This time it's staggered height tuners

I don’t like staggered-height tuners.

You know the ones… They’re sometimes installed on Fender-style instruments without angled headstocks. They get shorter as they move from the bottom string tuner to the top string tuners.

Yeah, those.

I don’t like them.

So, what's wrong with staggered-height tuners?

Why have a staggered-height tuner at all?

Well, you see, those straight/non-angled headstocks are great and all — they are easier to produce, more economical, and tend to break less frequently. But, in the Fendery, 6-a-side configuration, the problem is that the higher string tuners are pretty far away from the nut.

And, as the tuners get farther from the nut, the angle the string ‘breaks’ over that nut gets more shallow.

Shallow string-angles over nuts bring a host of problems:

You might get a buzz when the string’s played open even though the string slot is at the right height. You might get an impact on tone, focus, or sustain. You might even get a string that pops out of the slot when you do a bend on the first few frets.

None of these things are good so Leo Fender made some string-trees and installed them on the headstock to increase/steepen the angle of the 1st and 2nd strings (and sometimes the 3rd and 4th).

Buuuut, some tremolo-using nerds said that string-trees were bad because friction hides under them and that impacts the tuning. So, when modern tuner makers decided to make modern tuners for modern players, they thought they’d address this.

The Staggered-Height Tuner

By making the tuner height shorter as they move along the headstock, you can increase the string break angle for those farther away strings.

Yay! It’s a modern miracle. Hurrah for progress.

Not so fast

The problem, you see is geometry.

No matter how short you make those faraway tuners, it’s not possible to get as steep an angle as you actually need.

Can’t do it.

A string-tree, that’ll get you some break angle, buddy. A stubby tuner down the end of the headstock? Not so much.

Break-angle comparison - staggered versus string tree

String-Poppin’ Strat

I had a Strat through the workshop recently. The owner complained that the first string would pop out of the slot when he bent it lower down.

The nut slots themselves were fine but that string definitely wanted to pop out of the slot on even small bends.

There was a little scope for deepening the slot so I took a little down. I didn’t have much hope and I was right. Still had a popping string.

I could have made a new nut with stupidly deep slots but why make a sub-standard nut to deal with this problem.

And you’ve guessed the problem, I’m sure.

The tuners were staggered height.

As luck would have it, these were a retrofit. The guitar had regular tuners earlier in its life and there was still a screw hole in the headstock face where a string tree had been fitted (long since removed because staggered-height tuners are the way of the future). I installed a new string-tree to see if it did the trick and, of course, it did the trick. You couldn’t pop that string out if you tried.

Staggered Tuners and String Tree: Before and After

The moral of the story

The moral is that large tuner and guitar manufacturers should listen to Gerry, that’s what the moral is. However, as most of them now have restraining orders against me, I’ll shout at you guys instead. 😉

If your guitar has staggered-height tuners, or you’re planning to install some, that’s cool. Go for it and see what happens. It might be absolutely fine for you. Do keep an eye out for any change in tone or sustain on the open string; any buzzes or rattles on the open string; and — definitely — any poppin’ strings while bending.

If you experience any problems, consider installing (or replacing) a string-tree. They’re not the worst things in the world and you can polish up the string path underneath with some fine sandpaper or some abrasive cord. You can even buff it really shiny if you’re so inclined. Personally I’d rather the (mostly solvable) problems of a string-tree than the (potentially insoluble) problems of a shallow string angle.

The Bottom Line

For me, staggered-height tuners don’t really solve the problem they set out to solve. The geometry of the 6-a-side headstock means they can’t. If you really want to have a non-angled headstock without having string break-angle problems, you need to change the configuration — like Music Man did with the 4-2 headstock. If the tuners aren’t so far from the nut, their string angles don’t get too shallow.

Otherwise, stick a string-tree on.

OK. That’s this week’s ranting done. Tune in next week when I’ll be figuring out how come I can’t get no Tang ‘round here (that’s honestly the best video I could find for that — stoopid Fox).