Tuning Problems: What do you mean by 'out of tune'?

I want to talk a little bit about tuning and tuning problems but, first, I have to define things a little. For some of you, this will be a ‘teaching to suck eggs’ situation but, when I deal with players hoping I’ll fix their guitars, I often need to clarify what they mean so I know what to try fix.

So, you say your guitar “won’t play in tune”, or that “it keeps going out of tune”, or simply that it’s “out of tune”.

I need to dig a little to find out the issue so I can fix the right thing.

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Intonation and setup tuning problems

It may be that your guitar sounds out of tune on certain chords, or in certain positions on the neck while it sounds ok in other places.

You might tune your guitar to the open strings, as normal, and you might play an open chord which sounds fine. Then, maybe you barre a chord at the seventh fret and it sounds wrong.

Or your open strings might be in tune but fretting notes or chords around the first few frets might be out of tune.

The important thing is that the tuning remains stable in the position where you originally tuned. So, your open strings will still be in tune if you go back and check even though it sounds terrible elsewhere.

Chances are really good that a decent setup will take care of this.

Getting the setup variables right for your guitar and playing style should provide you with a guitar where these sorts of tuning problems are no longer a big problem. Action, nut-slot height, relief, intonation: All of these work to minimise or avoid the sorts of problems described above.

I’ve written a whole series of posts on setting intonation and I’ve written a free guide on dealing with tricky intonation hassles called Solving Intonation Problems.

I’ve also (ahem) written a series of guides on setting up your guitars and basses. If you haven’t already, check out Sketchy Setups series. They’re very good. 😊

Slipping out of tune

Probably two thirds of the time someone asks me to look at a tuning issue, it’s the above. It’s to do with the guitar’s setup and how ‘in-tune’ it sounds at different places on the neck.

Sometimes, however, it is an actual tuning issue. What that usually means is that you tune the guitar and all’s well. It sounds fine all over the neck. You play it for a couple of songs and it starts to sound out of tune.

The tuning wanders. It moves away from where it should be. Maybe it’s now flat (more likely) or maybe it’s gone sharp (sometimes).

The difference here is that you can go back to where you tuned (the open strings for example) and the instrument is no longer in tune.

And that difference adds a good bucketful of variables which potentially make things more tricky to track down.

So, with this sounding-out-of-tune versus going-out-of-tune dichotomy* in mind, we can begin to look at that second instance. We’ll kick off a few articles looking at how we can start to deal with an instrument that slips out of tune. More to follow…