TECH TALK WITH CHUCK
Why Your Guitar Will Not Stay In Tune
I know that this article is going to be greeted with skepticism because everybody has their ideas on why guitars suddenly go out of tune! Worse, you have recently been embarrassed and humiliated by the dude who is eyeballing your playing while pointing at you and making “tuning” gestures!
Going out of tune could be the result of the string being new and not stretched, a change of string gauges that are now squeezed in a too-tight nut slot, a very tiny metal spur in the saddle notch the string catches on, strings are too thin for your aggressive playing, not using a locking wind around the tuning peg, poorly adjusted pickup heights and magnets (magnetism applies difference force based on the width of the string, alloys, and height from magnets), intonation is off, climate or weather change, and, of course, the bargain bin strings you bought at a garage sale or found in the bottom of a gig bag or drawer. And yes, I will admit, once in a great while, your tuners are bad! Whew! Let us get started!
Recently, I was jumped on a chat-room conversation on this topic. Whenever somebody’s guitar is constantly going out of tune, they usually blame the tuners. I mentioned on the thread that close to 90% of tuning issues brought into Naperville Music that is hardware related are a snag at the nut or a hindrance at the saddle. The skeptics came out of the woodwork! One even claimed, “Whenever you wrap a wire around a metal post, it’s going to slip!” That is like telling a fisherman or surgeon, “Whenever you tie a knot in plastic line that it will come undone every time you pull on it!”
The easiest way to detect if the problem is the nut or saddles is to lay your guitar flat on a table, then one at a time, slowly turn tuning pegs forward/back one at a time for multiple times. If you hear what I call a “ting” or “ping,” then you have a problem at the nut or the saddle – either your string is being pinched at the nut, or it’s hanging up on a spur at either end. A simple file job takes care of the problem – or go to a lighter gauge string.
I have a good friend who called me complaining his new Metallica tribute guitar had a string going out of tune on almost every song. I asked, “Did you stretch the strings?” After a moment of silence, I told him to start at one end and pull up and down on the string while moving to the other end of the neck. Applying reverse pressure with your thumb by pushing down while pulling up on the strings adds extra help. Repeat multiple times – slowly! Simple fix!
So, the first thing to do is (1) STRETCH YOUR STRINGS and LOOK FOR DEFECTS! Along with this, when you unwrap a new string, run your fingers across it to feel for bends or kinks. Sometimes they are very visible!
(2) LOCK YOUR STRINGS AT THE TUNING PEG. Do this by putting the string through the post hole, wrap the string back, under and straight-up snuggling it between the length of the string and the post, then tighten. This locks the string against the post. No need to run it multiple times through the hole! All this does is create a lot of work next time you change strings or one breaks. You should be able to get a picture of this online. Most string packs include the illustration.
NOTE: Make sure you still to some multiple wraps!
(3) USE THE RIGHT GAUGE STRINGS FOR YOUR GUITAR. Guitar saddles and nuts are installed on your guitar for a specific string gauge. The usual rule is 9’s for single coil and 10’s for humbuckers. This is usually a factory specification, but I have noticed many Gibson models are coming to the store straight from the factory with 9-46 strings. This is what I use on all my guitars, so I have no problem with this! Just remember, if the guitar comes this way direct from the factory, then the nut slots are filed to fit these gauges. All guitar companies list the string gauges under SPECS, so you know before you buy. I’ve had a number of customers bring their Strat (usually 9’s) then have me install a set of 11’s! The thicker the string, the wider the nut slot opening is needed. Otherwise, the strings are going to be pinched and will slip loose while playing, causing it to go out of tune. Other problems arise, such as truss rod adjustment (more tension on the neck) and intonation. One other note is to make sure the NUT IS IN ALIGNMENT! I have seen bad nut installation and re-gluing, which puts the nut at an angle, forcing more pressure and more easily breaking the string.
(4) TEMPERATURE CHANGES CAN ALSO CAUSE TUNING ISSUES. Basic science teaches us: HEAT expands and COLD contracts metal. So, you take your guitar out of your air-conditioned house or car and setting it outside on a festival stage where it is sweltering out, guess what happens? You are going to be playing flat. I always hate indoor gigs where the stage is right next to an outside door that blasts hot or cold air on your gear every time it opens! The best bet is to get your guitar acclimated to the venue as early as possible and tune often!
(5) TUNERS ARE JUST PLAIN BAD. Surprise! I will admit that tuners do go bad for several reasons – broken seals, stripped gears, missing parts, bent parts, and who knows what else! My check is to one at a time stretch the string multiple times. Tune the string. Play a little bit. Repeat. Stretch and tune. Pluck the string and see what your tuner hits. Grasp string in the middle of the fretboard, pull up as high and tight as possible, lower, then pluck a string. If out of tune, it is probably slippage. This could be because you did not use the locking wind mentioned above, not enough wraps (I have seen guitars with one simple wrap around the post!), or a bad tuner. If you DID lock wrap and it still goes out of tune with this simple system, then it is time for new tuners! There are a number of factors that affect tuning and some I haven’t even listed, or gone into much detail, but before you go out and spend a chunk of change of new tuners, the installation, set-up and who knows what else, please try these easier and much less expensive alternatives. The most common fix is the locking wrap. I saved a man a ton of money on twelve-string tuners he was going to replace!
(6) FINALLY, GET A GOOD electronic/battery TUNER! Too many times, I have seen guitarists tune their guitar with-in 3 or 4 cents (sharp or flat value) of being exactly in tune then say, “Close enough!” If your playing means a lot to you, then you want to be in tune to put your best chops forward. Whenever I play a festival, I have a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner Pedal with Bypass on my board. Next to my board, I have a Boss TU-3S Chromatic Tuner that is always on so I can not only check my tuning all the time but even make sure my bends are in tune. Adrenalin is another issue with tuning I have not mentioned yet! Nothing like getting over-enthusiastic when digging into the high ones! Finally, I keep Snark tuners in each of my cases for quick tune-ups during set-up and breaks. There are MANY excellent tuners out there, and you just need to find the one that fits your playing style best. I prefer the Boss tuners because I have used them all my life and do not have to worry about hitting a button and not knowing how to get back to the right key! I also use multiple tuner apps on my iPhone, including an indispensable STROBE TUNER. It is great for intonation checks and adjustments. I am not saying Boss is better than another brand! I am telling you to use a tuner that you are familiar with! Nothing like busting out a new tuner, accidentally pushing a button you are unfamiliar with, and not knowing how to “fix” it! I always carry a small guitar tech kit you can buy at any music store or online store. To me, it is an essential equipment for my gig bag. Also, an electronic or battery-operated string winder! Save your energy for those fancy licks you have been practicing!
This is not the be-all-to-end-all tome on staying in tune, but there are enough bases covered that you should have no trouble staying in tune and having a great gig!