Every guitarist knows that a guitar going out of tune is one of the most frustrating things ever. Tuning stability issues can affect people of all levels, and the reasons for it can be seemingly out of your control, especially if you can’t identify the problem.
It’s natural for the tuning to deviate a little bit over time, even if you’re not playing it, but if it quickly goes out or it’s a drastic change, you might have a problem. In this article, I will cover some of the most common reasons why your instrument might be having tuning issues and offer some solutions for them.
Table of Contents
1. Your Guitar’s Nut Needs Servicing
One of the most common causes for tuning problems, even on high-end instruments like Gibson Les Pauls, has to do with the nut.
The nut is the small strip of material that your strings make contact with before being wound up around their respective tuning pegs.
Even on expensive guitars, manufacturers often cheap out on this small but important part and don’t get it just right. Sometimes the nut is made from a low-quality plastic material, not appropriately spaced apart, not lubricated, or the strings just don’t fit right at all in the tiny grooves.
If a nut isn’t lubricated adequately, strings can get caught or pinched in there if the spacing is too tight. To fix this, you can use some graphite from a #2 pencil to make it slicker, or you try using a product that is designed for this specific problem.
If you’re into a little bit of elbow grease, you can also try to file the nut so that your strings fit better. I’d advise against doing this if you’re a beginner, though; you don’t want to have the strings slipping out of their sockets. That would be opening another can of worms entirely and would need to replace the nut.
However, some people still replace the nut regardless because the material used on the original one just isn’t that good.
Bone and TUSQ, which is essentially a man-made substitute for ivory, are pretty popular options, but I prefer TUSQ because they can be a bit more consistent, including in other places like the saddles. Some of them are self-lubricating as well.
2. There Is An Issue With Your Bridge
Another important area that can be causing tuning problems on a guitar is at the bridge, which is one of the three points of contact that the strings have on the instrument, along with the nut, and the tuning pegs.
On acoustic guitars, the saddles and bridge pins might not be made of the best materials, just like the nut. Thankfully, these things can also be replaced if you think they are the issue. Although you’ll need to find the right one for your guitar, replacement saddles look like these:
Electric guitars can be a little bit more complicated because there are several different types of bridges that one can have. They have saddles, too, but there are other small components that make up the bridge on an electric guitar.
These, too, can be made of not-so-great materials, and this is why there is a difference between licensed Floyd Rose bridges and the original Schaller ones. The Schaller Floyd Rose is way more consistent, even if they are designed for the same thing.
Locking tremolos, like the Floyd, are secured at the nut and at the bridge and are typically tightened with the use of an Allen key. They are supposed to keep you in tune even if you use the whammy bar a lot. But some of you might find that is just not the case.
I’ve played with many guitars that have had locking tremolos that just didn’t do their job, and unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about it without blocking the bridge or simply stop using the whammy bar entirely.
Although it could have solved my problems, replacing the entire tremolo system wasn’t feasible for me at the time. Eventually, I just got a guitar with a better locking system and got rid of the other guitar. But if you’re willing to upgrade your instrument, this could be an option for you.
Just keep in mind that changing your bridge can be a very costly process, but if you don’t want to part with your guitar, making that upgrade can be cheaper than buying a new guitar.
Also, if the tension isn’t right, the locking bridges can also sink, and if they’re not leveled with the body, this can also create annoying tuning problems. This can be fixed with a guitar setup, though, which I will talk more about later in this guide.
If you use a synchronized bridge, like the ones on Fender Stratocasters, you can also run into tuning issues, especially since there isn’t anything locked in place. However, if yours is getting out of tune without you doing anything, it can be indicative of other problems outside of the bridge area.
Even fixed bridges can experience similar issues, so it’s not always the type of bridge that is the problem. I recommend taking your guitar to a technician or luthier to see if they can identify the specific cause of your tuning issues, especially if you suspect your bridge is to blame.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that it’s just poorly made, and you can benefit from changing some parts.
3. You Have Problems At The Tuning Pegs
It’s very logical to think that if you have tuning issues, the pegs, also called machines, are the source of the problem. After all, this is where all of the tunings are done (aside from fine-tuning with the little twisting knobs on a locking tremolo like a Floyd Rose).
However, unlike problems at the bridge or nut, tuning instability stemming from the tuning pegs doesn’t typically involve a mechanical problem, such as something needing adjustments or being broken. If there is an issue with the actual tuner, it’s usually because it is loose, and this will typically be problematic for one or two strings, not across the entire guitar.
Very frequently, though, tuning problems up here exist because of how the strings are being wrapped around the tuners. A lot of the time, there are just too few, and other people have too many coils around it. There needs to a balance!
I believe that 2 coils wrapped around the tuning posts before threading them through the hole should be sufficient, and it’s a good guideline that has worked for me over the years.
This is especially true for those thinner strings. Most tuning issues happen with the upper half, especially the B and G strings, and if this sounds like you, you might just need to pay attention to how you’re putting your strings on.
It is possible for pegs to be bad, especially on low-end guitars, but on mid-ranged guitars, they tend to be okay from my experience.
Tuning machines or pegs are replaceable, and if you think you can benefit from a new set, I highly recommend some locking tuners. These have something on the back of the tuners that you can tighten, which can help make things more secure.
