Frustrating, isn’t it? You actually remembered your tuner this time, you carefully tuned all six (or twelve) strings – twice – and then, half way through the first song, you can hear something isn’t right. And so can half of the congregation.
Nobody wants to hear a guitar that is out of tune, no matter how well it’s played. But sometimes just retuning isn’t going to fix the problem. So why is it that you can’t keep your guitar in tune? Here are a few very simple reasons your strings are stretching when they shouldn’t, roughly in order of likelihood. Use this check list to help you worry less about string slippage and get back to worship.
Strings are metal and metal fatigues with time and usage. It will lose it’s ability to go back to its original state and keep on stretching out of tune. If you can run your finger under your strings and anything at all (usually black stuff) comes off, you need to change your strings. If they sound a little dead and lifeless, change them. How often you need to change them will depend on how hard you play, how much you sweat and how you play. Bending strings a lot can tire the strings as can hitting them hard. If you are playing most weekends and practising every day, you could probably change them at least every month. I know, it gets expensive, but you can buy most brands of strings in bulk. Shop around for the best deals.
Great, so old strings AND new strings go out of tune? Is there no hope? Yes, there is. When you put on new strings, make sure you stretch them properly so they will not stretch any more when you play. Before tuning to pitch, tug on the string about a dozen times – HARD – and then tune up. If the string goes out of tune easily while tuning, give the string a few more tugs.
Poorly made Nut
The nut at the top of the fingerboard where the strings pass over is often the most likely culprit (aside from strings) that will make your guitar go out of tune. The issue is that strings will often stick at the nut and cannot move freely when the guitar is tuned, the strings vibrate or a string is bent. The nut needs to be as smooth as possible to allow strings to move without friction. On lower end guitars, the nut is often plastic or at least not very well crafted. More expensive guitars, particularly hand made ones, will have better nuts and would have been cut properly. The best solution is to replace the nut with a graphite impregnated substance like the ones sold by Graphtech, but this is a job for an experience repair person or luthier. An easy DIY alternative is to use very fine wet and dry sanding paper available at most car repair shops, like Halfords. Using 800 grit, fold the paper in half and gently sand the inside slots of the nut using the folded edge. Be careful not to reshape the nut, but just polish it. Repeat using 1200-grit. You don’t want to enlarge the slots, just smooth any rough edges. You can lubricate the slots with a pencil when you are finished. The graphite in the lead will work as a lubricant in a similar way to Graphtech nuts.
Poorly installed strings
If strings are not wrapped properly at the tuner, they will slip. Pass the string into the hole, pull out 3 cm and then wind the string around the post. For wound strings, the string should go under the wrapped string once then above it twice. Plain strings need to be wound around the post and the end (point the end upwards and keep winding so the string wraps over it). Three wraps around the post should be enough.
These could be your last resort, but sometimes inexpensive tuners (or machine heads) will slip and not hold the string in place properly. If you are upgrading tuners, consider locking tuners which lock the string in the post to prevent them stretching. As long as you get ones the same width as the holes in your headstock, replacing them is simply a matter of loosening a nut and removing a screw on the back.
It’s always a good idea is to have an inline tuner at your feet that lets you mute your guitar and tune even while playing. Most pedal tuners have a mute function that lets you do this. You can also use a clip-on tuner, as all you need to do is turn down your volume to tune.
I hope this helps you stay in tune, and think less about the gear and more about worship. If you have any questions, or have any stories about going out of tune, or ways you like to keep your guitars tuned, post them below. I’d love to hear from you!
In this column, Nick Burman writes for the church musician – about gear, maintaining your equipment and playing tips so you can focus less on playing and more on worshipping. He has been playing guitar, piano, violin and bass guitar for over thirty years, builds/breaks/repairs his own guitars and writes and records if he has the time. Watch this space for more!