I see so many complaints online about guitar tuning issues, and people rarely get a clear answer. Today we go over all of the reasons your guitar might be out of tune!
Guitar Tuning Issues: Need A Tune Up?
When I take a look at guitar forums, one of the most common beginner questions usually involves guitar tuning. You just tuned your guitar up, and after a few strums, it has already went out of tune! Maybe you have to tune the guitar every time you pick it up. What is wrong with the guitar? New guitarists usually struggle a LOT with tuning stability.
The problem is, guitar tuning issues rarely stem from just once source. The guitar is only as good as the sum of its parts. Guitars work as a system, with each part being incredibly important. We have talked about the anatomy of the guitar before, and if you are not familiar with those terms for the parts, give this a quick read.
Most beginner guitars fall into the affordable category. These modern budget guitars are better than they were just a decade ago. This means better quality, and better parts at lower prices. No matter the price of your guitar, it should at least stay in tune. The bar is pretty low for any guitar really, it just needs to stay in tune and make sound right?
Guitar Tuning Issues: It Probably Is NOT Your Tuners
The first thing you probably think of when it comes to guitar tuning issues, would be the tuners themselves. Some people may tell you that you need locking tuners. But this is usually not the problem. Unless the tuners are broken, they should hold tune just fine.
Tuning stability is one of the most important aspects when you are first learning guitar. If your guitar won’t stay in tune, it can be frustrating. Starting out on guitar is already a difficult process! Your guitar not staying in tune will just make things harder, and might make you give up learning to play! You shouldn’t have to fight your guitar.
That being said, there are some simple troubleshooting tips that can spare you a lot of pain and frustration. Not to mention the most important factor: TIME. Today we are going to look at the top reasons why your guitar might be having a problem staying in tune.
So lets dive in to the most common guitar tuning issues, and how to fix them!
#5 Stretching The Strings
This one is often overlooked, even by some professionals! It can be an easy step to miss when you restring your guitar! You should always stretch your strings, and there are quite a few different methods. It doesn’t matter what kind of guitar you have, or what kind of bridge your guitar features. Even a Floyd Rose equipped guitar needs the strings stretched.
Fresh strings take a good bit of stretching before they “settle”. This can take a little while, so don’t get frustrated! I usually spend 10 minutes or more getting my strings “broken in”. There are many different ways to stretch your strings, but my personal method is:
- Tune the guitar to pitch
- Place a finger on the 7th fret
- Lightly pull the string straight up, away from the fretboard
- Retune the string to pitch (it will be out of tune)
- Place a finger on the 12th fret
- Lightly pull the string up, away from the fretboard again
- Tune to pitch
- Do this for each string, individually
After this, you should have given the strings enough stretch to be stable. Tune all of the strings up to pitch, and strum an open G chord to see if it is holding tune. You can use any “cowboy chord” that uses all 6 strings. If it still isn’t holding tune, then you can always repeat the steps. Every guitar is different, and some take a lot of stretching to get the strings to settle.
Skipping this step, can mean that you will have to wait for the strings to settle naturally. That can take quite a while of playing and bending on your part. So always stretch your new strings, and be patient. This can be a common mistake, and a big reason you’re having guitar tuning issues.
#4 Climate Issues
This is another big one that can be easy to overlook. I know a lot of guitarists that have their guitar stuff in their basement. Some may use a spare bedroom, or an office. But no matter where you store your guitar, you need to make sure the temperature stays stable. The same goes for humidity levels!
Temperature fluctuations can wreak havoc on both acoustic and electric guitars. Most guitars are made out of wood, and this means that temp changes can make the wood shift. This can cause all kinds of guitar tuning issues. The Winter can be an especially bad time, since you run a heater of some sort. This can dry out the air, and make the humidity drop significantly.
It is a good idea to have a dehumidifier/humidifier in your guitar room if there are any big fluctuations in your home/studio. You can get small ones at just about any big box store, or Amazon. Especially if you have acoustic guitars, since they can easily be damaged by temperature changes!
#3 Setup Issues: Bridge And Intonation
This can be a complicated one, so if you are unsure, you should always take your guitar to a tech. Many guitar tuning issues are just because the guitar isn’t setup properly. Although some of these things you can definitely do at home. We have talked about how easy it is to set your intonation with simple tools.
If your intonation is out of whack, then the whole guitar can sound out of tune. Chords will sound wrong, even if the strings are tuned to pitch. You may also experience some guitar tuning issues if your floating bridge is not set properly. These are both things that you can check and work on at home.
Something else to check are the bridge saddles themselves. These can cause guitar tuning issues if the saddles develop burrs or deep gouges. Check each one of your saddles, especially if the guitar breaks strings often as well! Most saddles are meant to hold up for years, but cheaper ones can develop problems easily. These are usually made out of cheaper “pot metal” steel.
If you are not comfortable with doing these things at home, then there is nothing wrong with taking it to a tech! Most techs (including myself) get plenty of customers that need to set the intonation on their guitar. The same can be said for bridge issues, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you can’t seem to fix the problem!
