How To Keep Your Guitar in Tune

  Here's The Pitch  
A Vital Lesson In How To Keep Your Guitar in Tune

by Michael Ross

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 Gatton.

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.

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 and solvents.

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 tune.

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 tune.

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.

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."

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 slide smoothly.

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.

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 in tune?

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 batteries.

Michael Ross is a guitarist and writer, who has toured the East Coast, West Coast and all points in between, as well as Iceland, Norway and even a few colder places. He recorded two CD's with the Potato Eaters, and done clubs and sessions too numerous to mention (or remember). He is the author of Getting Great Guitar Sounds (Hal Leonard), and lives in San Francisco with nine guitars that he attempts to keep in tune.

Thank you to Gutar Shop Magazine for this artcle.

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