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The 12 things that affect guitar tuning stability

I'll probably do a video on this later because it really needs to be shown (and heard) to fully understand why there is a very specific way to tune certain electrics.

These are the 12 things that affect a guitar when tuning it.

  1. Type of string used
  2. String gauge (as in thickness or thinness of string)
  3. Scale length
  4. Pick
  5. Strength of picking/strumming
  6. Type of tuner used
  7. Position of guitar when tuning
  8. Nut
  9. Angle of string after the nut
  10. Bridge instability
  11. Neck instability
  12. Pickup pole piece positioning (flat or staggered)

Do you have to go through a 12-step checklist every time you tune? No. But as you read through this, you'll understand why tuning up can at times be difficult, and what you can do about it to make the process easier.

Here's why the above 12 matter:

Type of string used

This is very easy to understand. The more flexible ("stretchy") the string is, the more difficult it will be to tune to pitch and stay there.

Nickel-plated steel strings like the Dean Markley 1972 Reissue have average flex to them because of the nickel content.

"Pure nickel" strings like the D'Addario EPN110 take the longest to tune because it has the "stretchiest" metal.

String gauge

Generally speaking, thicker strings can hold tune better than thinner ones for two reasons.

  1. You don't bend them as much as you would a thinner string.
  2. Thicker strings can't bend as much as thinner ones can.

Scale length

I wrote a whole thing about the differences between scale lengths here, but when it comes to tuning, shorter scale typically holds its tune better than longer scale; the reason is because the strings aren't vibrating as much.

Bear in mind the advantage of a shorter scale guitar concerning tuning is negated if the neck or bridge has tuning instability to it, and I'll get to that in a moment.

Pick

The best pick to use for tuning purposes is the hardest one you can find with absolutely no flex to it, because when tuning that will most accurately represent how you're playing when picking or strumming normally with your normal pick.

If you don't have a super-hard pick to use when tuning, use a coin.

Strength of picking/strumming

The pitch of a string changes depending on how hard you strum or pick. For example, if you pick the 6 (low E) string really hard, you hear that "beeeeeyoooowwwww" sound. During the "beeee" part, the 6 string is slightly above pitch, then in the "yowwww" part the vibration is subsiding and the string goes back to normal pitch.

If you bang your lower strings really hard, you may have to tune the 6 (and possibly the 5) slightly flat to accommodate for super-hard picking.

Type of tuner used

The two major types of guitar tuners are ones that tune by sound and ones that tune by vibration.

Ones that tune by sound where you have to plug into it are very familiar to players; an example of one is the BOSS TU-3.

Ones that tune by vibration are clip-on-to-headstock style where no plugging in is required, such as the Planet Waves PW-CT-12.

What dictates which you should use depends on the type of pickups you have. For humbuckers and flat-pole single-coil pickups, the sound-based tuner is the proper choice. For staggered-pole single-coil pickups (Strats, Teles and other Fender electrics), the vibration-based tuner is better, and I'll explain why in a moment. Keep reading.

Position of guitar when tuning

A guitar should either be tuned when in the seated position or the standing position.

If you're just playing your guitar at home or in the studio, tune the guitar when in the seated position. If you're going to play a gig that night, tune it in the standing (as in wearing the guitar while standing) position.

The difference between seated and standing position is that the guitar body is leaned slightly either forward or backward; this does affect tuning slightly.

For example, if when sitting you strum a chord, then stand up while that chord is still ringing, you'll hear a "neeaarrow" sound as the guitar goes slightly out of tune while standing up. Then when standing, certain strings will be out-of-tune. This is totally normal, and that's why you tune the guitar either in seated or standing position, depending on how you plan to play your guitar that day.

Nut

If you hear "chinking" noises when tuning, on your next string change, grab a pencil and a razor, then scrape some graphite filings (the "lead" part) from the pencil into the nut grooves. Then install the strings and tune up. Most if not all of the chinking noises should go away.

The chinking noise you hear is the string physically skipping in the nut groove. The graphite filings act as a "hard lubricant" of sorts to smooth out the travel of the string in the nut.

Angle of string after the nut

Most Fender electrics have string direction go straight to the tuning post after the nut. Most Gibson electrics have string direction at an angle after the nut to the post.

Any electric that has a string on an angle after the nut will not hold its tune as well as strings that have a straight path to the tuning post - assuming the guitar doesn't have a locking nut (if it's locked down at the nut, any tuning instability would be from the bridge side and not the nut side).

Bridge instability

Both Strats and Les Pauls have bridge instability when it comes to the guitar keeping its tune.

On a Strat, if the bridge isn't "decked" where the tremolo claw on the back of the guitar isn't screwed down tight so the bridge isn't "floating" on the top of the guitar, this causes tuning instability.

On a Les Paul, the stock bridge "waggles", causing tuning instability. This is easily fixed by replacing the bridge a TonePros locking Tune-O-Matic bridge set which won't waggle.

Neck instability

Most electrics do not have neck instability which would affect tuning...

...except the Les Paul.

On a Les Paul neck, there is tuning instability where the headstock meets the neck. Les Pauls have almost always been like this and still are to this day; it is very well-known as a point of tuning instability on the guitar.

The only thing you can do when playing your Les Paul to avoid "wavering" out of tune because of the weak point of the neck is not to move around too much. This is incidentally why Les Paul players (including Slash) stand really, really still on stage when playing solos.

Pickup pole piece positioning

This only affects tuning depending on what tuner you use.

Most Fender electrics use pickups with staggered pole pieces in them, meaning the G string will always be louder than the rest.

With a sound-based tuner, it's very likely your G string will always be out-of-tune slightly because of the staggered pickup poles that's sending a stronger audio signal to the tuner.

A vibration-based tuner is more often than not the better choice for tuning up Fender electrics because it doesn't tune based on sound; this means it doesn't matter what the sound output of the pickup is since the pickups aren't being used to tune the instrument.

In the next blog I'll list some additional tips and tricks for tuning Fender electrics.

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