What Tuners? ALL Types Of Tuning Machine Heads Explained

What Tuners? ALL Types Of Tuning Machine Heads Explained

Did you know there are SIX main types of tuning machine heads? These can alter in both design and fitting.

What are the types of tuning machine heads? There are FIVE main types of tuning machine heads which include the vintage style (both closed and open-back),  sealed machines, lock-in machines, staggered posts and classical open-backs.

There are many types of tuners but they generally fall into the category of Vintage or sealed machines.

Is this article, I will cover all in more detail.

1. Vintage Open-Back Machine Heads

The vintage open-back tuners are the first type of machine head that has come into existence. They were originally made from wood but the as technology advances so does the materials that we use to make them.

Today, vintage open-back tuners fit right in the modern world with their aesthetic look. In addition, purchasing the right brand they also function outstandingly well.

Example of a Vintage Open-Back Machine Head

Example of a vintage open back tuning machine

The best way to identify the traditional vintage tuning machine heads is from the exposure of the gear cogs and the groove bushing on the front of the guitar headstock.

If you are not familiar with the component on the headstock then please read the article I wrote entitled “all the components of a machine head” where I explain them all in detail.  

Because of the vintage open-backs, have the exposed gear cogs they are often referred to open-back tuners.

The best common brands include:

  • Waverly’s open-back traditional tuning nuts
  • Three on a plate open-back traditional golden age tuners

Overall, the vintage tuners all consist of press fit bushing, which will fit into ¼-inch holes on the headstock.

Advantages of the Vintage Open-Back Machine Heads

The vintage open-back machine heads have a popular opinion of being the most attractive tuners because of the vintage aesthetics.

This will most likely be anyone’s first choice for someone who loves to play the older classic guitars. This is because the vintage open-backs were the type of machine head that came standard back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

As time passes these guitars are now in the hall of fame as collectable items and the vintage open back aesthetics is just part of their charm. Mainly, because of popular opinion people think that open-backs are better suited to the designs of vintage guitars.

They also generally weigh somewhat less as they do not have the protective housing that the sealed machines have. Overall, this has bearing on balance and total mass of the neck/headstock.

Disadvantages of the Vintage Open-Back Machine Heads

The problem with the Vintage Open-Back Machine head is that they do not last as long as the sealed gear types.

This is because the gear and internal mechanisms are exposed to the outside where dirt and debris can take its toll. After a few years, you will start to see and feel the worn.

This is an even bigger problem if you own as classical Stratocaster from the 70’s. These guitars can be worth tens of thousands of pounds (£$), and by changing out parts is significant to the value of the guitar.

Luckily, there are quality high-end brands that can replace the old tuners and still keep the value of the collectable if installed correctly (such as the Waverly’s). In addition, vintage style tuning machine head also have a detailed design and for this reason, they usually cost more to replace.

2. Side-Mounted Machine Heads

The side mounted the machine heads are a very similar design to the Vintage open-back and you generally can’t tell the difference in aesthetics.

In fact, you can still refer to them as being vintage open-backs and you are not wrong to do so.

However, the side-mounted machines are slightly different in functionality. The only difference is that they are only found on classical acoustic / flamenco guitars that use nylon strings and attach to the tuning post in a slightly different way.  

Example of Side-Mounted Machine Heads

Example of a side mounted tuning machine for a classical guitar

Classical guitar tuning machine heads can be identified by the position being mounted on the side of the headstock.

The way the gears attach to the post is a different design and so the side-mounted tuners won’t work with the stand electric guitar.  

They are usually metal with plastic handles and come in sizes of 11cm*5cm*4cm.

Advantages Of Side Mounted Machine Heads

The side mounted open-backs share the similar advantages as the vintage open backs machine heads.  They are still seen as attractive tuners because they share the vintage aesthetics as the open gear design.  

Furthermore, the role of the classical guitar nylon strings also plays somewhat of an advantage. This is because they do not need as much tension to hold the strings in tune.

Disadvantages Of Side-Mounted Machine Heads

The disadvantages of the side-mounted machine heads is that by having the gears exposed makes them vulnerable to dirt and debris just like the vintage open-backs. This makes them more prone to wear and brake overtime.  

In addition, the materials are also less quality, often being made with plastic buttons. Because of being made from plastic there general design is weaker and to accommodate for the nylon strings they do hold as high tension.

This makes this design less practical for guitars that are strung with steel strings.

3. Vintage Closed-Back Machine Heads

Vintage closed-backs machine heads are also similar to the vintage open-back in terms of functionality. However, they differ in design because of the casing (formally known as housing) that surrounds the gears.

