Why Won’t this Guitar Stay in Tune?

05.15.2013 Gibson Guitar string pack

Few things are more vexing on stage or in rehearsal than a guitar that won’t stay in tune. We’ve all experienced this irritation, and most likely at the least convenient time. Here are 10 common reasons why guitars refuse to stay in tune and how they can be addressed:

• Funky tuners: There are several woes that tuning pegs can present. The wear and tear of everyday use and transportation can shake their interiors loose. Take a screwdriver to tuning pegs periodically to be sure they’re tightly attached to the headstock and mechanically solid. Too many windings of string around a tuning post can also lead to slipping and inefficiency. When stringing a guitar, snip the string no more than two inches past the tuning post while holding it lax along the neck.

• Old strings: Old strings are coated in micro-funk due to oxidation and their composition is tested by wear. Both of those factors can cause strings to go out of tune repeatedly. If you feel like your strings need replacing, trust your gut. And if you don’t change strings after a few gigs as a matter of course, eyeball them frequently for signs of pulls and rust.

• Dirty and poorly cut nuts: Some guitars won’t tune well right out of the box. In such cases, the problem is often a poorly cut nut with grooves not large or deep enough to allow the strings to move back and forth inside them without restriction. A quick cure for this is deepening and broadening the grooves with a thin file — a nail file will do. But nuts also become dirty with playing. String oxidation rubs off, airborne smoke and dust builds up. That’s why it’s important to clean the nut periodically. When re-stringing, rub a bit of graphite from the tip of a pencil into each groove for lubrication. That’ll reduce string friction and help strings stay in tune.

• Tie-on guitar straps: If you’re using a tie-on strap — this happens most commonly with acoustic instruments — the tie can often pull or push on the strings, causing them to detune. Consider adding a peg in the heel of the guitar and using a non-tie strap to combat this.

• Whammy bar willies: An improperly set-up whammy bar can exert too much or too little tension on the strings, which was cause detuning. If your whammy bar is correctly set up, but using it causes your instrument to go out of tune, that’s likely caused by a nut that’s dirty or too tight, restricting the ability of the strings to return to their correct pitch.

• Hard playing and pressure: If you slam the strings when you play, they’re more likely to go out of tune. Try developing an even picking hand and attacking the strings as cleanly and efficiently as possible. And if you rest your hand over the bridge at the base of the strings, avoid applying too much pressure. That can also knock a guitar out of tune — especially if it is equipped with a sensitive whammy bar.

• Climate: Changes in temperature and humidity will cause a guitar to go out of tune, as the strings expand and contract in reaction. Try to give your instruments time to adjust to the temperature of a room before tuning and playing them. If you’re on stage under hot lights or playing outdoors on a scorching day, your strings are also far more likely to appear to have a mind of their own.

• Intonation: If a guitar isn’t intonated correctly it’s not going to tune right and this will be especially noticeable as you play chords ascending the neck. Fixing this usually requires a truss rod adjustment, and if that’s out of your league have an experienced player give you a tutorial or take the guitar to a repair person. Truss rods need only infrequent adjustment if a guitar is well made.

• High or low frets: Too much and too little fret height can mess with your ability to play in tune. Pressing down on a fret that’s too high produces a sharp note unless you’re aware of the height of the frets and develop a light touch, like guitarists who perform on instruments with scalloped fretboards. Low frets, on the other hand, tend to encourage sloppy fretting technique in beginners. It is easy to slide over or around the fret instead of pinning the string right up against it.

• Pickup proximity: Here’s a mind-blowing problem. Pickups are, of course, magnetic. And if they’re ultra-hot and too close to the strings, they will exert a small amount of downward magnetic pull. That can make it tough to tune a guitar accurately and interfere with intonation. On the other hand, lowering the pickups will darken a guitar’s tone. Spend some time to find the right balance or pickup height and tone.