Tuning Stability

Posted: 8 December 2020

We’ve all been there, you’re on stage and all of a sudden panic sets in, you can tell something isn’t right, a string is out of tune. You hastily stomp on a tuner in-between songs to find one of your strings has dropped, before you know it you’re repeating the process. But what went wrong? If your guitar is refusing to stay in tune we’ve got some tips and tricks to help combat the issue.

First of all, you have to remember that your guitar will never stay absolutely perfectly in tune 100% of the time. It’s pieces of wood with steel strings pulled under tension, so many wider variables such as temperature and movement come into play, and the harder you play the more you might suffer. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get 80/90% tuning stability most of the time. There are a few different ways to go about it.

Points of contact

First of all we have to consider all the points of contact. Once you insert your guitar string it will most likely feed through the guitar body and onto a bridge, along the body and then hit the nut, before being connected to the tuning peg. All of these areas will need to be in the best possible condition to maximise tuning stability.

the bridge

Depending on your type of guitar you’ll have a different bridge, whether it’s a tune-o-matic or a saddle variation. Make sure your string is sat evenly and comfortably on the saddle, with no metal snags pulling into the string. Sometimes when tuning up, the string will find its way to the left or right of the saddle. Give it a gentle nudge back into place at low-medium tension and once the strings are tuned up it should now sit comfortably where intended.

The nut

Nuts are made from a variety of materials, from plastic, metal, graphite, ivory and bone. They can have different sonic properties as the string will vibrate against it. If the nut slots are too tight it will choke the string, too loose and you could run into tuning issues. Try using a graphite pencil and draw inside the string slots of the nut if you need to add a little lubrication to the string.

machine heads

Once the guitar passes the nut it will bend backwards to add more tension on the string, making it tighter and allowing it to ring out correctly. This is where it meets the machine heads/tuning pegs. As this is the point where the guitar string can be tightened or loosened it’s a crucial area to consider for tuning stability. Vintage closed-back machine heads are still used on many guitars but depending on the quality can lose their grip on the string and allow it to go out of tune. The best option for maximum tuning stability is modern locking tuners. This is where the string enters the tuning peg and is then locked down into place by a clamping screw mechanism on the back of the machine head. A Floyd Rose tremolo system does this at the nut, the guitar is then fine-tuned at the bridge.

strings

Keeping fresh, high quality strings on your guitar is also important to help maintain tuning stability. As strings are constantly fretted, they can develop slight dings and marks, which can effect tuning and intonation.

intonation

Tuning up perfectly but when you play a chord or use a capo everything sounds a bit off? It might not be your tuning but rather your intonation. To check your intonation properly, use a tuner and play a 12th fret harmonic, then fret the same note and see if there’s a difference on the tuner. If so your bridge saddles will have to be tightened or loosened accordingly to accommodate for the string length. With a bit of knowledge you can do this yourself, alternatively a professional will be able to sort this for you quite cheaply.

conclusion

Guitars go out of tune, that’s the nature of the beast! But with these tips and tricks you should be able to hold on to that perfect pitch a little while longer!

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