*** UPDATED 10-28-20 ***
Let’s face it, guitar tuning problems are a hassle. Tuning in general is an inconvenience, and can be outright overwhelming if you’re a beginner and aren’t up on tuning’s finer points. Most instruments must be tuned before playing, with exceptions like pianos and keyboards. Even brass instruments and drums should be tuned. So now that we know tuning is a reality for playing music, let’s narrow it down to the biggest factors and catch that vibe. Why does your guitar play in tune then out of tune? I believe the four biggest factors affecting guitar tuning are: 1) poor quality machine heads (tuning pegs), 2) intonation and action setup, 3) the nut, and 4) playing technique. There are others, but these are the main ones affecting most guitarists. Let’s also not forget the obvious, playing with the whammy bar. Knowing these factors can eliminate 90% of your tuning problems & the rest is manageable! Let’s break them down in the next section:
Tune up your Tuning – Good heads are better
Quality tuning machine heads utilize better construction, and internal gears with tighter tolerances holding your string in better tune. Poor quality tuning heads, common on budget guitars, are cheaply made and don’t hold strings in tune like better tuning pegs.
This is because the quality of the internal gear mechanism isn’t as precise as a better peg, and too much ‘play’ and slop is evident. The solution is to get a better set of tuning heads or upgrade to a better guitar. This is a common problem on guitars under $100-200 generally. It’s also possible that your strings are poorly wrapped around the tuning heads and are slipping, but this usually is not an ongoing problem and quickly fixed. Good tuning heads should move smoothly back and forth, with very little play. They should not get extremely tight or hard to turn in certain parts of their turning motion, nor extremely loose with lots of play - these are signs of a cheap or worn tuning peg mechanism.
Should you upgrade a cheaper guitar with better tuners? If you love the guitar, yes. If not, the $30 - 50 you may spend on tuning heads plus labor could go toward a better guitar. Remember the difference between a $150 and $400 guitar is usually a big difference, one that could give you improved fit and finish as well as better pickups, hardware and sound.
Next is intonation and action setup. If your guitar needs the intonation set, it may play in tune at the lower frets but will be out of tune the further you advance up the neck, and can perplex even skilled guitarists that ignore setup and intonation. There is no tuning ‘fix’ for this except setting your intonation properly, usually at the bridge.
Action refers to the height of the strings above the neck. This is also set at the bridge. High action can also affect tuning, and this is something many articles and techs miss altogether regarding tuning. The reason is simple physics – if your strings are way too high in height, pressing them to fret notes means they travel further to reach and pull themselves sharp. This is mainly a problem with extremely high action, usually on acoustic guitars. High action makes guitars harder to play. A badly bowed neck will also have the same affect and can affect tuning. Too low of action is easy to play but can cause string buzz. The key is setting action that feels good and isn't too low or too high.
The nut factor
Another huge factor is your nut, and the string/nut angle after the strings leave the nut moving towards each peg. If you are playing a Les Paul or other guitar where the stings create a noticeable angle from the nut to the peg, you will likely have tuning issues if you bend strings often. This is because the string moves a microscopic amount over the nut while playing and bending, and doesn’t always return the exact same way, creating a tuning problem. Some remedies are a better-carved nut, graphite or rolling ball nuts, or nut lubricant. These fixes don’t fix the string angle but they do lessen friction making the problem better, and often you can get these guitar to stay in tune pretty well with a little attention. (You should also be properly stretching your acoustic or electric guitar strings each time you change a set.)
Dude, stop pulling your strings out of tune!
Playing technique and pulling your strings out of their straight alignment is another problem that causes tuning issues, I’ve seen many players do this unknown to themselves until they are trained to stop pulling the freaking strings (usually toward the floor) when playing! Hint – try as much as possible to fret notes with your fingertips and not ‘flat-finger’ your notes. Also practice in front of a mirror occasionally and watch to see if you are a string-puller. A fellow guitarist friend can assess this for you also.
New from Whammy-O
Lastly, do we really need to mention the whammy bar!? What new guitarist can resist? Endless dive-bombs, killer vibrato! All that fun can come at a cost though. If you don’t have a locking Floyd-Rose or premium-style whammy bar, it’s a guarantee that using your tremolo bar will soon throw the guitar out of tune, usually way out of tune. Locking style or premium whammy bars combat this problem by reducing friction and string travel over key hardware areas, most also add fine tuners at the bridge location. One work around for tremolo bars, some people “block” their whammy bars off under the bridge, this is done with a block of wood affixed to the metal base inside the body of the guitar. What happens here is the bar and bridge stops when it comes back to it’s resting position – it cannot be pulled up past this point. This is called a non-floating whammy. The string tension forces the whammy to come back 99.9% to it’s original location, and it cannot move past this “zero point” which greatly helps tuning. The other benefit of this, is if you break a string while playing live, a blocked or non-floating whammy will keep all the rest of your strings in tune so you can make it through the song before grabbing another guitar. With a floating bridge, all bets are off if you pop a string mid-gig. Your guitar becomes a paperweight strapped to your body, and you’re only good for air-guitar.
With proper setup, really good whammy bars can be used and abused and still come back in great tune even in a live performance. Just ask Steve Vai if you don’t believe me.
Speaking of keeping your guitar in top-tune, Eternashine Guitar Scratch Remover kits act differently & simply work better than normal guitar polishes. Where normal guitar polishes usually just clean, Guitar Scratch Remover kits do a complete finish restore and nicely lift light scratches and more, where other polishes fall short.
Have a comment, question or did we miss anything? Feel free to comment below, and thanks for reading! JE
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