking the harmonic at the twelve fret on the E string to match the E note fretted on the 7th fret of A string.
Step 3: Tune the D and the G strings using this same method (i.e. hit the harmonic at the 12th fret on the A string, and match it to the fretted A note at the 7th fret on the D string ……).
Step 4: Hit the harmonic at the 12th fret of the G string and tune your open high E bottom string (but fretted at the 3rd fret G note) to match.
Step 5: Tune your B string to the high E at the 5th fret strumming the open E and simultaneously fretting the E note on the B string, until they match.
I’ve since shown this method to many guitarists — electronic tuners are great, but they can’t solve intonation problems. This technique works for many guitars that I’ve tuned over the years, and I’ve adopted it as my standard method (if you own a guitar with a 3 saddle bridge assembly, you will find that this may be the solution you were looking for — unless you’re ready to change to a six saddle replacement for better intonation adjustment).
Is that all?
ONE LAST THING: If you loosen a string to get to pitch, it likely wont stay tuned. Always tune up to pitch to be sure there’s no way the string will slacken and go off pitch.
Well, I’m sure that more can be said about this subject, but I have addressed what I believe are the most common problems I’ve encountered. I hope that one or more of these tips have served you well, and I’ll add more tips in the future.
If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, and I’ll reply as soon as I can. Until then, keep on plucking, tapping, slapping, bending and making those sweet sounds that we all love!
Looking After Your Guitar
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