I love my guitars because they all hold their tuning like a dream.
This includes guitars I have had custom built and branded ones. But, my relationship with my guitars was not always this way.
I went through a painful process of experiencing tuning problems with all my guitars and now I don’t have this problem. I have found that 99% of the time the solutions are so very simple and nothing how small should not be overlooked.
Why won’t my guitar stay in tune? Your guitar is only as accurate as its weakest component. It only takes one single weak component (such as a single machine nut, weak headstock, unbalanced bridge etc…) between the strings and the points of tension to disturb the whole stability.
I was told by a guitar tech that one quick and easy way to tell if your guitar has tuning problems is to tune it as accurately as you can, and then place your guitar down on a table or flat surface and pick it back up again. If the pitch of your strings drops out of key (even slightly) then you are experiencing some tuning issue.
Fortunately, there are secrets to having an amazing sounding instrument that holds the tuning well. In this article, i cover EVERY factor (even the very small factors) from components to techniques.
1. Tuning Issues with Angled Headstock
The first component I will discuss is the headstock.
A headstock is the piece of the guitar that is located at the upper end of the neck where the guitar strings are tuned.
Tuning Problems with Headstock Design
The tuning problems you get here is usually dependant on the type of headstock design. If you have a Les Paul then this is a common problem.
The problem resides at the joint where the neck and headstock are glued together. The problem is caused because the angle of the headstock is so great it can’t withstand the strain.
Overtime, the angled headstock can cause some tuning stability problems because a tilted headstock adds unconditional strain that the joint can’t withhold. In some extreme cases the headstock joint cracks and even breaks altogether.
If you are purchasing a branded guitar then you have to make sure the headstock is angled less than 13 degrees. Les Pauls are generally angled between 14 degrees and 17 degrees, whilst PRS are angled at around 10 degrees.
The PRS design is much better than the Les Paul Generally speaking, mainly because the angle is less.
The other solution is having a reinforced headstock joint. I ensured my custom guitar has this because the trust rod cavity also weakens the joint. So having more wood for additional support can really help with this tuning issue.
2. Tuning Issues with the Tuning Pegs
The tuning pegs are probably the most common reason for tuning issues. These are located on the headstock at the top of the fret board with the main role is to anchor the strings to the headstock and tune the strings to pitch.
Common Problems with the Tuning Pegs include:
- Old & Damaged – Because of the constant tension on the guitar the tuning pegs will start to weaken over time, crack and sometimes even break altogether. Also, they are often the component that gets damaged due to carrying and gigging.
- Loose Button – The button is the screw that holds the machine head to the headstock. If this is loose it will mean there is ‘give’ and if the machine head is loose it will not hold the tuning all that well. Check if there is play in your tuning pegs. You may be able to solve this by tightening the tiny screw in the peg itself.
- Broken Grip Piece – This can be a common issue if you are gigging as the grip pieces tend to get knocked and can break.
- Damaged Gears – This is more common with open-back tuners as they have no protective casing, and they can easily dint when carrying around and gigging. If the gears are worn or damaged then they may become disjointed and not finely tune as well.
Generally, the best solution for any of these problems is to replace the machine head with a branded one made from a solid metal material. Plastic pegs are really common on acoustics but they break really easily.
For my custom guitar I invested in Groovers for about £40 for about 6 in a set and you’ll be good to go.
3. String Tree Position
String trees are a very trivial point and the chances are you will never have this problem if you bought your guitar from a high street store. However, as I said from the beginning I am covering everything that can cause issues with tuning so here it is.
String trees are only seen on straight neck guitars, if you have a fender guitar then it will have a straight headstock and string tree on the headstock and it will be holding G and B string.
On the straight headstock string trees are required to hold the string into the nut grooves.
String Tree Location
As the strings pass over the nut and thread towards the tuning pegs there may be some slack on the strings as well as the strings may not be firmly slotted in the groves of the nut. The strings trees work with the Nut as it removes the slack by creating more of an angle to hold the G and B string in place.
This also means they are positioned between the Nut and the machine head as this is where partly the tension is controlled to ensure the correct angle. The location of this component is essential because this determines the tension on the “Nut”.
Luckily, string trees are an easy fix. If you are having a problem with your string tree then just replace it using the existing holes and it will be sorted.
4. Tuning Issues with the “NUT”
The nut is located at the top of the fret board at the point where the fret board and headstock connect and acts as an anchor point. Replacing the nut is quite complex as you have to consider the size of strings you wanted to use.
The “Nut” can result in the most complex problems such as pinging, flat/sharp notes or even problems with resonance. .
Common tuning nut problem include:
- Strings seating incorrectly in the “Nut”: If your guitar has a consistent/faint pinging sound at the nut area when you tune or bend one or more strings it may be that the strings are seating incorrectly in the nut. This is caused by both the groove the strings seat in either being too wide or too narrow. If the grooves in the nut are worn too wide then the strings could slip out the nuts and cause a buzzing sound when you strum. Furthermore, if the grooves are too tight they can pinch the strings, causing the strings to bind and prevent them from going back into tune. Both of these are actually quite a common occurrence if you change from the stand gauge of strings, as the different gauge strings can make the nut slots too wide or too narrow.
