Ever been frustrated by a guitar that won't stay in tune? Perhaps
even wanted to take that darned six-string and blow its wooden
brains out? Fortunately, terminal measures are rarely necessary.
A few simple preparations and precautions are all that are required
to have an instrument that gets and stays in tune, at least well
enough to avoid violent solutions. Gentlemen, start your peg-winders!
Before a guitar can stay in tune, you have to be able to get it
in tune. This requires a guitar that is properly intonated. A
guitar is considered to be in proper intonation when notes and
chords do not get more and more out of tune as you play up the
neck. Proper intonation does not mean that it is perfectly in
tune at every fret, just that it is equally out of tune at any
given point (more about this later). A properly intonated guitar
should sound acceptably in tune for all your chords from the first
fret to the highest fret.
Proper intonation is achieved by making sure that the distance
from the nut to the twelfth fret is equal to the distance from
the twelfth fret to the bridge. This can be easily checked by
picking each string while lightly touching it at the twelfth fret,
creating a harmonic. Fretting the string at the same fret should
result in a note of the same pitch. (The harmonic is always the
same as the open string whether the intonation is right or not.)
If the fretted note is sharp compared to the harmonic its bridge
point needs to moved farther from the twelfth fret; if it is flat,
it needs to be closer.
Most electric guitars and basses offer adjustable bridge
saddles for each string, allowing them to be individually moved
closer and farther as needed. Some guitars (i.e. vintage Teles,
and basses) use one saddle for two strings. You can either split
the difference (country players have made "in tune"
records for years with unmodified Teles), or bend the intonation
screw until each string is exactly intonated, á la Danny
Classical guitars and steel string acoustics, meanwhile, usually
have one saddle for all six strings, or individual saddles that
are not adjustable. Experimenting with different brands and gauges
brands of strings can improve intonation. Or, if your ears are
more sensitive, the saddle can be compensated by filing back or
forward underneath individual strings.
Many archtop jazz guitars will have a single wooden saddle mounted
on a floating (movable) bridge. Some of these have been pre-compensated.
Keep in mind, however, that they were probable adjusted for thick,
flatwound, jazz strings with a wound G string. If you plan to
use thinner, roundwound strings with a plain G you will need to
modify the saddle, have a new one made or change to an adjustable
Tune-o-Matic bridge, like those found on Les Pauls.
DIRTY STRING SYNDROME
Whatever you do to improve your instrument's intonation,
first make sure it is done with new strings. One of the most common
causes of tuning problems is old strings. Strings that are rusty,
oxidized, or dirty will not stay in proper tune. If you want to
be able to get and stay in tune you must change them. So here
are a few words of advice: Just because you changed the strings
this year does not mean they are new. And just because it is a
new guitar the strings do not automatically qualify as new. If
it has been hanging on the wall at the store for any length of
time, your "new" guitar has probably been played by
any number of sweaty, dirty fingers before you purchased it. And,
even fresh out of the box, there is no telling how long it lay
at the factory, on the ship or in the warehouse. So if you want
to be assured of proper intonation, change those strings!
So what does qualify as new? A:fresh-out-of-the-package is a safe
bet. Even then brand new sets have been known to harbor a bad
string that will drive you crazy. If you have checked everything
else and one string is giving you trouble, try changing that string.
How often should you change them to insure proper intonation?
That depends on how often you play, how much you sweat, and the
corrosive quality of your sweat. If your hands sweat and your
sweat is especially corrosive, you may have to change your strings
as often every show for truly accurate intonation. Sorry. On the
other hand, if you tend to be cool as a cucumber, you may be able
to go weeks with acceptable tuning.
Wiping the strings with a lint free cloth (an old T-shirt can
work) after playing can help prolong string life. Avoid liquids
FRETS, ACTIONS & PICKUPS
So your guitar is intonated, your strings are fresh, and
you are still having intonation problems. Take a look at the frets.
If you have just purchased your first guitar with high frets or
have recently installed them in your current guitar, you may experience
difficulty playing chords in tune. This is because playing on
high frets is sort of like playing a scalloped neck. The proper
note is achieved as soon as you press the string to the fret.
Further pressure toward the fingerboard just makes the note sharper.
Different pressure from different fingers will make a chord sound
out of tune as one or more notes are pushed sharp. A lighter touch
and listening is required to play a guitar with high frets in
The distance of the strings from the frets is called the action.
Most players prefer low action for ease of playing, but if you
are on of the ones who prefer higher action for its tonal properties
and ease of string bending, you may have to compensate - in terms
of intonation - for the added distance that you are pushing the
string. In cases where the nut is raised or the strings are raised
at the bridge, the note at the twelfth fret may not match the
harmonic when properly intonated, but the guitar will play in
Electric (and some acoustic) guitar and bass pickups are magnetic.
Placing them too close to the strings will exert a pull, creating
overtones that make accurate intonation impossible. This is especially
true with "hot" pickups. Adjusting the pickups toward
the strings will increase output and reduce high-end. Moving them
away will reduce output and increase high-end response. Still,
the exact height is a matter of taste. You can make sure you are
not too close by fretting the guitar at the highest or near highest
fret and listening for odd overtones or warbling.
