Tuning your guitar should be a simple act, almost a ritual before you dive into your practice sessions, gigs, or studio recordings.
However, if you find yourself asking why your guitar won’t stay in tune, you might be facing some common issues plaguing many guitarists—both novices and professionals.
In this comprehensive article, we’ll discuss the various factors that could be causing your guitar to go out of tune and offer practical solutions for each one.
I know from 25 years of playing that a guitar that won’t hold its tuning is incredibly annoying. And I’ve seen all of the issues in this article.
So stop wondering why your guitar won’t stay in tune, and get reading.
- Part 1: The Factors Contributing to Why Your Guitar Won’t Stay In Tune
- 1. The Climate
- 2. Old Strings
- 3. Not ‘Stretching In’ New Strings
- 4. Not Wrapping Your Strings Properly
- 5. Poor Intonation
- 6. Poor-Quality Machine Heads
- 7. Issues With The Nut
- 8. Poor-Quality Electronic Tuner
- 9. Poor Capo Placement
- 10. Saddle Wobble
- 11. Tremolo Arm Use
- 12. Poor Technique
- 13. Hardware Wear and Tear
- 14. Fret Wear
- 15. Quality of the Guitar
- Part 2: Maintenance Tips for Guitar Tuning Stability
- Conclusion – Guitar Won’t Stay In Tune
- FAQs – Why won’t my guitar stay in tune?
- How often should I change my guitar strings to help my guitar stay in tune?
- Do different string gauges affect tuning stability?
- Can I adjust the intonation myself?
- What kind of electronic tuner is best for accurate tuning?
- What is a tremolo system, and how does it affect tuning?
- Is it really necessary to “stretch” new strings?
Part 1: The Factors Contributing to Why Your Guitar Won’t Stay In Tune
1. The Climate
Your guitar is made of wood, a material highly susceptible to temperature and humidity changes. These changes can cause the wood to contract or expand, affecting the tension of the strings and thereby, the tuning.
Keeping your guitar in a stable environment can make a world of difference. For instance, avoid storing your guitar near heating or cooling vents. Humidifiers and dehumidifiers can also be used to maintain a consistent environment. Some guitar cases come equipped with built-in humidity control systems, providing an all-in-one solution.
For a more economical solution, a kit like this does a great job:
2. Old Strings
As the guitar strings begin to age, they lose their elasticity and accumulate grime, rust, and sweat. All of these factors contribute to a string’s inability to maintain its pitch. In short, old strings suck – and make you ask why your guitar won’t stay in tune.
The first step is to acknowledge the need for frequent string changes. Different types of strings have different lifespans. Coated strings, for example, generally last longer than uncoated ones. Regular cleaning with string cleaner can also extend the life of your strings. But in general, change strings regularly. It’s advisable to change them after 100 hours of playing.
3. Not ‘Stretching In’ New Strings
New strings have a settling period where they are highly susceptible to going out of tune.
After restringing, tune the guitar and then lightly tug each string upward from the fretboard to stretch it. Retune the guitar and repeat this process until the strings hold their pitch. It’s a simple but often overlooked step that can significantly improve tuning stability.
Here’s a video to show you how:
4. Not Wrapping Your Strings Properly
How you wind your strings around the tuning peg can significantly affect your tuning stability. Poor winding is a surefire way to encourage slippage and detuning. String gauge matters here – it’s trickier wrapping heavier gauges, but every string should be wound correctly.
When installing new strings, make sure you wind them correctly around the pegs. Locking tuners can simplify this process by holding the string in place, thereby minimizing slippage. But even with standard tuners, carefully winding the string in neat, overlapping turns can make a big difference.
Here’s a video to show you how:
5. Poor Intonation
Intonation refers to the guitar’s ability to stay in tune across the entire length of the fretboard. Poor intonation can make a guitar sound out of tune even when the open strings are tuned correctly.
Intonation can usually be adjusted at the bridge. For acoustic guitars, you might need to adjust the saddle; for electric guitars, you might have individual adjustments for each string. Professional setup is often advisable for intonation issues.
6. Poor-Quality Machine Heads
Machine heads, also known as tuning pegs or tuners, are crucial for tuning stability. Poor-quality or worn-out machine heads can slip, failing to hold the string tension and make you ask why your guitar won’t stay in tune.
High-quality machine heads with a greater gear ratio can provide more precise tuning and better stability. If you find that your machine heads are the issue, consider upgrading to a well-reviewed set from reputable brands like Grover, Schaller, or Gotoh.
7. Issues With The Nut
The guitar’s nut holds the strings at the headstock end of the guitar. If the slots on guitar nut are too narrow, too wide, or not lubricated properly, they can cause tuning issues as the string won’t seat properly.
If strings are catching in the nut slots, lubricating the slots with graphite from a pencil lead can often solve the problem. In more severe cases, the nut may need to be replaced. Options include bone nuts, brass nuts, and various synthetic options, each with their own tonal characteristics.
8. Poor-Quality Electronic Tuner
Not all tuners are created equal. A low-quality tuner can be inconsistent and imprecise, making it difficult to get your guitar perfectly in tune, or make you sound sharp or flat.
Invest in a high-quality tuner from trusted brands. Many professional-grade tuners offer strobe tuning, which is extremely accurate. Clip-on tuners are convenient, but make sure to select one with good reviews for accuracy.
You can’t go wrong with a Boss chromatic tuner, available here:
9. Poor Capo Placement
A capo that’s either too tight or not aligned correctly can press the strings against the fretboard unevenly, causing tuning issues.
When using a capo, make sure it’s parallel to the fret and positioned close enough so it presses the strings evenly. Also, retune your guitar after placing the capo, as even a well-placed capo can slightly alter the tuning and make you sound sharp.