- The “Nut” is not cut and fitted well: For the strings to resonate as accurate as possible the strings break over the nut, creating a pivot. This is vital for tuning because the angle of the pivot creates a downward pressure as the string pass over the nut towards the tuning machines. Overall, balancing the tension between the strings and the nut. However, if the angle of the nut is not cut flat it can interfere with this balance and the strings will not break across the headstock as well which can cause problem with intonation and holding the tuning as you play.
- Friction” between The Nut and the strings: The problem occurs as the strings pass over the nut. The strings will be constantly, but microscopically adjust as you play, by which friction can be a problem. Some friction is unavoidable, so the trick is to minimize that friction. Les Pauls nuts are thicker and have too much surface area, whereas fenders as a better design. Whereas, you also don’t want them to thin as it will like your string pivoting over a knife edge and will wear the strings faster. You can try adding lubricant (vasaline) to the nuts to allow the strings to adjust more naturally over the nut, or shaving some graphite from a pencil into each string slot to allow each string to pass over it more freely.
- Height of the nut: Having a nut that’s cut properly is crucial because if the nut is to high then action can suffer and fretted notes can sound noticeably sharp. If the height of the nut is too low then the strings will buzz against the 1st fret.
- Binding on the Nut: binding on the nut can also cause problems. Basically, what this means is that when the string folds over the nut it changes direction/angle when pulled towards the machine head. This causes a problem when the string gauge is a 0.9 and then changed to a heavier set. You can test this problem by tuning the string to pitch, then press the string between the nut and the tuning peg. When you let go the tuning should return to pitch. If it is Sharpe then it is a binding issue. This is another design fault of Les Paul and more common when the headstock is three aligned. Again, PRS solved this problem with a straight pull. You should never see binding in 6 in-line headstock, but if you do then just be aware it is a small problem but nevertheless another factor that can affect tuning stability.
If you have diagnosed that the tuning issue is with the nut (by experiencing once of the points above) then there are three steps you must take to fixing this issue.
- The first step is to buy a new “nut” either made from graphite or bone. This is to ensure that there will be no friction issue.
- The second step is fitting the new nut. When we fit the new nut we need to make sure it is the correct height, it is cut flat and the grooves are the appropriate size for the strings to pass through. If your nut needs adjustments then you can use a file to shave it down into shape.
- The third step is testing and re-testing: the nut may need to be raised if you are getting fret buzz or lowered if the action/intonation is suffering. or resizing the grooves where the strings pass through.
Even expensive guitars straight from the factory sometimes need the nut to be adjusted and tweaked to maximize playability and tuning stability. A replacement nut made of slippery material like graphite can greatly help alleviate binding, but keep in mind that nut material affects tone. Overall, by having a nut that is cut poorly and made constructed from cheap material can directly affect the action of the strings and obstruct natural string motion that can lead to tuning problems.
5. Guitar Neck Joint
Guitar neck joint also has a very small influence on tuning issues, and they are very rare but I cover it nevertheless. I have an old Ibanez which is 30 years old and this holds tuning least accurate than all my guitars.
I replaced the tuning nuts and everything else is spot on. But, it still fails to hold the tuning. I suspect it is down to where the neck joins to the body of the guitar as there is a very noticeable crack.
This is uncommon however the particular design on this guitar has a longer than neck than usual neck (with more frets, larger frets and bowed), as well as a longer tilted headstock.
If this was a Les Paul I would evaluate this thinking it would be the headstock. However, this guitar has a reinforced headstock joint. Which means to compensate the design has put the stress on the neck joint.
After consulting with a professional they said they confirmed the design fault was in the neck to body joint. Whereby, the solution was to strip down the body of the guitar taking the neck of the body and reattaching with a bolt and glue.
This is a very technical process and probably best left to a professional. However, if the guitar is not worth much then I am a big believer of experiencmentation. But, I would seek some advice from your local Luther from taking the neck off from the body to reattaching to add stability (the type of glue and bolts).
6. Floating Bridge (floating tremolo)
From my experience of playing metal I would say the bridge is the most common problem if you have a floating tremolo (such as a floyde rose or Ibanez tremolo).
As much as I love divebombs I find the process of tuning just takes the enjoyment out of playing. However, some guitarists say that the tuning process is therapeutic.
With the cause obviously by dive bombing vigorously that that increases the slack on the strings.
Problems with the Floating Bridge:
The problem with floating bridges is that is on a balanced system between the strings and the springs at the back. This means that if there is a problem with just one string then all of the strings will go out of tune and you will experience a complete loss of tuning.
If you are experiencing a complete loss of tuning then the problem that the Saddle crashing into the saddle screw.
This is quite common to happen if you are dive bombing and being aggressive with the tremolo.
The solution is to check that all the saddles and correct the positioning. When doing this you will have to undo the locking nut of the string in question.
Overall, if you are being to aggressive with the tremolo you will always experience some tuning, and you have to go through a timely process of re-tuning to the get balance just right again.