#2 Strings: Quality And Condition
This would seem like a no-brainer, but I know a lot of people that try and “cheap out” on guitar strings. These cheap strings can cause all kinds of guitar tuning issues. Always buy a name brand from a reputable dealer. Believe it or not, there ARE fake strings out there and if the price seems too good to be true it probably is! So always make sure you are getting authentic, quality strings.
You should also change your strings frequently. How long a set of strings lasts will vary from guitarist to guitarist. If you let strings get too old, not only will they corrode, they can also start to cause some serious guitar tuning issues. If you play a lot, then you should change your strings a lot as well!
That being said, they should be stored in a clean, dry environment. Strings will corrode if they are left out of their packages. I have a Tupperware container to hold loose strings. Always dispose of old strings properly as well. Most can be recycled now, and you don’t want to destroy normal trash bags!
Please don’t try to boil them, or anything else like that you see on the internet. There are so many false tips and tricks out there, and they are mostly just silly. Scrounge up the $7 or so that you need, and get some strings! Just buy some new strings!
#1 The Nut: The Culprit For Guitar Tuning Issues
In most cases, unless you have experience, this is better left to a tech. But I would say that 90% of guitar tuning issues usually start at the nut. This can be due to a lot of different reasons, and it can affect cheap guitars just as much as expensive ones. These issues can include:
- Improperly cut nut slots
- Nut is too high/low
- Improperly “seated” nut
- Strings bind at the nut
- Nut needs lubrication
The nut slots have to be very accurate for the string to properly “glide” through the slots. If the slots are too wide, the string will wiggle around. If the slots are too thin, then the string will get caught. This is called binding. Binding is a big reason for guitar tuning issues.
Often, the string can “bind” at the nut. The string should slide perfectly through the nut slot anytime the string is bent. So this problem is easy to diagnosis in most cases. If you have tried all of the other things on this list then the nut is probably your issue. Especially if the note goes flat or sharp after you bend a string.
You should also take into account that any string gauge changes will usually mean that you need to adjust the nut. If you go to thicker strings, the nut slots will need to be thicker. But if the slots are too wide, this causes guitar tuning issues as well! Like I said, unless you are experienced…better leave this one to a tech.
I would say that 9 times out of 10, when a customer has guitar tuning issues, a new nut will usually fix the problem. Not all nuts are created equal, either. You want to avoid cheap, plastic nuts. TUSQ is the industry standard, and these are made out of graphite or composite materials that “self lubricate” and allow the string to move freely in the slots.
Sometimes, you can fix the nut yourself at home. You can use a mechanical pencil in the slots, which adds graphite. There are also a ton of products that are made to lubricate the nut. But if you have tried all of these things, then it might be time for a tech to replace the nut to solve your guitar tuning issues. This is usually an inexpensive fix, and most techs do nut replacements all the time.
Finally, It MIGHT Be Your Tuners!
This doesn’t happen as often as most people think. But it is totally in the realm of possibility on older guitars! I am putting this one last, because it really should be the last thing that you check. Most guitar tuning issues are going to stem from one of the issues listed above.
Most tuners that you find on guitars are going to be “sealed gear” tuners. This means the working parts are lubricated and sealed on the back of the tuning key. These are meant to last a long time, and you shouldn’t have to do any maintenance on them. However, they can go bad over time.
If you inspect the tuners, and the post has a lot of play, then there might be a problem. The gears can also wear out, and this can cause major guitar tuning issues since the string will slip. The whole thing with tuners, is the problem will not be subtle! You will definitely know if the tuning keys are broken.
Locking tuners provide a minimal amount of extra stability, as that is not their purpose. Locking tuners are meant to be convenient more than anything, and make string changes faster. They may be slightly more stable, but they usually won’t fix guitar tuning issues. They are not a magic bullet, regardless of what people may say.
Guitar Tuning Issues: Wrapping Up…
Most tuning issues are going to be easy to diagnose at home, using this list. It can be incredibly frustrating for a beginner when a guitar doesn’t hold tune. But there is usually an easy fix, and it usually starts at the nut. Not the tuners themselves. Although over the years, I have seen some seriously damaged machine heads on older guitars.
Again, if you have any doubt, don’t be afraid to take your guitar to a tech to get things sorted! You should never have to “fight” your guitar just to play it. Holding tune is the very least that your guitar can do for you as a beginner! The answer is usually something very easy when it comes to most guitar problems!
Why Will My Guitar Not Hold Tune?
The answer is rarely the tuners themselves! There are a lot of things to consider, but the problem is usually a bad “nut” at the headstock of the guitar. If the nut is not properly cut, the strings can bind at the nut, and cause all kinds of tuning issues.
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar, bass, and piano for 28 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. Chris has toured for years with several bands and music projects across the United States. He worked in Los Angeles as a studio musician and engineer working with many genres, but mainly Pop, Rock, and Metal. In between giving private lessons, he is usually recording under his various projects at home in Georgia. Christopher plays Schecter Guitars, BOSS Amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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