Example of a Vintage Open-Back Machine Head

Example of a Vintage Closed Back tuning machine head

The best way to identify the traditional vintage closed-back is by the bushing in the front end of the headstock (same as that on a vintage open-back). The bushing presses in (pushed in), to the headstock to ensure it is secured.

The best common brands include:

  • Kluson closed-back tuning heads
  • Keystone closed-back tuning heads
  • Six-Inline vintage tuning heads

Advantages of the Vintage Closed-Back Machine Heads

There is one main advantage when it comes to the vintage closed back machine heads.

The main advantage is longevity.

They pretty much function, the same as the open-back however; they have protective housing, which adds extra protection to the gears. The housing protects the gears from any bangs and dirt which overall makes the machine head hold tuning more accurately over a longer time-period.

Disadvantages of the Vintage Closed-Back Machine Heads

There are THREE main disadvantages. The THREE disadvantages of the vintage closed-backs are in design, heaviness and material.

  • First of all the closed back tuners are not regarded to look as appealing as the vintage machine heads. Even though you may see them on some vintage style guitar, it is common for people to actually change the closed-backs and replace them with open-backs.
  • Secondly, many players strongly prefer the lighter tuners (for comfort). The extra protective housing adds additional weight and because of the machine heads being located on the headstock can greatly affect the weight distribution and overall how the guitar balances on your lap. 
  • Thirdly, the cheap end closed back machine heads are made from cast metal, which is brittle and can fatigue and crack. If you are gigging (or have plans of gigging) then these cheaper brands will not last very long and you will need to replace them just after just a few years.

4. Sealed Tuning Machines

The sealed tuning heads are the most modern machines. These are all made from metal and vary in quality depending on the brand.

Moreover, if you get a good brand the sealed tuning machine heads will last the longest and outlive any other type of tuning machine.

These also have two different variations:

  • Sealed tuning nut with Mounted screw – the most common sealed tuning nuts have screw that fix the machine onto the headstock.
  • Sealed tuning nut with indexing pin – these include an indexing pin underneath the housing that hold the machine pin in place without having a screw. The tension of string then holds the machine in place.

Example of a Sealed Tuning Machine

backend of headstock - sealed machine tuning nuts

Sealed tuning machine is on the left, comparing against a Waverly vintage open-back.

The best way to identify sealed tuning pegs is by not being able to see the gears. Sealed machines a housing casing that contains the gears. Thus, not exposing the gears to the outside. 

These usually have a 10mm threaded bushing with surrounded washer and held to the headstock by a single screw piece.

Sealed tuner peg holes can vary from 3/8-inch to 10mmdepending on the brand.

Advantages of a Sealed Tuning Machine

Sealed tuning nuts have a diecast housing that encloses the worm and cog gear (basically a metal alloy that surrounds the gears) to keep out dirt and debris out. They also have the added benefit of keeping them permanently lubricated.

IIRC state that the sealed machines are lubricated for life. This means they do not wear out as fast because abrasive contamination can never get into the working parts of the machine.

This is because abrasive contamination accelerates the wear of the teeth of the gears that over time makes it harder for the machine head to hold the tuning.

Disadvantages of Sealed Machine Head

The disadvantages of the sealed machine heads is in the aesthetics. They do not look as appealing and if you would to replace vintage open-back with the sealed machine; you would then be devaluing your guitar. 

5. Lock-In Tuning Machine Heads

Locking-screw machine nuts have the locking screw built onto the sealed unit. These come as kind of an add that are only built on the sealed machine.

Depending what guitar you purchase you will have to somewhat compensate between flexibility or stability in your tuning device.

This usually comes down to locking screws.

The locking-screw is an additional component that adds stability in the tuning by applying pressure on the strings.

The additional component on the locking screw can add complexity, which usually results in the lack of lack flexibility.

However, locking’s screws add stability because as they hold the strings into place it eliminates any potential string slippage.

Example of a fender Stratocaster locking-screw (without Floyd Rose)

example lock-in sealed machine tuning nut

The particular Fender Stratocaster of mine (demonstrated in the above image) has locking screws built into the tuning machine.

As you can see I have taken the bottom locking-screw just so that you can see clearly how easy the locking screw latches onto the side of the tuning machine nut. Thus, adding pressure on the thread of the string keeping it in place.

I think this is a perfect example of how Fender has prioritized stability but still making the tuning option very flexible. 

Example of a Locking-Screw

floyd rose lock-in nuts

Instead of locking the strings where they would normally wrap around the tuning machine nut, the Floyd Rose lock the strings at the base of the headstock (where to headstock meets the fretboard).

This guitar is fine-tuned at the tremolo.

