Here's an excerpt from an article which I wrote a while ago covering various tuning problems encountered by guitarists.

There’s nothing more frustrating than a guitar that won’t stay in tune. Here are twenty suggestions relating to the instrument set up and the guitarist’s technique which will help you to play in tune and stay in tune!


1. Tuning Technique. Most guitar instruction books teach the 4th/5th fret method which is a simple yet sometimes inaccurate way to tune the guitar. The A string is tuned to the E string at the 5th fret, the D string is tuned to the A string at the 5th fret, and so on…. This allows small errors to be compounded. The instruction books often fail to mention more accurate methods or concepts.

Solution: Before a guitar can stay in tune, you have to be able to get it in tune. Try the following technique recommended by the expert guitar builders True Temperament:
  • Tune the high E string to a reference: compare
  • 5th fret E on the B string: adjust B
  • 9th fret E on the G string: adjust G
  • 14th fret E on the D string: adjust D
  • 7th fret E on the A string (one octave below); adjust A
  • 5th fret harmonic on the low E string: adjust low E.
Also, bear in mind that it's preferable to start below the required pitch and tune upwards.

2. Dirty/Old Strings. The dirt acquired by guitars strings with cause them to perform poorly. Strings that have lost their integrity (worn where pressed against the fret) or have become oxidised, rusty and dirty will not stay in tune properly. Old strings may also have dents at the point of contact with the fret causing fret-buzz.

Solution: Change the strings regularly and always use a respected brand name such as D’Addario, Ernie Ball, Elixir or Fender. Wipe down the strings after each use with a lint free cloth will help to preserve string longevity. Tip: The strings on a new guitar do not automatically qualify as being new. They were almost certainly factory fitted and could well be a year old.

3. New Strings Not Stretched. Strings which have not been stretched properly will lose their tuning and go flat. A fresh set of strings will probably require several re-tunes during their first day of usage before they settle in.

Solution: Ensure that you stretch each of the strings properly after fitting. A string is stretched by hooking your fingers under the string whilst holding it at the first fret. Pull the string upwards lightly starting at the bridge and moving towards the neck. Each of the strings will need to be stretched and then the guitar should be re-tuned. Repeat the stretch/re-tune process four or five times.

4. String Slippage. String slippage can occur when the strings have not been wound correctly on the tuners during the fitting process. They periodically release tension causing the string to go flat.

Solution: Use the “tie” technique when fitting the strings. Feed the string through the hole in the tuner leaving about 5cm / 2” slack. Pull the string back in a clockwise direction and feed it underneath the point where the string enters the hole in the tuner. Pull the string back over itself; creating a knot. Note, as you progress to the sixth (low E) string, you should reduce the amount of slack because less winds around the tuning keys are necessary. Manufacturers sites such as D’addario have great instructional video clips demonstrating how to change strings.

5. Drop tuning. When you use drop tuning with regular strings, you are playing with decreased tension in the strings. This will affect the intonation. It also affects the stability of the strings which increases the likelihood of accidentally bending the string when fretting the note.

Solution: Replace the drop tuning strings with a heavier gauge string provides the same degree of tension. Some manufacturers produce string sets specifically for drop tuning.

6. Intonation. When a chord sound goods at one point on the neck, but out of tune at another point, the guitar is not intonated right. The goal of intonation is for the instrument sound in tune all the way up the neck.

Solution: Adjust the length of each of the strings on the guitar at the bridge and use a chromatic tuner to check that the string is in tune at different positions on the neck. Different string lengths are necessary because of the varying string thickness. Achieving good intonation also involves adjusting the curvature of the neck and the height of the bridge. To do this well, you have to know how hard the guitar is going to be played.

If you change the weight/gauge of strings on the guitar you may need to adjust the intonation.

7. Cheap Guitar. To keep costs down most manufacturers of “budget” guitars won’t employ someone to check that the guitar has been set up correctly. Retailers (such as catalogues & superstores) who stock these guitars do not specialise in guitars and don’t have the knowledge or inclination to check the guitar. You receive it with poor action, intonation, cheap strings & other components. Rather ironically, it will probably come with a free guitar tuner!

