Keeping the guitar tuned

A question I get all the time is ”How do I keep the guitar tuned?”. A guitar out of tune is frustrating and a test to your inspiration. I’m far from being an expert of any sorts but over the years I’ve picked up some tricks to keep my axe perfectly tuned throughout a gig. In this article I’ll try to give some basic guitar maintenance tips.

Buying a new guitar
Obviously, the most important thing when you’ve decided to spend your savings on a new guitar is to choose one that sounds, feel and looks good to you. Listen to the advice and recommendations you get but remember that it doesn’t matter how acclaimed or pricy the guitar is if you think it’s crap. Use some time on this process and be picky whatever your budget might be.

It’s extremely important that you check the guitar for any faults BEFORE you slide your Visa. This might be difficult if you’re buying online but get the seller to send you some detailed pictures (and do some research on the seller to see if his one to trust). Apart from deciding on a neck and body, make sure…

- …that the neck is straight. Anything that looks even slightly like a banana is useless (this can easily be adjusted if it should happen to a guitar you already own).

- …that there’s no gap between the neck and the body.

- …that the tuning keys works smoothly.

- …that there are no sharp edges or obstructions on the tremolo/bridge that might cut the strings.

- …the the bridge is mounted straight (or you won’t be able to do a proper intonation).

After you’ve checked the above, don’t freak out if the tremolo is floating too much or if the guitar is hard to tune. Factory setups are rarely perfect and this can easily be fixed later.

First setup
Once you’re home with the baby you should replace the strings with your preferred brand and gauge. The factory strings have been sitting on that guitar for months and are useless. Tune up and start playing.

After some weeks (spend some time getting to know the guitar so that you get a feeling of how you prefer the setup) I strongly recommend that you bring your guitar to the shop or a guitar technician and have them set it up properly (unless you’re skilled/experienced enough to do this yourself). This is something the shop should do for free (bring the receipt) and a professional technician won’t charge much either for a basic setup. These adjustments are usually needed:

Read more…:
- String and pickup height
- Callaham Vintage S model bridge review

The truss rod (metal bar inside the neck) might need some adjustment as you’ve probably stringed it with a heavier gauge than what was originally on. Going from a 0.09 set to 0.10 adds about 6 kilo of pressure to the neck. Unless you have experience with this I recommend that a tech do this for you.

The guitar may have an action (height of strings) that’s too low or too high depending on what you prefer. You can easily do this yourself by adjusting the height of the saddles on the bridge or let the technician look at it (check out this set up guide for details). Remember to always check the intonation after any adjustments (see details below).

I also recommend replacing the nut (the little plastic thing on top of the neck). Perhaps not needed but this is to avoid that the strings gets fastened in the slots. These nuts are usually made of cheap plastic (I recommend using bone nuts) and as the guitar is tuned while in storage at the the factory and in the shop, there might be some deep creeks or sharp edges. You’ll notice a little click or snap in the string when you tune, bend or use the tremolo. You can also get the technician to file the slots to make them slightly wider according to your preferred string gauge.

Keeping the guitar in tune
So these are the first steps after buying a new guitar. Let’s look at what’s need to keep the guitar in tune.

Start by putting on a fresh set of strings and tune up to pitch. It’s extremely important that you use the correct method of fastening the strings in the tuning machines or else the strings will slowly slip inside the keys and it will be very hard to maintain the tuning.
- Vintage style keys with the hole on top: measure three keys beyond the current key (aprox 7cm), cut the string, stick it into the whole and wind up.
- Schaller style keys with the hole on the side: see this excellent tutorial.

Pull the strings with your fingers to loosen the tension. Tune up and repeat until the string stays in tune.

David claims that he prefer new strings every day (while recording or on tour). This is of course extreme and by no means required (unless you actually prefer it and can afford it). Strings are usually useless after 2-3 weeks of normal use (about 2 hours of playing each day).

I recommend using some lubricant in the nut slots and also on the bridge saddles to avoid the strings from fastening or breaking. I use a mix of graphite dust from a soft pencil and hairwax. Make sure that the lub gets really good into the nut slots and apply gently on the saddles. This should be done everytime you restring.