10. Saddle Wobble
The saddle helps anchor the strings at the bridge. A loose or wobbly saddle can cause significant tuning instability and make you ask why your guitar won’t stay in tune.
A loose saddle may need tightening or, in extreme cases, replacement. This is especially true for floating bridge systems like the Floyd Rose, where the saddle plays a crucial role in tuning stability.
11. Tremolo Arm Use
For electric guitars equipped with a tremolo system, excessive use of the tremolo arm can stretch the strings and cause the guitar to go out of tune.
For an electric guitar that frequently goes out of tune due to tremolo use, a locking tremolo system can be a worthwhile investment. Additionally, some players choose to ‘deck’ their tremolo, fixing it in a stable position to mitigate the tuning issues on their electric guitar.
12. Poor Technique
Heavy strumming, aggressive bending, and improper finger placement of your fretting hand technique can all adversely affect your guitar’s tuning.
Be mindful of your technique. For instance, when bending strings, make sure you’re not pushing other strings out of position. If heavy strumming is part of your style, consider using a thicker pick or switching to heavier gauge strings to withstand the increased tension.
13. Hardware Wear and Tear
The various hardware components of your guitar, including tuning pegs and bridge, can wear down over time. This can create instability in tuning that becomes increasingly noticeable.
Inspect your guitar’s hardware regularly and replace worn-out parts as needed. Lubricate moving parts occasionally to prolong their lifespan.
14. Fret Wear
Frets are subject to wear from the constant pressure and movement of the strings, which can affect intonation and, consequently, tuning.
If you notice significant fret wear or fret buzz, consider getting a fret level or replacement. Professional work in this area can restore your guitar’s intonation and improve tuning stability.
15. Quality of the Guitar
Lower-end guitars may not maintain tune as effectively due to inferior components or craftsmanship, and leave you asking why your guitar won’t stay in tune.
While you can upgrade components like tuners or nuts, sometimes the only effective solution is to invest in a higher-quality instrument.
Part 2: Maintenance Tips for Guitar Tuning Stability
Understanding that your guitar’s tuning stability isn’t determined by a single factor but is the cumulative effect of multiple elements is an essential realization for any guitarist. Regular maintenance and proactive attention to various parts of the guitar can make a substantial difference in how well your instrument holds its tuning. This section will delve deeper into the overarching solutions and best practices that can serve as your go-to guidelines for helping your guitar stay in tune.
The buildup of dirt and grime can significantly affect your strings’ vibrational qualities and thereby your tuning. Regularly wipe down the strings, fretboard, and even the body of your guitar. There are specialized cleaning solutions and cloths designed specifically for guitars, and these can extend the lifespan of your strings and hardware.
Loose screws on the tuning pegs, bridge, or any other part of your guitar can introduce unexpected variables into your tuning stability. Make it a habit to inspect your guitar’s hardware before each playing session. Tighten any loose screws and consider using thread-locking solutions for screws that frequently come loose.
Over time, various factors such as string tension, temperature changes, and regular wear and tear can take their toll on your guitar’s neck and body, affecting its overall setup. It’s advisable to consult a professional for a comprehensive setup at least once or twice a year. This often includes adjustments to the metal truss rod, bridge saddle, and nut, among other things. While some guitarists are comfortable doing these setups themselves, there’s no substitute for an experienced guitar technician’s expertise.
We touched on the effect of climate in one of our points, but it bears repeating. Extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause the wood of your entire guitar to expand or contract, which can severely affect your tuning. Consider investing in a case with built-in humidity control, or store your guitar in a room with controlled temperature and humidity.
Humidity systems like this can really make the difference:
When to Consult a Professional
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may find it challenging to identify the root cause of your tuning problems. In such cases, it’s advisable to consult professional guitar techs. Not only can they diagnose and fix hard-to-spot issues, but they can also offer tailored advice on maintaining your specific type of guitar.
Conclusion – Guitar Won’t Stay In Tune
Frequent tuning problems can be more than a mere annoyance; they can be a barrier to effective practice and performance. By systematically addressing the potential issues listed in this guide, you can improve your tuning stability, allowing you to focus on what really matters: making music.
We hope this article answered why your guitar won’t stay in tune. Happy tuning.
FAQs – Why won’t my guitar stay in tune?
How often should I change my guitar strings to help my guitar stay in tune?
The frequency can vary depending on how often you play guitar, but a general guideline is every 3-6 months for casual players and every 2-4 weeks for those who play regularly. Some coated strings claim to last longer, but always listen to your ears—if your guitar starts sounding dull, it might be time for a change.
Do different string gauges affect tuning stability?
Yes, heavier strings generally offer better tuning stability but require more finger strength. On the flip side, lighter strings are easier to play but may go out of tune more easily, especially when subjected to heavy strumming or bending.
Can I adjust the intonation myself?
While it’s possible to adjust intonation yourself, especially on electric guitars with adjustable bridges, a full professional setup is often recommended for best results, particularly if you’re not experienced with this kind of work.
What kind of electronic tuner is best for accurate tuning?
Strobe tuners are generally the most accurate, but they can be expensive. High-quality clip-on tuners are also quite accurate and much more affordable.
What is a tremolo system, and how does it affect tuning?
A tremolo system allows you to change the pitch of the strings by manipulating a lever, commonly known as a ‘whammy bar.’ While it adds another dimension to your guitar playing, excessive use can lead to tuning instability. Locking tremolo systems like the Floyd Rose can help mitigate these issues.
Is it really necessary to “stretch” new strings?
Stretching new strings helps to stabilize their tuning more quickly. You can stretch them manually by gently pulling them away from the fretboard, then retuning. Repeat this process a few times to help the strings settle.