Solution: Buy a guitar made by a quality manufacturer from a dealer who specialises in musical instruments. You need to be thinking in terms of spending a few hundred dollars/euros/pounds. Instruments such as Takamine EG440C, Yamaha FG730S or Taylor 110 are great examples of well constructed guitars for a reasonable price.

8. Temperature Changes. Changing temperatures will cause a guitar to expand and contract which in turn causes tuning problems. This means that if you tune a guitar when it’s excessively cold it won’t necessarily be in tune when it warms up. The opposite is also true.

Solution: Each time you play your guitar, before you do your final tuning, play for a few minutes to allow the guitar (and strings) to warm up. After you've played a few riffs, you can then do your final tuning. As a general rule, don’t keep your guitar in places where you wouldn’t feel comfortable yourself. Don’t leave it in direct sunlight, especially in the back of a car! Most guitar cases are black causing the guitar to heat up considerably.

9. Tall Nut. As you get closer to the nut, you have to press harder to bend the string down toward the fret. This problem is particularly noticeable when the nut is too tall. Any note played on the first fret will be very sharp and first position chords will sound out-of-tune. Check this on a few guitars with a precise tuner and you will notice the difference.

Solution: The nut should be adjusted or replaced.

10. Nut Grooves Too Narrow. The strings catch on the grooves in the nut when increasing or decreasing tension using the tuning pegs. This uneven tension is released later on when playing causing the guitar to become out of tune.

Solution: If necessary, carefully widen the slots using a small file. Also, lubricate the slots with lip balm such as Chapstick when fitting new strings. String trees are another point of contact and should also be lubricated

11. Cheap Tuning Pegs. Poor quality tuning pegs with low gear ratios make precise tuning more difficult. The slightest turn of the tuning knob will rotate the shaft too quickly.

Solution: Replace the tuners. Look for low ratio (at least 16:1) which allows more accuracy.

12. Tuning Pegs Slipping. If the tuners turn very easily they may be too loose. This can result in a gradual loss of string tension causing the string to go flat.

Solution: On the ends or the backs of many tuners, you will see small screws. These screws can be tightened or loosened to regulate the turning tension. Experiment a little to achieve a reasonable amount of tension for your particular guitar.

13. Tremolo - Every time you use a tremolo it must return to the exactly same position for the guitar to retain perfect tuning. Heavy tremolo use stretches the strings and will eventually cause a loss of tuning even if one has the strings clamped downed securely.

Solution: All pivot points should be lubricated with 3-in-1 oil to reduce friction and allow the tremolo to move with ease. There are many different types of tremolo so consult your manufacturers website for maintenance details.

14. Bridge Pin. If the string isn’t seated firmly against the bridge pin during the fitting process, the string will eventually pull upward. The loss of tension will cause the tuning to go flat.

Solution: When installing strings on an acoustic guitar it is important that the ball end be firmly seated against the bridge pin and bridge plate. If it isn't, the Read more about changing strings here.

Playing Technique

15. Hard Attack. The initial attack on lower pitched strings will be sharper before returning to the “resting” pitch. You can see this when using a guitar tuner. The needle starts a little higher and then returns to centre. This kind of problem is particularly noticeable for playing successions of 16ths hit with a lot of force. The instrument will sound sharp because all you hear is the frequency of the initial attack.

Solution: Tune the string(s) to a slightly lower pitch so that the “initial attack” is in tune.

16. String Squeezing. Pushing the string too hard against the fret board on will cause the string to be stretched enough to make the note go sharp. This can happen with tall frets or even with normal frets if you push too hard just behind the fret. This is more likely to happen if you have strong fingers (or light strings).

Solution: Apply less force to the strings when fretting the notes.

17. Pulling Back the Neck. When a guitarist’s wrist gets tired through extended period of playing, there can be a tendency to compensate by using the arm to apply the extra force necessary to fret the chords. This causes the neck to flex backwards and sharpens all the strings to varying degrees.

Solution: The best approach is to re-assess your technique and make sure that you’re placing your thumb correctly behind the neck. You could also fit a stronger neck to compensate for your technique.

19. Accidental String Bending. When notes are fretted, the strings are pushed down and sometimes unintentionally sideways causing the note to sharpen.

Solution: Re-assess your technique and make sure that, if possible, you’re pushing the string(s) downwards without bending. Fitting heavier gauge strings can also help a little.