STAYING IN TUNE
The first thing that most people assume when their guitar
won't stay in tune is that the tuners are slipping, or somehow
not doing their job. A logical enough assumption, but 99.9% of
the time it is wrong. Given that all the intonation factors we
have discussed are accounted for, making the instrument capable
of getting in tune in the first place, the most common reason
guitars go out of tune is our old friend...strings. "But
I put new strings on today," you cry. Yes but did you stretch
them? "Of course," you protest. Let's see that guitar.
Well look at this. One yank on the low E and the pitch drops a
step and a half. If your average guitar repairman had a nickel
for every time that scenario took place, he would be working from
a mansion in Malibu, not the back of the local axe shack.
When you put on new strings the windings around the tuners must
be tightened by pulling the string until it no longer goes flat
when pulled. This requires repeated moderate pulling, retuning,
pulling, retuning and so on until done. Pull the string away from
the fingerboard, not across it to avoid breaking the nut. If you
don't do this, then every time you play a song or bend a string
you will be tightening those windings, causing the string to go
flat. By the time they settle in, it will be long past time to
change your strings, and the whole process will start over.
If you find when stretching the string that it keeps going flat
and eventually pulls out of the tuner, you may be stringing the
guitar improperly. Pull the string through the tuner (or cut off
the end and insert it, as with Kluson-style Fender tuners), leaving
just enough slack for two to four windings - too many windings
makes stretching difficult.
If the tuner is the type where the string pulls through, take
each unwound string and bring it back and under itself in such
a way that the windings will go over the end, thus locking it
(POSSIBLE ILLUSTRATION). If it is the Kluson-style, wind the string
part way down, then back up then all the way down to achieve a
similar effect. Proper stringing and stretching of the strings
will prevent going out of tune 90% of the time. As the folks at
Nike say, "Just do it."
NUTS & TREMOLO TROUBLES
Often the strings will get caught in the nut. A properly
cut nut will go a long way toward preventing this. Have a qualified
repair person check yours. Rubbing a pencil over it to get some
graphite dust in the slots can help lubricate it. Graphite and
composite material nuts can work fine but a well cut bone nut
is your best bet.
Whammy bars bring a whole new set of tuning problems into the
picture. If flawless tuning at all times is required and, at the
same time divebombing trem work is part of your style, a good
double-locking tremolo system is necessary. Double-locking systems,
like the Floyd Rose, stay in tune because the string is locked
at the nut (a locking nut replaces the original nut preventing
catching or string winding problems) and at the saddle - thus
removing any point that the string might catch when using the
tremolo. Systems that use a string lock behind the original nut
may not prevent catching problems. Even a double locking system
requires proper maintenance and new strings for accurate tuning.
If you need to wham, but don't want to deal with a locking system
there are other alternatives and some tricks for staying in tune.
Locking tuners - like Sperzels - eliminate the need for string
windings so when tension is released by dropping the trem arm
there are no windings to re-tighten. Proper nut lubing helps,
too, as does a trem block and saddles that allow the string to
If your style leans more toward trem use than bending, drop the
arm a few times before tuning. Then tune up without pulling on
the strings (still stretch them before tuning , just not after).
The strings will catch anyplace they are going to, but will stay
in tune while you whammy to your heart's content. Bending a string
will pull it flat, but hitting the arm should throw you right
back in tune.
PLAYING IN TUNE
So you've done everything right. The strings are fresh
and stretched, the intonation is set, the nut is lubed, even finger
pressure is applied, and, okay, so the B string tuner was actually
slipping and has been replaced. Now why won't the darn thing play
The bad news is - guitars don't play perfectly in tune! They are
only relatively in tune. They are in what is called a "tempered"
tuning. Even on a perfectly maintained instrument, if you tune
it so that the G# in the first position E chord is sweetly in
tune, the open G in your first position C chord will be flat.
If you tune the C# in a first position A chord to be sweet, the
open B will be flat. Guitars are tuned in a compromised tuning
that makes that C# and G# a little sharp so that the open strings
are only a little flat. Fortunately for most of us, our ears have
become accustomed to these compromises so that it doesn't sound
unpleasant. Still, you will often see classical guitarists re-tuning
for different pieces that feature specific intervals.
The fact that guitars are not perfectly in tune can result in
what we call "recording ears." In the recording studio
we will listen so closely that we will hear these compromises
more than is normal. Don't worry, neither you, nor anyone else
is likely to listen that closely to your guitar parts ever again.
Learning to tune your guitar so that it is equally out of tune
for all the chords is part of the process of learning the instrument.
Another, more advanced part, is learning to make minor adjustments
with finger pressure and slight string bends that push the guitar
into better tune rather than throwing it out. It is said that
other people picked up Jimi Hendrix's guitar and found it out
of tune-right after he had just finished playing and sounding
perfectly in pitch. Mythology or not, this goes to illustrate
that how you play can affect your tuning.
In all, this may seem like a lot to deal with, but if you keep
your strings new and stretched you will probably sound fine. And
just in case-keep that electronic tuner handy and full of fresh