Now we’ll adjut the bridge/tremolo. Some prefer a floating bridge while others prefer it flat on the body. So called vintage Fender synchronized tremolo systems (used on 50s, 60s and 70s Strat models) should be flat on the body for maximum stability. Tighten all six plate screws all the way down (don’t force it) and then loosen the four middle screws by half a turn. Adjust the two claw screws in the back until the bridge lies more or less flat on the body (2-3mm is OK). David prefer all six screws all the way down but this is a very tight setup and the trem arm won’t “flow” that easily and it’s harder to maintain the tuning as the bridge needs some flexibility to reset the string position after each bend. I prefer three springs for the tremolo claw.

On a sidenote I recommend that you consider replacing the stock bridge with a better one. The bridge system on cheaper guitars or newer Fenders in general often cause friction problems and systems like the Callaham bridges can do wonders to your guitar, both in terms of tuning stability and not least the tone.

The next step is to set the correct height of the strings. Use the recommended measurements from Fender (for Strats and Teles) and make your own adjustments according to preferred playing technique and pickup height. See this article for a detailed tutorial.

The final step is to adjust the intonation of each string. Sometimes one chord may sound perfect and another may sound like shit. This means that the intonation is off. To set the intonation right you need an accurate tuner. Start with tuning the guitar 100% to picth.

Pick an open string and then check if the octave on the 12th fret matches. If not, the string needs to be intonated. This is something that might occur after you’ve adjusted the height of the strings, used different strings than before (gauge and/or type) or general stress on the neck and bridge. Keep in mind that if you adjust the pickup height after intonating, you need to do the whole exercise over again. It’s also very important that you do this with new strings that are stretched and properly set up (as explained above) or this whole process will be near impossible.

Intonation is done by adjusting the saddle screws, which on a Strat is coming out behind the bridge.

- If the octave on the 12th fret is sharp/too high then you need to make the vibrating length of the string longer by moving the bridge/saddle away from the neck.

- If the octave on the 12th fret is flat/too low then you need to make the vibrating length of the string shorter by moving the bridge/saddle closer to the neck.

Be gentle as you often need only small adjustments. Tune the guitar after the intonation and if needed repeat the exercise on the strings that’s still out of intonation.

If you’re still having problems with the intonation or too much fret buzz you may you need to check the neck and the curve of the truss rod (the metal bar inside the neck). Every once in a while this needs to be adjusted to get the right curve and preasure on the neck (keep in mind that wood reacts to temperature, humidity, preasure and general wear so this is nothing serious). It’s easy both check and to do your self but take the guitar to a tech if you’re uncertain. Here’s a video showing how to adjust the truss rod. Check out this article on how to set up string and pickup height. Another reason for fret buzz might be that the nut slots are too low or the angle is off. Let a tech look at this and if needed replace the nut.

Some last tips
I strongly recommend (I can’t really stress this enough) that you spend a little extra on a good tuner. I wouldn’t trust a cheap $40 unit as these often aren’t accurate enough. Every pedal board should feature one and it’s also wise to keep a second unit at home.

An important excersise before a rehearsal or gig is to pull the strings, bend the tremolo and tune up. This to make sure that the strings or tremolo hasn’t fastened in any way and basically to just warm it up a bit. If the guitar doesn’t tune properly then you might consider restringing or adding some lubricant to the nut.

Once a year I bring all my guitars to a technician for a complete overhaul. I can do most of these things my self but I prefer having a pro go over everything in case there are some things I don’t see. He checks the intonation, the neck’s angle, any sharp edges on the bridge and string trees and all electronics. I also get the nut filed or replaced. You should also keep an eye on the tuning machines and make sure that they’re working properly. If they’re loose in any way, tighten the screw or simply replace the key (vintage Gothos can’t be tightened but needs to be replaced).

All this may seem like too much hassle but pulling a guitar off the shelf and thinking it will be perfect is in most cases a long shot. After deciding on a guitar you should spend some time getting to know it, make the adjustments needed and a minimum of maintenance along the way. This way you’ll be much happier with your instrument and it will last much longer.