20. Capo. Cheap or poorly adjusted capos apply some serious pressure to the strings, much more than is possible with your fingers. This can cause the guitar to go slightly sharp.

Solution: Buy an adjustable Capo such as the ones made by Paige which allow the pressure to be adjusted. Put the capo into position and tighten the screw until you there is enough pressure for each string to sound clearly without any buzz.

Some additional tips

Buy a good chromatic guitar tuner.

When using a tuner, select the neck pickup, remove all the highs and pluck the open string directly over the twelfth fret. This gives you a “pure” note without any unwanted overtones which can confuse the tuner.

After tuning the open strings, check the notes on the 3rd fret using a chromatic tuner.

Use an inline tuner when performing live on stage. No one wants to listen to you tuning. There are also small, compact tuners which clip onto the head of the guitar and allow you to tune with the volume turned right down.

Use special designed audio ear-protectors at rehearsals. Prolonged exposure to high volume will damage your hearing – and hence you ability to know whether or not you are in tune!

Views: 91

Comment by Wayne Pau on September 7, 2010 at 4:34pm
Hm... I wondering if you should add something that notes you should always tune-up to a note. The mechanics for a typical machine head expose it some built-up tension. When during down, and checking with a tuner the string could be in tune, but once put into more tension (picking or strumming) more slippage or slack could occur, making the string flat.

Probably even more important in violins and classical guitars, but none the less, same principle applies.

If you don't want to have 21 items, you could just add it to #4.

Just a thought...
Comment by Toni on September 10, 2010 at 11:44am
Good thoughts.

Wayne's comment about tuning up to a note is essential for more 'ordinary' guitars, and will fix many of the nut deficiencies mentioned above on a temporary basis. In theory a well set up guitar shouldn't need this, but it's really 'best practice' regardless of setup. I know we all used to tune up fine by ear 'back in the day' but with tuners being so cheap there's no reason anyone shouldn't use one now.

Re: tuning to fretted notes, it doesn't really matter which combinations of frets you use if the guitar isn't set up properly, because it will go out of tune somewhere due to cumulative errors. I personally prefer using 12th fret harmonics, because I can tune the whole instrument to just 3 strings (E, B and G) and 3 out of 6 are referenced directly off the top E.

On cheap vs less cheap guitars, even real budget stuff is reasonably made these days, and can be made playable with a modest amount of work. In fact, it's not at all unusual for expensive guitars to be no better set up than cheap ones, although one may be able to take a duff Yamaha, Gibson or Fender back to the shop to have it set up properly. I've only ever bought one guitar new that could be gigged 'as is' and required no set up work at all, and that was probably because it was set up as a demo model for a guitar show. It's pretty much a given that any new guitar will need a couple of hours spent making it intonate properly at the right action height, and with the right amount of relief.

Acoustic guitars are terribly dependent on string gauge for correct intonation, and tend to be naturally 'out' if the wrong gauge and type are used. Unfortunately there's little that can be done, other than having custom bridges made, short of serious surgery.

On string squeezing, with electrics, it's often worth going up a gauge or 2. Many are sold with 8s or 9s fitted to make them seem 'fast' in the shop, and really need 10s to stop the strings being bent sharp. This is really a beginner issue, and shouldn't happen to a regular player.

14 - bridge pin, the pin shouldn't be under any pressure, and can be quite loose without tuning being affected. The pin is only there to fill the hole so that the ball end can't be pulled back out of the hole, and all the tension should be on the wood at the edge of the hole below the tailpiece. The string should actually be free to move in and out through the slot in the pin.

On nuts - it's always a good idea to lubricate the nut. I've used pencil graphite for a long time, working it into the slots from a medium-soft (HB) pencil, and this seems to help. I've also tried synthetic lubes containing teflon, and they worked too. Pencils are cheap, and despite scary stories about the abrasive properties of graphite, nut wear has never been an issue (my No. 1 is 21 years old, and still on the original nut).

