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Tuning / Guitar Mechanics / Other Good Stuff

Posted by on 23 November 2009

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:: Tuning / Guitar Mechanics / Other good stuff ::

One of the most common problems for any guitarist are the challenges associated with keeping an instrument in tune. There are a huge number of issues that can contribute to a guitar’s tuning stability, ranging from the simple to the complex. If you have or ever have had tuning issues with any of your guitars, then read on and just maybe I might be able to help you solve a problem….

 

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1. STRINGS
Probably the easiest way to dramatically help tuning stability is to ensure that you stretch your strings properly when you first put them on your guitar. New strings have a certain amount of “give” which needs to be worked out of them when you first install them on your guitar. When the string is up to pitch, just lift it up above the fretboard and apply a gentle “bouncing” action 5-6 times to stretch it out. Play the string again and it will be much lower in pitch. Tune back up to pitch and repeat.

Nylon strings stretch a LOT more than steel strings do and may require you to repeat this action 4 or 5 times before they are fully stretched in. Eventually though the strings will reach a level of stability and your tuning stability will be greatly improved.

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2. MACHINE HEADS
Usually the prime suspect for tuning problems, there are a number of issues that can occur with your guitar’s machine heads.

Some cheap machine heads are of a poor design that can actually begin to slip over time – affecting your guitar’s tuning. A change to a quality brand of machine heads such as Wilkinson or Gotoh can help out a lot here.

It is also important when restringing to take note of how many times you wrap the string around the machine head post. A good rough guide is 2-3 times for wound strings and 5-6 times for plain strings Too few winds and the string will not be secure on the post and may slip out a little – changing your tuning. Too MANY winds and the string will be winding around itself and can shift around during playing - especially if you use a tremolo/whammy bar.

Both of these issues can be resolved by installing “locking” machine heads which clamp the string in place and then do not require any winds around the post. However, with some careful restringing techniques, you can achieve excellent stability from any good quality machine heads.

Check out this excellent guide from D’Addario showing how to restring an acoustic guitar (more links on this site for electric/bass/classical guitars). http://www.tothestage.com/MediaDetail.Page?MediaId=33

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3. NUT
OK so the nut is the silent terrorist when it comes to tuning problems. This little part of your guitar is the source of MANY MANY tuning problems, though it often flies beneath the radar and is often not thought of.

It’s the grooves on the nut (where the strings pass over) that cause so much grief. If the grooves have been cut too small, the string windings will actually snag in the grooves and hamper your ability to tune. This problem often manifests itself when you are tuning and the string stops going up in pitch, then you hear a little “ping” as the string unsnags itself. This “snagging” is one of the main things which causes tuning problems with whammy-bar-equipped guitars.

If the nut grooves are cut too wide, then the string will literally move around within the groove, which slightly alters the length of your string and hence the tuning. This is disasterous as the tuning will be constantly changing.

These problems used to be extremely prevalent in cheap guitars and although the problem is not as pronounced as it used to be – it is still one to watch out for. There are a couple of solutions to this:

-Get a new nut PROPERLY cut by a professional guitar repairperson/luthier. A good luthier will know how to properly slot a nut to minimise or eliminate these issues.

-Install some sort of low-friction nut. There are a number of products on the market such as GRAPH TECH nuts. These nuts are made from graphite impregnated with Teflon and provide an extremely lubricated surface which stops the strings from snagging. Some Fender guitars use the LSR Roller Nut which achieves similar results through a ball-bearing system.

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4. TREMOLO BRIDGE (VINTAGE STYLE)
The Fender Stratocaster is the most imitated guitar on the planet, and as such there are millions of guitars in existence with a vintage-style fulcrum tremolo. Whilst having a whammy bar on your guitar is great fun and a wonderful creative tool, it can also cause serious tuning issues once you start going for the big “dive bombs”. Even the best of the best Custom Shop vintage bridges are an imperfect design and are more or less impossible to keep in tune completely if you use the tremolo extensively.

However, light to moderate use of the tremolo on a well set-up, quality vintage-style bridge should not give you problems.

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5. FLOYD ROSE BRIDGES
Once upon a time there was a young guitarist named Floyd Rose who got so completely frustrated by the limitations of his vintage-style tremolo (as above) that he decided to design a completely new system. He designed a “double-locking” system that worked so well that it soon took the world by storm and became an industry-standard item as it is today.

The Floyd Rose tremolo bridge quite literally “locks” down the strings at both ends.

When this system is set up correctly it is absolutely the most stable tuning system available and will ensure your guitar stays in tune through ANY amount of abuse.

The key phrase here though is “set up correctly” as there are few things that can cause quite so much frustration as a Floyd Rose system that is not set up correctly. Be sure to get your Floyd Rose system set up by a professional – then once it is set up:

-Don’t change your string gauge (this changes the tension on the system and will screw up your guitar’s setup)

-Don’t alter the tuning of the guitar (i.e. alternate tunings). Floyd Rose systems can work in ONE TUNING only. If you like to play around with a bunch of different tunings, then a Floyd Rose system is NOT going to work for you.

If you stick to the above rules however, then you will get flawless performance from your Floyd Rose bridge and realise why it has been the tremolo of choice for so many amazing players over the years.

 

6. QUALITY OF HARDWARE
What I am about to write in this section actually addresses one of the most major, but also one of the most insidious issues that can cause tuning problems in guitar – the quality of your hardware.

I often talk about quality hardware being the “invisible factor” in keeping a guitar in tune, and getting great tone too!

As the world market keeps demanding lower-priced guitars that still look and play great, guitar manufacturers are forced to find ways to cut costs on guitars. HARDWARE (i.e. bridges and machine heads) is a great way for them to cut costs as you can still make a cheap bridge look fantastic with a layer of chrome plating – in fact it is often very difficult to tell a cheap bridge from an expensive one – but there are indeed differences….

Most hardware on cheap to midrange guitars is manufactured through a process known as die-casting. Die-casting is an extremely cost-effective process that involves “casting” parts from molten metal poured into moulds. It is a lot easier to make parts in this manner, than in the traditional fashion of stamping and machining parts.

For some parts of the guitar, the die-casting process produces excellent results – most good machine heads for example (from companies such as Grover, Schaller, Gotoh etc) are die-cast and are of very high quality.

For other parts of the guitar however, die cast hardware can be disasterous – such as on tremolo bridges. Traditional “machined” parts are made from very strong metals such as steel or brass. Die cast parts are made from alloys (usually zinc/magnesium alloys) which are not as strong as Steel and brass. Often these die-cast parts can actually start wearing away – particularly in high-tension areas such as the tremolo bridge. As the bridge starts wearing away, it can start developing some “give” which will quickly start giving you tuning problems.

This oft-overlooked factor is a major contributor to tuning difficulties, and remains one of the most compelling reasons to purchase quality instruments with good, strong hardware.

CONCLUSION
So there you go – just a glimpse at the multitude of variables that can contribute to tuning difficulties in your guitar. Remember that in any instance, it’s always recommendable, if you have any difficulties, to get your guitar looked at by a professional repair-person.

If in doubt, bring it into your nearest Rockshop and the staff will be glad to help you out.

Till next time….