Guitar Tuning Tips

By David O’Toole

Most guitar tuning problems on a Stratocaster arise from the old style whammy bar or “vibrato bar” as it’s correctly called. And although it’s a wonderful, fun, fantastic, and great invention, it does have its shortcomings. Newer Strat designs and double-locking systems have mostly overcome these annoying side-effects, but they do have a very different feel to them.

But if you set an old one up properly, and keep it well lubricated (use sewing machine oil), you can reduce your guitar tuning vibrato-bar problems to a minimum.

It is well worth your while learning all you can about your guitar and music gear, as regards keeping it serviced and running smoothly. If you don’t do it yourself, it means taking it to a repair guy or someone else, every time the slightest thing goes astray.

I have a mountain of books like this for reference and it’s another interesting side of playing. Guitar mags such as the excellent and long running Guitar Player, or try Guitar One Magazine, Guitar Amps and so on are also a mine of information. I’m sure I’m not alone there.

An important point to remember when it comes to choosing strings is don’t “Cheat on the Cheese”. This too is a major source of guitar tuning problems even nightmares! Try a few different brand types out, and only buy from recognized and reputable guitar-string makers. Different players, styles and guitars have different needs.

Always go with a respected brand name such as “Ernie Ball” or “Fender”.

I like 9s on a Strat and something heavier on an electric guitar with no whammy bar. You can experiment with gauges yourself, find one you like and stick to it, especially on a guitar with an old style hand-vibrato on it, ok whammy-bar.

If you intend to play slide on electric or acoustic guitars, use heavy gauge for the best tone and tuning. In general the heavier the string the heavier the tone, but they are harder to play and control. Try bending a g string on a heavy set and you’ll see what I mean.

Strings are your guitars lifeblood, and as mentioned elsewhere, no Lee Chang or Red Dragon 50c Specials!

Sometimes you might hear a pinging sound when you use the whammy. This is caused by stored tension in the Nut being released as you dip the bar, and then bam, you’re out of tune. If it’s an emergency, i.e. it happens in the middle of a song during a gig, try pulling the bar up a bit and depending on how far you have slipped out of tune, this might just get you back in – at least to the end of the song. Hallelujah…

To solve this annoying and interfering nuisance, some good ol’ lubrication is needed here. The best thing to lubricate the nut-end of things is graphite. An easy way to do this, is to use an ordinary pencil, and literally write onto the nut underneath where the strings slot in (lifting it up first, loosen if necessary), and give it a coating of lead (graphite). Then the strings just glide along the grooves instead of sticking there until you “ping” and release them.

This simple little trick works wonders for Strat guitar tuning problems.

Depending on your style and how often you gig, once a week use of this treatment should be fine. Vaseline has also been recommended for this task but I think it’s a bit messy and more suitable to nappy rash ;-) .

Next, let’s look at other end of the guitar, the Bridge.

We have the same problem with “string-slack” as it’s called, as mentioned above on whammybars and Strats. It’s a bit more difficult to get the graphite under the string here, so loosen the strings a bit one by one, pull aside, and pencil the saddle itself, just under where the string lies.

After you finish one, tune it back up and move on to the next one. Do not release the tension of all the strings at once with a floating bridge, as you can imagine this plays havoc with the tuning.

If you notice a lot of strings breaking across the bridge, it’s time to replace your bridge saddles. If you’re handy at doing your own servicing, this is relatively easy. If not, get them done in a good, reputable repair shop. It’s not expensive, and after you have gone through breaking string after string every night, you will be so relieved, not to have to worry about that anymore, that it is worth every penny! Now you can concentrate on your playing instead.

Do not do the job yourself if you’re not sure how to reset the saddles, distance, action and string heights. If you set these wrong, this will play HAVOC with your guitar tuning! You have been politely warned.

If you use special replacement graphite saddles and a graphite nut this will improve things considerably. These are not much more expensive than the normal ones and they really do make a huge difference. As stated before, when you do not have to worry about gear and equipment performance and breakdown, it’s half the battle.

Under the Bridge (that sounds familiar), you will see 6 screws lying flush along a metal plate. If you dip the bar you will notice a little gap appearing underneath these, and you can lubricate under each one with 3 in 1 sewing-machine oil. It is ideal for guitars and not too heavy.

Now, on to the Guitar-Neck itself.

While this does not affect the tuning as such, it is the final piece in our Strat tip-top jigsaw. Once a month or so, depending on how often you gig, loosen off 2 strings at a time and pull them aside. Rub a small amount of almond oil into the neck and leave soaking for a few minutes. Wipe any excess off with a dry cloth and cover the whole board in this way.

Tune back up and don’t forget to s-t-r-e-t-c-h the strings again. It will not take long if they have been done before. This makes the neck feel nice and smooth to the touch, and also brings out the wood design. Improves general sliding notes around, and feels so professional to play.

Do not mess around with the guitar-neck regarding “Bowing or Concave” problems unless you are experienced and fully confident of doing the job. Doing this wrong can not only destroy your guitar tuning, but your precious guitar itself! Any problems in this area I would strongly advise you to see a guitar tech.

Another huge factor to be considered in Staying-in-Guitar-Tune- Land, is your musical lug ‘oles or as they are more commonly called, ears!

Lose these and you can forget about playing anything. You know what they say “Ear Today, Gone Tomorrow”. Use special ear-plugs at rehearsals. Make sure they are audio ear-protectors. There is more than one type.

Oh, while I think of it, get yourself a good guitar tuner that will last you.

BEGINNERS GUITAR TUNING TIPS: For a professional vibe on stage you need an Inline-tuner (a private tuner with headphones that only you can hear).

There is nothing worse than hearing someone on stage giving it the old “doi, doi, doi, doirrng” before your first number and during the gig. When two or three in the band are doing it at the same time including possibly the drummer, you have complete “amateur hour”. It doesn’t exactly induce a gig-owner to book you again and it is not only amateurish but extremely annoying to the punters.

So look after your guitar bridge, saddles, strings and nut on a regular basis and it will help keep guitar tuning problems down to a minimum. Learning the art of tuning can make a very important difference to your playing, and is one of the hallmarks of a professional.

David O’Toole is a guitar player, music fan, and musician from Ireland. A keen player and experienced guitar teacher, he is also the author of the popular standard, lefthand, reverse guitar, and piano / keyboard series of Basic Chord Families – Not just another random selection of 1000s of chords, but the key to fast learning and playing 1000s of songs with under 60 chords!

So it is well worth knowing how to get your guitar tuning spot-on and your guitar in tune  to stay.