Trems - 3 in 1 is really not the thing to use - it'll seep into the wood of the guitar, collect dust and eventually dry to a sticky mess. For 2 point trems use chapstick - it's a dry lube that doesn't collect dirt and has a very high lubricity. For vintage trems, don't use anything. They require a lot of care to set up, and even then standard Fender designs don't return well because the bevel point is in the wrong place. Some afternarket vintage-style trems (like those offered by Wilkinson) have the bevel moved slightly further forward, and return to pitch with greater reliability. Setting up a vintage trem is an article in itself.
Comment by Nigel Wiggins on September 10, 2010 at 12:08pm
Hi Wayne
Thanks for the feedback - I totally agree about tuning up and it's mentioned it at the end of point 1. Perhaps it's significant enough to be made into a separate point togther with an explanation why it's important to tune upwards. I'll update the blog post soon :)
Comment by Nigel Wiggins on September 10, 2010 at 12:41pm
Hi Toni

Thanks for all your comments. I agree with a lot of what you're saying and I'll work some of these ideas into a new version of the blog post.

The tuning method described which is advocated by True Temperament actually reduces the chance of cumulative errors because all strings reference the top E string.

I'll probably also add something about not needing to tune upwards when using the Floyd Rose locking nut.

Cheap guitars...well there are of course good examples. However, if you buy a cheap guitar from a shop which doesn't specialise in musical instruments you will have problems. I don't want to name individual brands but some of these stores should stick to selling food! This is based on personal experience in Northern Europe and maybe things are different in the USA.

I've also used graphite on the nut in the past but now i use chapstick because I find it easier to apply. Both do the job well!

Do you think that 3-in-1 should be avoided? It was recommended on the Fender website along with Chapstick for maintenance.
Comment by Wayne Pau on September 10, 2010 at 1:48pm

Sorry, when I read the line about tuning up, I assumed that it just applied to the true Temperament Tuning method (and not if you're using a electric tuner, etc). I guess I was pointing out it applies to any time you're adjusting the tuning.

To be honest, I think tuning the G string will always be struggle no matter what method you use. Just the nature of the beast. Even with compensated Wilkerson's on one of Tele's it's just trying to make the best of things.

I guess everything is an optimization question. This reference tuning only works well if the intonation is really good. I find that *isn't* always the case for acoustics, as you don't have the fine tune adjustments with the saddles. For heavy rhythm players, I may sacrifice the absolute pitch up-the-neck to get the open chords perfect.

Now we're probably splitting hairs... tuning is sometimes an art.

As for me, I actually use pencil lead/graphite in a bind. I usually have some form of mechanic pencil handy, so that's what gets used.
Comment by Toni on September 10, 2010 at 2:59pm
Hi Nigel.

Point taken about referencing the E, but it also relies on accurate fret work. In this era of CNC machines I guess there's a good chance they've got it right, provided intonation has already be set properly. I'd not trust accuracy of fretting above the 7th fret TBH for tuning, because pitch is affected much more by things like string pressure, bending slightly etc. as well as intonation and fret work accuracy.

I'm not sure what the musical instrument situation is in France, though I'd guess buying from e. leclerc or intermarche is not going to guarantee quality, and probably quite the reverse. But an affinity strat from Argos (here in the UK) can be made to play in tune all over the neck unless there's a major flaw, and may well be a match for instruments costing 10X the price in terms of playability and stability. While there is still garbage coming from China, even extremely cheap guitars (I bought a Melody bowlback for £25 a year ago - fully giggable, and I did) can be made to play acceptably sometimes. But I'd absolutely agree that they often aren't fit to go direct from shop to band (and that's been true for plenty of Fenders, Gibsons etc too).

One more thought, and in line with Wayne's comment about the G - I've been buying 'better' strings for some time now, and the old bogey the of un-tunable G has disappeared. I use DR mostly (did dabble with snake oil brand too - very good, but always a hassle to get from the US) and find they last much longer and retain tone/stability compared to cheaper brands like D'Addario, Rotosound, Fender, Ernie ball etc. Having good strings really seems to help, especially if you have several instruments, and don't play them all, all the time.

On 3 in 1, I'd avoid it, because if it soaks into the wood it can cause swelling and breakdown of the woods structure over a long period. It's not quite the same, but fuel ingress (fuel contains lots of oil) on model aeroplanes will cause them to literally fall apart as the wood is weakened. Sure it's not the same, but it's not too different either.

What's the betting I have tuning troubles this Sunday now! Using a Godin xtSA that came with tuning issues due to tight nut slots.



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