One of the most consistent top searches on this website is ‘my guitar won’t stay in tune’ and we tackled the question in an “Ask the Expert” post back in 2009. Tuning problems can be so frustrating. The first thing to check is that you have a decent tuner and that you are tuning up regularly. You can find an electric guitar tuner that will ensure your guitar playing sounds great. But once tuned, if your guitar won’t stay there or seems to go in and out of tune depending on what chord you are playing, here are the usual suspects:
1. The “nut”
The guitar nut sits at the very top of the fretboard. It’s really important to get the nut seating the strings correctly as they pass over it. If it’s cut too narrow it pinches the string as you tune and you get that sense of nothing happening until you hear a ‘ping’ Then all of a sudden the pitch of the string jumps upward. Also if it’s not cut flat the string essentially passes over a knife edge and is much more liable to prematurely break. This can all be cured with a gentle filing down but unless you really know what you’re doing take it to a professional repairer! One thing you could try first is lubricating the nut by shaving some graphite from a pencil into each string slot to allow each string to pass over it more freely.
2. The tuning pegs
Check if there is play in your tuning pegs. You may be able to solve this by tightening the tiny screw in the peg itself, if that doesn’t help then again take it to a pro repairer.
Another key tuning area is intonation, especially if you play chords that combine fretted and open notes higher up the neck. If a guitar isn’t intonated properly open strings don’t sound quite in tune with their octave notes up on the twelfth fret, and it’s those slightly out of tune notes that really grate. Much of this can be solved by tweaking the metal truss rod down the centre of the guitar neck but again if you don’t know what you’re doing take it to a professional luthier and get it set up properly. Just think of it like a routine car service that just needs to be done every so often. It may cost a few bucks but a really ‘in tune’ guitar is worth the expense.
4. The strings
And sometimes a guitar not staying in tune is purely down to old strings so do change them regularly. When you do, take a minute or two to stretch them in as they’ll stay at pitch much more quickly. If you’re not familiar with how to do this there are plenty of resources on YouTube to show you how and it’ll make a dramatic difference. Also when you change strings make sure you leave enough space for a number of windings around each string tree. Generally unwound top strings need more winds than the wound lower ones.
5. The capo
Another recurring tuning issue comes along with using a capo, especially on guitars with jumbo frets. Most guitarists realise that a badly placed capo will pull strings out of tune, but actually putting a capo on a guitar with bigger frets will cause the strings to pull down further onto the neck and so pull them sharp. Shubb type capos have adjustable tension which will help but alternatively try placing the capo directly on top of the fret rather than traditionally behind it and this should help.
6. The strap
One possible cause of tuning issues is that the strap is tied to the headstock. This will pull the strings sharp. If this is the case get a strap button screwed onto the heel of the guitar. They dont cost much at all if you fit it yourself or a shop will charge to fit it for you.
7. The climate
Humidity and temperature can have a huge effect on tuning too. In January I was in Edmonton, Alberta and the temperature changes due to taking instruments from the car into the outdoors and then into a warm building, coupled with the dry climate there caused enormous tuning problems. Similarly a church building warms up hugely when people come and start to sing. So again so the rule is to tune often and often.
Sometimes bad tuning is caused simply by pressing a string too hard and causing it to go sharp, especially if you are playing electric or with light guage strings. I find Gibson electrics can be prone to this particularly at the G string. Alongside just pressing more gently you could try going up a string gauge or even replacing an unwound G with a wound one.
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