How To Prevent Guitar Tuning Troubles

Posted Oct 24, 2016

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There are few things more frustrating than a guitar that constantly falls out of tune, and as a company we know this! We want you to spend more time rocking than tuning, so we go to great lengths in our factory to make sure you get a stable and reliable instrument. However, once the guitar is yours, there are a few best practices you’ll need to abide by to keep your guitar playing in tune for all its days.

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Below, we consult PRS service tech Len Johnson whose 45+ years of guitar experience has helped serve some of PRS’ biggest artists including Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, and Neal Schon (Journey). Len has worked at PRS for 17 years, helping to launch PRS' own tech center, known has the PTC. He has experienced the common perils that plague out-of-tune instruments and shares his insights with us below!

#1. Stretch Your Strings!

Len mentions, “In PTC, the most common problem we run into are strings that were never properly stretched. New strings require at least a few minutes of breaking in before they achieve the ability to hold the desired tension, seat properly in the nut, tuners, and the ball end.”

This applies to guitars with any type of bridge! Tremolo, stoptail, and even Floyd-Rose equipped guitars need their strings stretched. The stretching should be done with the guitar tuned to pitch, gently pulling the strings away from the guitar, using 4 fingers to spread out the pressure.

Starting near the pickup end of the fingerboard, lift the string about ½” and slide your fingers slowly toward the nut while lightly pulling the string, then reverse the motion. You can also pull the strings side-to-side as seen below. Do this several times.

Note: If you go too fast, the friction will burn you, and if you pull too hard you’ll break your strings. Some guitar techs spend 10 – 20 minutes playing the guitar and stretching the strings before the guitar is ready for prime time.

The quality of the string is also very important. Len says, “Sometimes we’ll see strings with a kink or have a slight bend to them right out of the package. Frequently, these types of strings never completely straighten out, even tuned to pitch. This results in the string buzzing on the frets where the kink is. We have gotten requests for a fret level, when the real culprit was bad strings.”

Finally, pay attention to your string gauge, an ultra-light gauge (.008” - .038”) may have a longer break-in period. On the other hand, thicker gauges might require a bit less stretching.

#2. String Size Matters!

Say you bought a guitar that came from the factory with .09’s and one day you decide you’d like to try an .11 set instead. Len says, “Unfortunately, using larger string gauges than the guitar was set up for will frequently lead to the string binding up at the nut. This will require the nut to be re-cut in order to open the slot. It can also require a truss rod adjustment.”

While one gauge up may not have a detectable difference, be careful when increasing by two gauges or more. For this, Len has a method for checking how the string is seated in the nut.

Pinch the string on either side of the nut, and pull it up out of the nut slot, if you hear any popping or feel any resistance, the nut may need to be re-cut to open the slot.

Also, changing string gauges in either direction almost always means adjusting the intonation.

#3. When Re-Stringing, Learn To "Lock" Your Strings

This technique will vary based on the type of tuners you use (i.e. locking tuners vs non-locking tuners), but click here for a step-by-step process.

Ultimately, the more "locked-in" the string is at the tuning peg, the less the string will move and cause you to fall out of tune.

#4. Inspect Your Bridge and Pickup Height

If you're still having tuning issues, you are probably experiencing a rare case where your bridge or pickup height is having a negative impact on your tuning stability.

In the bridge, intonation screws can work themselves loose over time and it may take a trained-eye to diagnose the issue.

PIckup height can only have an effect if the pickup is too high causing the magnet in the pickup to slightly pull your string up and your notes out of tune while playing - and this type of issue typically has an effect only when playing above the 12th fret.

#5 Remember, Touch Matters

While this issue has less to do with the instrument itself, and more to do with the player, it's still important to note. If you're pressing your strings too hard with your fret hand, you could be pulling your notes and chords out of tune. This is especially true if you play an instrument with larger frets. Test your touch by switching on your tuner, fretting a chord, and plucking through the individual notes.

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Happy strumming and remember that Len and the rest of the talented folks in the PTC are here for all of your set-up and guitar modification dreams!