If your guitar has a Floyd Rose tremolo then it will definitely have locking screws on both ends of the guitar (being the tremolo and the headstock).

As you can see from both the images this additional component makes the tuning process slightly more complicated whereby restringing the Floyd Rose is less practical.

6. Staggered Tuning Machines Heads

Staggered tuning machine heads are different in length. Machine heads with staggered post heights are typically found on guitars that without a pitched (angled) headstock and do not make use of string trees. 

Example of staggered tuning machine heads

Staggered tuning machine heads mean the tuning posts change in height from the low E to the high E. 

Typically, staggered machine heads give the high E string the shortest height and the low E the tallest height.

Advantages of the Staggered Tuning Machine Heads

The main advantage of the staggered tuning machine head is to help create a good angle between where the string rests on the nut (where the string rest on the top end of the fret board) and between the tuning post (that slots through the headstock). 

The area between the nut and the machine head post is called the break angle. The break angle provides significant importance because the angle affects the amount of downward pressure on the nut.

If there is not enough downward pressure on the nut can reduce the quality of sustain and can sometimes even cause fret buzz. As well as the string, not staying anchored to the nut that will cause string slippage (where the string more frequently goes out of tune).

Overall, this removes the need for string trees keeping a better intonation.

Disadvantages of the Staggered Tuning Machine Heads

The disadvantages of the staggered tuning machine head will come down to both manufacturing and fitting.

By having the machine head posts all different sizes means the bulk manufacturing process is harder to achieve and will result in higher costs.

With the posts, being different sizes can sometimes cause problems when fitting. If not done correctly will have a negative effect on the intonation.

8. Does The Types Of Tuning Machine Heads Affect Performance

By performance I am referring to how well does the machine hold tuning.

The types of tuning machine can somewhat effect the performance of your playing. But, this doesn’t come down to the type of machine but rather quality of the machine.

The quality of the machine is determined by the type of brand you are using. If you use a known common brand such as they Waverly’s open-back and you have tuned-up using the correct techniques then you will should not have a problem.

The type of machine head should not affect the performance of your playing.

However, there are some considerations.

From my experience using an adjustable tremolo can have an effect on intonation more than anything can if you choose not to use lock-in screws.

This is because when you bend your tremolo the string become lose, as the strings become lose the direction the strings coil around cylinder gets disturbed and even when the string are flat again it will cause a disturbance in the intonation and the strings will most likely need to be tuned once again.

Furthermore, I care about intonation more than anything else, as there is nothing more frustrating when a guitar keeps going out of tune. I have found that Gotoh 510 (18:1) or Gotoh 510 Delta (21:1) sealed-lubricated tuners seem to hold the tuning very well.

9. Does the Type of Machine Head Affect the Quality of My Sound?

I am also a huge believer that tuners affect the tonality.

This is because every material has a slight different range of vibrations, which of course affects resonance.

When it comes down to open back tuners such as the Waverly’s are the materials they use is solid gold plated thicker metal.

I also think vintage open-back tuner do get a better quality tone because the high end guitars are still being installed with these machines.

However, it is important to add they only do it for design, if it did affect the tone in a negative way they would not do it. 

That is part of the reason why so many high-end guitar makers are now installing them on their guitars.

However, even though open-gear tuners are far superior today, they are impervious to random dirt and dust getting in the gears, and they still do not ever need lubrication… but the truth is, you would have to get your guitar in some mucky places for dirt to get in your tuning machines.

Overall, I would suggest closed back just because when you carry your guitar in a carry case they will get caught on your guitar bag and get damaged in the process.

Conclusion

To conclude the machine head types we learnt that there are two main types of machine heads being the vintage and sealed machines.

There are three types of vintage machines which are the open-back vintage tuners, closed-back vintage tuners and classical side mounted vintage tuners.

In addition there are also three types of sealed machine tuners. You got the standard sealed machine, lock-in nut machines and the staggered tuning posts.

  • Vintage Open-Back Machine Heads
  • Side-Mounted Machine Heads
  • Vintage Closed-Back Machine Heads
  • Sealed Tuning Machines
  • Lock-In Tuning Machine Heads
  • Staggered Tuning Machines Heads

We also learnt that generally, the types of tuning machine does affect performance comparing the cheap brand to expensive brands as the cheap brand affect intonation. Which can also lead to the quality of the tone it produces.

However, two different types of the same quality machines somewhat perform the same. But, the big part of installing the vintage open-back machine heads is for people that want ‘period-correct machines on it. This more about what is “fashionable” rather than what is best functional.

That’s not to say there are some really minor differences. But, that’s to say are not really powerful open-backs such as the Waverly’s. However, the sealed machines permanently lube the gears so they last longer. 

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