All guitars go out of tune from time to time, but some guitars go out of tune incessantly, enough to drive anyone mad after long enough. For most, it would be nice not to have to tune every 5 minutes on stage and it’s simply just not practical. So what’s causing this? Many blame the tuners themselves on the guitar, and while it seems like a logical explanation, it rarely ends up being the case. So, before you opt to swap out your tuners with fancy innovations such as Sperzel locking tuners, or a step further, Floyd Rose style floating tremolo bridges with a nut lock and fine-tuners on the bridge, there are other things affecting your tuning that are worth checking and can likely solve your tuning issues. To some, tuning issues may seem like a never-ending battle that can’t be won, but fear not! There are many little things we can do to ensure our guitar stays in tune for as long as possible, without having to give up all together and buy automatic machine tuners. Truth be told, even they have their own set of issues. They don’t tune while you play, run out of batteries after many uses…
With that said, below is a handy 8 point checklist that can help alleviate these issues:
1) The Nut
At the top of your guitar’s neck, where the neck meets the headstock, is what is called the “nut.” The strings need to be correctly seated in each of the slots to keep the guitar in tune. If the nut is cut too thin, it can catch the string while you’re tuning and get stuck on it, so you’ll hear a ‘ding’ while you’re tuning it and the string will jump too far sharp or flat. Also, if you notice your strings breaking around the nut, look to see if there are any sharp edges on the nut around where the strings pass over. These issues can be fixed by filing down the nut, extremely carefully I might add! You’ll have to replace it if you go too far. A safe place to start, before getting the file out, is to put some graphite in the slots under the strings. This could fix it without the need for a file.
2) The Tuning Pegs
Check for any play in the tuning pegs. There could just be a screw loose under one of the caps in the tuning peg mechanism. This is a simple fix: Tighten the screw. I would not recommend doing anything beyond this. If this doesn’t help, take it to a professional to diagnose or replace.
3) Intonation: The Truss Rod & Bridge Setup
If notes sound slightly out of tune the higher you play up the neck, especially combined with open notes, your guitar likely has an intonation-related issue. It’s best to take it to a luthier for this, but if you must, make sure to make VERY minor adjustments and take note of exactly how much you adjusted everything in case the guitar plays worse after adjusting. This requires truss rod and bridge adjustment. Most guitars have screws on the bridge or saddle that you can adjust to fix intonation issues with each individual string. On a Gibson Les Paul & SG (or anything with a tune-o-matic bridge) the adjustment will be in the saddle (as pictured), or on a Fender Strat/Tele, individual adjustment for this is on the back of the bridge.
To adjust the truss rod, there is a screw that sits just above the nut at the base of the headstock. 1/4 turns at most are recommended, and again, take note of how much you’ve turned it so you can reverse what you’ve done if your guitar plays worse afterwards. These adjustments do require some expertise and can potentially damage the guitar if done wrong, so be careful with this one. Here is a video you can reference for help: http://www.cyberfret.com/guitar-maintenance/guitar-intonation-setup/
4) The Strings
Old strings will not stay in tune while you’re playing. When changing strings, make sure to stretch the strings out a lot before playing. Depending on how often you play, they may need to be changed every month, every week, or even every gig. Every person has a different sweat pH, which can have a drastic affect on string life as well, so there really isn’t a clear-cut answer on exactly how long one can go between string changes. It’s just good to make sure they’re fresh. I hear Cleartones stay in tune really well…(obligatory plug).
5) The Capo
If you’re using a capo, make sure that it sits directly on top of the fret. It will pull the strings a tad sharp if placed behind a fret.
6) The Strap
If you’re using a strap tied to the headstock, it can also pull the tuning sharp. If this is the case you can get a luthier to drill a strap button to the body of the guitar or base of the neck to use instead.
7) The Climate
Changes in temperature and humidity levels will greatly affect tuning. When playing live, make sure to tune often because of this, since it’s an uncontrollable factor. When venues fill up with people, the climate can get hotter and more humid (eww) depending on the size and energy of the crowd, so it’s good to anticipate changes like this when playing live to try and get your guitar acclimated before going up on stage.
8) Your Playing Style
If you press down on the fretboard too hard when you play, the strings will go a little sharp as they bend against the frets. Using heavier gauge strings can solve this issue, or using a lighter touch on the strings while playing.
To be in tune, one must be in tune with their guitar, and their surroundings, if climate changes are a factor. If the above checklist doesn’t solve all of your tuning woes, take it to an experienced luthier to have a second look at it. There are other small factors involved that can also affect tuning that take the right tools and expertise to measure. Tune up, don’t tune out!