When it comes to your guitar, there are many areas in which you can focus. You can acquire a beautiful Strat, purchase a high-quality amp, and lots of sound effects. However, one element that rises above them all in order of importance is keeping your instrument properly tuned. After all, without this, you won’t be able to play anything at an advanced level, no matter your training. In addition, there are few things more aggravating to a musician than a guitar that won’t stay in tune.
Therefore, the following are some tips designed to help you keep your guitar from slipping out of tune, based on Len Johnson’s advice. (A guitar tech who boasts 45+ years of experience working on artist’s guitars, including Neal Schon of Journey, John McLaughlin, and Carlos Santana.)
How to Keep a Guitar From Slipping Out of Tune
1.) Stretch the Strings
One of the most common tuning issues that many guitar service companies run into is improperly stretched strings. The experts at Paul Reed Smith (PRS) Guitars said the following about the importance of stretching guitar strings:
“New strings require at least of few minutes of breaking in before they achieve the ability to hold the desired tension, seat properly in the nut, tuners, and the ball end.”
Please note, this tip applies to any type of bridge, including Floyd-Rose, stoptail, and tremolo equipped guitars. They all need their strings stretched. Also, when stretching, tune the guitar to pitch, then gently pull strings away from the guitar, keeping your fingers spread to disperse the pressure. Begin close to the pickup end of the fingerboard. Raise the string around a ½ inch, sliding your fingers toward the nut, while pulling the string lightly, then do the reverse. If you want, you can also pull the strings in a side-by-side motion. Repeat several times. Be sure to go slow and be gentle! If you do this too quickly, the friction created can and will burn you or break your strings. Be aware it’s not unusual at all for a guitar tech to take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes of playing/stretching the guitar to get a guitar ready to hold a tune.
2.) String Quality Matters
The quality of guitar string is also incredibly important to your guitar holding proper tune for as long as possible. For example, it isn’t uncommon for the guitar techs at PRS to see kinked or bent string right out of the box/package. This type of string will often refuse to straighten out completely, which causes frets and string buzzing. Also, the lighter the gauge, the longer it takes to stretch it properly.
3.) String Size Matters
In many areas of life, size matters, and string size is no exception. When you purchase a guitar, note what size string it came with. If you decide to change that size, you might need to re-cut them and adjust the truss rod for a proper fit. In general, one gauge difference in strings won’t be discernible. However, don’t jump up two gauges or more or you will most likely have some binding near the nut. You might also be looking at an intonation adjustment if you jump string sizes. In general, the factory designed size is best for keeping your guitar in tune as long as possible. If you want to change sizes, consult a guitar service professional to find out how to do so and maintain your ability to hold a tune.
4.) Lock the Strings When Restringing
When you restring, a good habit to get into is locking your string at the tuning peg. This will mean your string doesn’t move during the restringing process and result in your guitar falling out of tune.
5.) Examine the Pickup Height and Bridge
In some rare instances, where tuning issues aren’t helped by the above changes, you might have a pickup height or bridge problem, which is causing tuning difficulties. Check out the bridge and see if the intonation screws have worked themselves loose. Also, your pickup height can be too high, which causes the pickup magnet to pull your strings slightly, causing your notes to fall out of tune. Typically, this issue is only noted when playing higher than the 12th fret.
6.) The Player’s Touch Matters
It might seem like common sense, but you don’t need a heavy hand when playing, and when you do tend to push too hard on your fret hand, you can pull the chords and notes out of tune. Therefore, make sure you aren’t using too much force, especially when playing larger frets. To test your touch, consider switching on your tuner, plucking through notes and fretting a chord.
7.) The Nut is Improperly Seated
Of course, your tuning problem could also be your guitar nut. If the nut is cut too narrow, it can cause pinching of the string, which causes problems when tuning. If it’s not flat, it can cause your strings to break prematurely. This particular issue can be prevented by filing down the nut.
8.) Don’t Forget the Intonation
If you play chords combined with open or fretted notes higher on the neck, this might be especially applicable. A guitar that isn’t properly intonated doesn’t sound right or completely in tune, ever. To fix this, tweak the metal truss rod that runs down the center of the guitar’s neck.
9.) Climate Change Can Cause Tuning Turmoil
Although all the tips listed above indicate valid reasons you might be having a tuning issue with your guitar, your issue could be as simple as your climate. Temperature and humidity changes can have a significant impact on your tuning efforts. If you take your guitar outside, then back in a warm building, for example, it can cause tuning issues. To remedy this problem, limit the climate changes you subject your guitar to as much as possible and tune it as frequently as possible.
The above issues are just a sampling of the reasons that might be causing your tuning aggravations. There is nothing worse than a guitar that just won’t stay tuned for one reason or another. Therefore, we hope the above information has helped you narrow down your problem and brought you one step closer to solving your tuning issue.