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Don't kill that guitar: Dealing with hard-to-tune instruments - by Roger Fritz

Don't kill that guitar: Dealing with
hard-to-tune instruments

by Roger Fritz

There's nothing more frustrating than a guitar that won't stay in tune--except maybe a guitar that won't even get in tune. Some tuning problems can be detected and fixed by the average player, but the more severe problems require the expertise of a skilled tech.

Here are some of the most common tuning problems and their possible solutions:

Bad or worn out tuning machines
These are either junk or just plain worn out. Check for loose screws or parts before you go out and buy another set.

That annoying little ticking sound you hear when you adjust the tuner
This ticking sound is caused when a string is too big for the slot in the nut. You tune up, tick, you tune down, tick, it never stays in tune. You have a choice of three possible solutions:

  1. The easiest solution is to simply change strings to a smaller gauge, i.e., the gauge it was originally set up with. Most guitars are set up at the factory with a medium to light gauge set. If in doubt about string gauges, check with your local dealer.
  2. If you like the gauge of string that you've been using, then try lubricating the string slot with graphite powder or common pencil lead. This works best when there is just a slight difference in slot to string size. Loosen the string slightly and lift it out of the slot to rest on top of the nut. Then apply some powdered graphite into that slot. Powdered graphite is available in small tubes (marketed primarily as a lubricant for door locks). If you need just a little, get a fingernail file and a pencil. Simply grind the pencil "lead" into the fingernail file letting it fall into the nut slot for lubrication.
  3. If you don't want to change string gauges, and if lubrication of the nut slot doesn't work, then you have to widen the slot. Don't try to do this yourself unless you have a special nut-slotting file. If you use a common file, you'll probably widen the slot too much, which will eliminate the clicking sound but will add a distinctive rattle or buzz whenever you play the open string. If you don't have a nut-slotting file, see a tech. The price for this will be slight. And while you're there, have the tech check for deep grooves in the bridge saddle. On acoustics and electrics, the saddle or individual bridge saddle peices should be replaced if deeply worn,

Intonation is out
You tune up with a tuner and play a G chord. It sounds like a hundred dollars. Then you go for that ever popular D and it sounds like, well, you know.

This is an easy problem to fix if you have a bridge with individually adjustable string saddles. If you have a Gibson tune-o-matic bridge (found on practically all Gibson solidbody and semi-hollowbody electrics) get out your electronic tuner and refer to the October 1997 Tip File column for a complete setup guide. Or just take your guitar to a tech; they usually charge around $15 for this type of adjustment.

If your instrument has a fixed saddle, the solution is to file the saddle for each individual string. This should be done only be a qualified tech, and the price is modest for this procedure.

The worst-case scenario for intonation problems is misaligned fret slots (or a misplaced bridge). This is rare but it does happen. After exhausting all of the above solutions you may need to have the slots inspected by a luthier with accurate scale measuring tools. If the guitar is under warranty you may be in luck. If not, you may be looking at a repair bill of $200-300, depending on the value and quality of the instrument.

Old strings
Last on the list of tuning problems is the easiest of all solutions. If the strings look bad or you know they have been on for a long time, try a new set and see if that gets it.