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.
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!