Having a floating bridge is also a common problem for string slippage if you do not have locking nuts, so if this is the case then you will need to install some locking tuners.
Intonation is the most complex of reason why your guitar is out of tune. If you have noticed that open chords sound in tune but when you play down the fret board it sounds out then this is a fault of intonation.
This is because the notes on the 12th fret and beyond are out of tune when the open- strings and tuned to key.
It happens because the tension of the string pulls on the headstock towards the bridge. This bows the neck causing a gap between the neck and the strings. The trust rod control how much bow your neck should have.
If the neck is greatly bowed it increases the tension, making the strings shorter and sharpening the frequency on the higher notes.
The solution is pretty complex and it requires getting access to the trust rod and altering it until the tuning becomes aligned from the open strings to the 12th frets and beyond.
8. Strap Tied from the Tail to the Headstock
the strap tied from the tail of the guitar right to the headstock is
a common cause of tuning issues especially for acoustic guitars.
For electric guitars the strap ties between two sections of the body being from the tail to the heel. However, for some acoustic guitars the strap goes from the tail to the headstock.
Strap tied from the tail to the headstock
This is because the tension of the neck is constantly adjusting (where the neck and body join). By having a strap that goes from the body of the guitar to the headstock will pull the strings sharp whenever you move about will adjust the tension and unbalance the neck.
If this is the case get a strap button screwed onto the heel of the guitar. They don’t cost much at all if you fit it yourself or a shop will charge to fit it for you.
9. Change in Temperature
Humidity and temperature can have a huge effect on tuning too. In January I was travelling to Vietnam and temperature changes due to taking instruments from the car into the outdoors and then into a warm building, coupled with the dry climate there caused enormous tuning problems.
Similarly, conservatories and halls I used to play at can warm and cool drastically throughout the day.
Change in temperature is also a much known common tuning issue. This is because the properties wood change due to the temperature. In hot conditions the wood shrinks whilst in cold conditions the wood expands.
Due to this combination of shrinking and expanding of the guitar wood will either sharpen or flatten the tuning.
The solution is to keep your guitar in a dry environment that is shielded from the sun, fires and radiators away from any breezes and dark corners in your house.
If you are gigging then the best solution is a padded carry case.
But overall, this will not cause any permanent issues so the main rule is to tune often and often.
10. How you play!
Sometimes your tuning can slip slightly just by playing aggressive.
If you are learning flamenco then this can be a common problem for you. Whilst you’re in the process of developing your flamenco technique you may run into tuning problems.
Bad technique causes tuning problems simply by pressing on the string too hard and causing it to go sharp, especially if you are playing electric or with light gauge of strings.
If you are playing aggressively and it is knocking your tuning then you need to practice your technique for a lighter touch.
Alongside just pressing more gently you could try going up a string gauge or even replacing an unwound G with a wound one.
11. The Strings
String size and String quality is another common reason a guitars struggle to hold tuning.
The smaller gauges and less quality strings will need to be changed more regularly than bigger gauges and better quality strings.
When you change string remember to follow the correct procedure for example take a minute or two to stretch them and tune downwards like always, when you change strings make sure you leave enough space for a number of windings around each string tree. Generally unwound top strings need more winds than the wound lower ones.
12. The capo
Another recurring tuning issue comes along with using a capo, especially on guitars with jumbo frets. Most guitarists realise that a badly placed capo will pull strings out of tune, but actually putting a capo on a guitar with bigger frets will cause the strings to pull down further onto the neck and so pull them sharp.
Shubb type capos have adjustable tension which will help but alternatively try placing the capo directly on top of the fret rather than traditionally behind it and this should help.
13. Pickups to Close to Strings
Another aspect that is very small and you probably will not run into it. However, it is a tuning issue in some cases and so I will include it.
Pickups to close to strings become an issue because they are magnetic, and the magnets can slightly pull of the strings if they are too close.
Check out the bridge and see if the intonation screws have worked themselves loose. Also, your pickup height can be too high, which causes the pickup magnet to pull your strings slightly, causing your notes to fall out of tune. Typically, this issue is only noted when playing higher than the 12th fret.
14. String Slippage
String slippage most commonly occurs when you have a moving bridge such as a floyde rose.
Once you perform a dive bomb the floating bridge is pulled down and as a result it will loosen the strings. This causes slack in the strings, and when there is slack the strings become loose around the tuning post.
This is where string slippage happens as the strings become loose.
The solution will require lock-in screws and this easily solves the problem.
15. Leaning against the Wall
Leaning your guitar at an angle against a wall can affect tuning because is changing the tension of the neck.
It is debatable whether or not this will cause any permanent damage but I would never advise it because it’s just a bit more force bowing inward on the neck.
As well as it just being a bit of a safety issue encase it gets knocked over.
End of the day it is insanely cheap to purchase a guitar stand or wall hangers that can also be good space savers.
Today we covered all the tuning issues I have come across with 15 years of playing the guitar.
If there is anything you think I have missed… anything… then please leave a comment and ill credit you in this article.