As a guitar repairman, this is probably the most common question I’m asked. Keeping a guitar in tune is different than having a guitar play in tune relative to itself and other instruments. While the topics are related, they are not the same. For today, we’ll stick to methods for keeping your guitar from drifting out of tune while your playing it.
The most common cause of tuning instability is unstretched strings. Most players give their strings a little stretch after installation. A little stretch after installation. In this case, a little is not enough. If you want your guitar to stay in tune, you need to stretch the strings until they don’t go out of tune when you stretch them. This may involve stretching them up several half steps several times to get them to stabilize. When you can’t get the strings to go out of tune no matter how hard you stretch them, they won’t go out of tune under normal playing conditions.
If after stretching you find that your guitar still drifts out of tune while playing, then the cause is most likely a mechanical problem. Many of my customers come in and ask me to change a perfectly good set of tuning gears because their guitar goes out of tune. Nine out of 10 times, the gears are not at fault. Often the string installation procedure is the culprit. If your guitar is not equipped with locking tuners or a locking nut, the strings need to be locked onto the tuners. Locking the string can be achieved in the following manner:
1. Turn the tuner so that the hole in the tuner is perpendicular to the neck.
2. Pull the string through the hole in the tuner from the inside of the headstock towards the outside of the headstock. Leave about 1.5″ of slack string on the inside of the headstock.
3.Take the free end of the string and go around the back of the gear and underneath the portion of the string going through the hole in the tuner.Bend the free end of the string up and over the the portion of the string where it meets the hole in the gear.
4. Now tighten the tuner, allowing the string to wrap in a neat row down towards the bottom of the headstock so that the porting of the string going towards the bridge exits the gear as close to the bottom of the tuner as possible.
If you install your strings using this method, you should eliminate the majority of the mechanical problems involved in keeping the guitar in tune.
The next most common mechanical cause of tuning instability is a poorly cut nut. The nut is the spacer at the top of the neck near the tuning gears. It is important to have the slots in the nut cut accurately; too tight and the strings get caught in the slots, too loose and shift position in the slot. Unless you have experience and a set of fret files, leave this adjustment to your repairman. It is also important to have a nut made out of good material. Some of the budget guitars I see have nut material that is soft enough to have the string dig into them. These should be changed to a material like graphite, bone, micarta, or corian.
Keeping a guitar with a vibrato unit in tune involves a whole new set of mechanical problems. First and foremost, you need to use the vibrato within the limits of it’s design. A Bigsby style vibrato or the units found on most vintage Fenders will not do dive bombs and stay in tune. A Bigsby requires a roller bridge or one that rocks in back and forth when the unit is used. A Fender Stratocaster or similar vibrato requires careful adjustment of the spring tension and mounting screws to have it return to pitch. Many of these also have a “tremsetter” stabilized installed with the springs which also requires adjustment. These are best left to the experienced repairman.
A locking vibrato can also cause mechanically related tuning problems. In addition to requiring adjustments similar to that of a vintage Fender, a loose or worn lock nut will cause the strings to slip out of tune. Check the attachment between the lock nut and the neck to make sure that it is solid. Also look at the locking plates to make sure that they don’t have grooves worn into them from repeated use. If so, the lock nut will need to be replaced.
While acoustic guitars may share the nut and string installation problems, they have their own set of mechanical maladies. Most of these involve the bridge. From repeated use, bridge pins and bridge pin holes become warn. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not really the pins that hold the strings on the guitar. the pins are installed to wedge the ball ends of the strings forward and onto a bridgeplate fastened to the underside of the top of the guitar.
If the ball ends are not firmly seated against this plate, or if the plate is worn, the guitar will not stay in tune. Bridge pins that are too tight will not allow the ball ends to seat properly, and those that are too lose or warn will not push the ball ends forward onto the bridge plate. Pins are easy to replace and come in a multitude of styles. A worn bridgeplate requires repair or replacement.
That’s about all for keeping your guitar in tune. I welcome any questions or comments.
Scott Freilich email@example.com
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