We’re staying with tuning problems. And, once we’ve got the actual tuners themselves out of the way, let’s have a think about some of the other things that could cause your tuning to wander.
Well, not ‘strings’ as such — unless you’re buying the bargain-basement, buck-a-pack strings you’re probably ok there.
Stringing is more accurate.
Lots of tuning problems are caused by incorrect stringing. Seriously.
Now, this is actually a rather big area and I’ve plans for a range of stringing technique articles in the future (at some point). However, because (a) I haven’t done that yet and (b) not everyone wants to read about stringing an instrument other than their own, I’ll just summarise some of the common ‘essentials’ here.
I’ll also give you a “This One Great Stringing Tip That Will Change Your Game Like You Won’t Believe”.
Woah. Teaser, or what?
Steel String Guitars
You don’t need to worry about elaborate ties. You’ll read lots of ‘then insert the end under loop A and back over wrap B three times’ advice but, really, you don’t need to worry about it unless your string-manufacturer recommends it. Modern strings generally don’t unwind much and locking-ties are not necessary if you string well otherwise. If you want to tie, feel absolutely free to do so but don’t stress it if you don’t.
You do, however, want the right number of string-wraps. That’s the really important bit.
You need enough wraps around the tuner post but not too many.
If your wraps won’t fit on the post and begin to overlap onto previous wraps, you’ve too many. That introduces all sorts of potential for strings to shift on the posts and screw up your tuning.
Too few wraps and there’s not enough for the string to grip the post and it’ll begin to slip, maybe as you tune up, maybe as you play or bend strings.
How Many String Wraps on a Post?
Ideally, you’re looking for somewhere around 2-2.5 on the sixth/bottom string and around 5 or so on the first/top string. All other strings should ‘graduate’ between these numbers (so you’re looking at 2.5–3 on the fifth string, and so on).
Now, there’s no string inspector ready to count wraps with a magnifying glass after you restring so don’t get all weird and paranoid about this. Just aim for somewhere around this area.
Here’s the “Guitarists Learned This One Cool Trick and It Blew Their Mind” tip:
An Easy Way to Get the Correct Number of String Wraps
This works for electric or acoustic guitars with holes in their tuning posts. Slotted tuners need a slightly different technique. I’m assuming a standard right-handed guitar too. Reverse for lefties.
Prep your guitar as normal and get the string anchored at the bridge in whatever way is right for your guitar.
Line up all tuner posts so the holes are in line with the neck (so the string can be inserted right through without having to bend).
Start at the sixth string. Insert it through the tuner hole.
Holding it between your right hand thumb and first finger pull it so you remove the slack. You don’t need heaps of tension or anything, just take out some slack.
Where you want to be when the slack’s gone is holding the string right at the fingerboard side of the nut. So, I usually start back a bit and just pull and let my fingers move along the string to that position.
That’s your starting position. Like below.
Now, continuing to hold the string at this point, move your right hand back so it’s just level with the first fret. You'll have reintroduced slack into the main part of the string between your fingers and the bridge. That's fine — that's the amount of string that'll end up wrapped around the post.
Use your left hand to turn the tuner. As the string post reaches about a quarter turn, the string will start to kink at the post. Now use your right hand to begin applying some tension away from the tuner. That just keeps the string wraps neat as they go on.
Guide the string so each wrap goes under the loose end and the previous wrap.
So, that all sounds more complicated than it actually is. But, if you do it, you should have tuner with about 2-2.5 neat wraps when you’re up to pitch.
And here’s the trick…
For the next string, repeat the process. But, this time, instead of pulling back to the first fret, you pull back just a little past the first fret. Like below again.
This little extra length means a little extra to go onto the tuner post.
On the next string (the fourth), you move back just a little more. And so on, until, by the time you get to the first string, you’ll be back as far as the second fret.
This stepping-back technique gives you a nice graduation of string wraps on your tuners. It means you won’t end up with too many or too few.
What if there’s not enough room for all those wraps?
Sometimes you’ll find tuners with shorter posts, or guitar with thicker headstocks and there just isn’t room for the right number of wraps.
Also, Fender’s staggered-height tuners have much shorter posts for the first three strings and there’s not much room there.
If you want, you can resort to tying one of the elaborate ties in this circumstance but, most of the time, if you make the first wrap over the loose end and then bring subsequent wraps under you can claw back enough space to make it.
How to get the correct number of wraps with slotted tuners
There’s a similar trick with slotted tuners. However, instead of moving back from nut to a fret, you can measure past the tuner so you know where to pre-snip your string end.
Start on the sixth/bottom string again. Pull the string past its tuning post and count out to a location about 2.5 tuners away. So, from the sixth string post, you’ll be looking at a spot about halfway between the third and fourth tuning posts.
Snip the string there.
Insert the end into the hole down the centre of the tuner post, kink it over at 90º and then kink it around the post. Keep some tension on the string as you tune it up.
Repeat but move a little further for each string until the first/top string will be cut at a distance equal to about 3.5 tuners. You’re graduating again so each string has a little more wrapped around its post.
This image shows cutting the fifth string at a distance of just over 2.5 tuners. (By the way, it's just coincidence that the string is passing through that D-string tuner — it's the 5th/A string we're working on here).
Yeah, I know all this sounds complicated when you read it. It’s really much easier when you try in real life.
Stringing for Bass Guitar
Pretty similar, actually. I generally start at 2.5 ‘tuners’ distance at the bottom string and graduate up from there. Bass strings will definitely slip if there’s not enough string wrapped around the post. If in doubt, err on the side of more rather than less.
Stringing for Nylon String instruments
This is a whole other kettle of complicated fish and one we’ll have to revisit later.
The Bottom Line
I’m totally serious when I say that stringing is a major factor in many tuning problems. String well and you might just find your guitar tuning become much better behaved.