These are especially nice if your bridge and nut don’t have a locking mechanism. My fixed-bridge Charvel has locking tuners, and I think they work really well.
4. The Age Of Your Strings (Old & New Ones)
If you’re having tuning problems, ask yourself, “When was the last time I changed my strings?”.
If it’s been quite a while, you might have found the answer to your problem. Even if your strings haven’t snapped, that doesn’t mean they’re working for you.
Old strings don’t tend to stay in tune very well, and you will need to change them periodically if you want to sound good. It can be inconvenient, but it’s just part of being a guitarist.
Just think of how bright and clear your tone will be after you change them, though, and of course, how better the strings will stay in tune.
However, this brings me to another issue that doesn’t get talked about often enough, and if your tuning problems have come up very recently and you’ve just changed your strings, this can be the culprit too.
Yes, new, freshly restrung strings can cause tuning problems, but they’re temporary.
When you put on new strings, you’ll want to stretch them, but they may need a short time to completely settle in. If you don’t stretch your new strings, they will go out of tune, so don’t forget this step!
Hopefully, your tuning problems are caused by your strings because it is the easiest thing to resolve – either you just need some new strings, or you need to wait out the stretching period if you put on a new set of them. Time definitely heals this wound!
5. You’re Not Tuning Up To The Pitch
Another underrated tip that doesn’t always get brought up relates to how you’re tuning the guitar strings.
A lot of people, even experienced ones, often make this simple mistake, and instead of always shifting up to the pitch they need, they will go back and forth trying to get to where they need to be.
Let me explain.
So if you’re tuning your guitar and you’re trying to get to G, but you just go past it, making it too sharp, you need to drop the tuning to well below the G-note and try to get to it again. You don’t want to tune down to reach that note.
This applies to drop tunings as well, whether you’re going to drop-D or C, or even further down – you’ll always want to go below those pitches and then tune up to them.
If you tune down to the note, you are loosening the string and making it longer between the bridge and the nut, giving it more room to move and causing things to go out of tune.
Now, this isn’t really as severe of a problem as some of the other potential issues that we’ve discussed thus far, but it’s something that’s common and can be implemented right away.
So, if you haven’t been doing this, believe it or not, it could be the reason why your guitar can’t stay in tune.
6. Humidity & Temperature Changes
If you move from one environment to another, such as a cold, dry one to a warm, humid one, and vice-versa, your guitar might have trouble staying in tune.
The wood on your guitar is porous, and it breathes, which means it’s prone to shifting based on its environment.
Low humidity can cause the wood to become dry, brittle, and crack, and too much of it will cause it to expand.
Either one of these is problematic, and while the neck is one of the most common areas that get affected and will mess up the intonation on your guitar, issues can arise anywhere.
If your parts are shifting around, your tuning most likely will as well, and these changes can even happen if you’re traveling from home to a gig. This is one reason why guitar case humidifiers are a blessing.
40 to 50 percent is a good humidity level to shoot for to keep your instrument happy, and if you’re interested in learning about these devices and finding one that’s right for you, learn more about guitar humidifiers here.
7. You Need A Guitar Setup
There’s an old saying I heard a long time ago that went, “if your guitar isn’t in tune with itself, it won’t be in tune with you.”
These sound like powerful words, but it’s actually quite literal.
If you didn’t know before, hopefully, you’ve learned by reading this article that the guitar has multiple parts that work synergistically to stay in tune.
If one thing is off, whether it’s the nut, bridge, or something at the tuning pegs, you can run into some issues, even if it seems pretty small at first glance.
While people tend to focus on how high or low their action is and removing fret-buzz when they think of guitar setups, in reality, it’s a complete check-up for your instrument. Think of it as taking it to the doctor, even if it has a small cold.
A guitar tech will help make sure the parts of your guitar are just right and figure out why your instrument refuses to stay in tune or why you’re having intonation issues on the whole instrument. If you have poor intonation, pitch accuracy will be off across the entire fretboard.
It might be a simple fix, or they might suggest that you replace something.
In some cases, they can order the part you need, and of course, they’ll install it for you, much like an auto mechanic. The majority of the time, though, the guitar requires some adjustments.
Overall, guitar setups should be performed at least a couple of times per year, and I think it’s worth every penny. It also takes a lot of the guesswork out of troubleshooting a guitar, and it’s always nice to get a professional opinion from someone who makes a living by fixing instruments.
If you’re overdue for a guitar setup and your guitar won’t stay in tune, just take it in. You’ll be glad you did!
As you can see, there are several reasons why this common problem occurs, and most of the time, it’s not your fault; however, it is something that will need to be fixed sooner or later.
It can take some trial and error to figure out what the specific problem can be, but I’d start with the more straightforward things like making sure the nut is lubricated, you don’t have old strings on, that they’ve been threaded through properly, and paying attention to your tuning method.
If that doesn’t work, you’ll probably need some help, and that’s what guitar techs are for; if there’s something more technical-related about the instrument that’s causing your problem, they can pin-point and fix it easily.
I certainly hope that by reading this article, you’ll be able to narrow down your search for why your guitar won’t stay in tune, and once that’s been figured out, you should be set.