Tuning Nightmares, Part II

Intonation, applied fretboard math, and other unspeakable studio terrors.


Strings are supposed to slide smoothly through the notches in the guitar nut as you turn the tuning keys. With many guitars though, they "stick". You can tell because as you turn the tuning key to sharp the string, the tuner will show no change, and then suddenly you hear a tiny squeak, and now the tuner shows you have overshot the mark and are too sharp. You reverse, and the same thing happens. Sometimes I see people twisting their tuning keys back and forth vigorously, overshooting this way and that until they hit the mark by sheer chance. Later, they go to bend a string, and it immediately goes flat. There's a better way!

If you constantly give a little tug on the string each time you turn the tuning key, you will always "unstick" the string from the slot in the nut...just enough for it to go where it would have gone a minute after you started playing. But tug on the strings too hard and you might find they go sharp later on instead of flat. Learn to do this the right amount and you can tune much more efficiently.

Another factor is how a player squeezes the strings. With tall frets, fretting a string does not necessarily mean a string ever actually touches the wood of the neck. The string will be suspended between the two frets that are on either side of your fingertip. But if you have strong fingers OR light strings, that bit of string is bent downward until it touches the wood. This, of course, pulls the string a bit sharp! Even worse, some people tend to slide the strings sideways a bit, sharping them more. A double-whammy tuning nightmare is when someone sits down and carefully tunes, and then clamps a capo on the guitar neck. These apply some serious pressure to the strings, and it's a safe bet that the guitar will go slightly sharp. Then they try to retune it, but with the capo on. And you thought the strings sticking in the nut were bad enough!

Here's another tip: When you first replace the strings on a stringed instrument, the new strings stretch a bit for the first 20 minutes or so before they settle down. I always tell a band to change their strings the night before coming to the studio. That way, the stretching happens overnight, and when they come in the next day and tune up, the guitars stay in tune better. For the same reason, I also tell drummers the same thing about changing drumheads.

Heavy strings in general are a good thing for tuning. This is because:

These are very likely to stay in tune.

  • They don't go as sharp when you hit 'em hard.
  • Your crappy amateur vibrato (that makes you sound like the lead guitarist for the Scorpions) is harder to do. 
  • Your undisciplined fingers will have a harder time bending them out of tune. 
  • They will actually stay in tune longer. 
  • They will make a fatter, richer sound come out of the pickups. 

Result? Everyone will think you are a better player. (Even though you won't be able to play "Eruption" anymore.)

Floating bridges are like the anti-Christ if you are a stickler for tuning. Bend one string sharp, and all the others go flat. If one string goes flat by itself, the act of sharping it back up to correct pitch will cause all the other strings to go flat. Rest your hand on the bridge to mute 'em slightly and go chunk chunk chunk, and they all go very sharp. (You can hear this on many, many, many thrash metal records.) Break one string, and all the others instantly go so massively sharp that you have to stop the song. For solos, it's cool. Dive-bombing, man... zowee. But for actual chords and rhythm playing, this is the closest you can get to a guitar that...

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