For a steel string guitar, the tuners are almost never the problem. Most likely, the culprit is one of the following:
- New strings which haven’t been properly stretched. When you put in new strings, they need to be stretched tight. This has to do with the wind around the tuning peg as well as the need for the metal in the strings to “settle” into their new jobs. Often, the point which bends down past your bridge starts out a little floppy as well. You can fix all of this by making sure each string is stretched properly: 1) tune to pitch (all strings, verify); 2) tug up on the string; 3) if the string went flat, repeat.
- The nut (the thing the strings pass over at the top of your neck) is binding your strings. This is most noticeable when you do a lot of string bends and the open string goes flat after. What’s happening is you’re pulling the string when you bend it, and not all of the string is sliding back over the nut, leaving a slack. You can fix this a number of ways; nut lubricants (usually graphite based), replacing your nut with one made of bone (yes, bone) or a more slippery material or even special roller nuts, slightly widening your nut slots (carefully).
- Wood and metal do funny things during temperature and humidity changes. You can expect your guitar to be slightly out of tune every day, and even as it “warms up” while you play it, especially in colder weather.
- Improperly wound strings at the tuners. I’ve seen all sorts of crazy things, mostly: too many winds (2 is plenty), “crossed” winding where the string is wound on top of itself, and winding up away from the headstock (should wind down).
Before you return that budget guitar or replace your tuners, make sure you know what the real problem is. Even the cheapest of modern steel string guitar tuners are capable of doing their jobs, and there’s usually just a small difference in quality inside the mechanism between price ranges.
I run into this myth all the time. Here’s how it goes: “all the best guitar players used heavy gauge strings, and they had great tone, so go heavy or go home.” Really? Here are a few tone “greats” who were known to use light (9, 8 or lower) strings:
- BB King
- Billy Gibbons
- Jimi Hendrix
- Brian May
- Jimmy Page
Every name on that list has an iconic tone that zillions of guitar players try to emulate. Many today are completely unaware that their heroes use light gauge strings and assume they have to be using heavy. After all, heavy strings give you great tone, right?
The truth is string thickness does change the sound somewhat, but mostly they impact your playing style. If you want the most versatility, you want the lightest gauge strings. If you have a heavy touch (a lot of beginner players fall into this category), you might improve your intonation with thicker strings. If you have a light touch or do a lot of vibrato, thinner strings are your friend.
Every new guitar comes with a couple of wrenches, usually the allen variety, to make adjustments. Most guitar players put them in a drawer and forget all about them. The larger of the two is for adjusting your truss rod, and even seasoned musicians I’ve met approach it with fear.
A few months back I signed up for guitar lessons to help me break out of 25 years of old habits and grow as a musician. My guitar teacher, a seasoned pro, has a spare Schecter guitar he uses in class. I noticed the action was a bit spongy, and asked if he liked it that way. “Not really, but since it’s a spare guitar, it’s not worth spending to have my guitar tech adjust it.” I asked if he’d mind if I took a crack at it, and 5 minutes later the fretboard felt tight and more playable. He was amazed. He’d heard horror stories of truss rod mishaps, and had steered clear of even the basics of how they work.
Truss rods were meant to be adjusted
Here’s the thing: every guitar comes with a truss rod adjustment wrench. The manufacturer wants you to use it. In almost every case, your shiny new fretted buddy will need it to adapt to your playing style. If I had a nickel for every customer review of a guitar which commented on how the action was terrible on their new guitar, I’d have lots of coin to support my guitar habit. You simply cannot expect every guitar to have great action when you get it home, and here’s why.
A truss rod is a simple device which helps you adjust the natural curve your neck will make when you tune up. As you tune, your guitar strings will put pressure on the neck, pulling the headstock “up” (you can observe this yourself; tune up a string, then tune the rest, and most likely when you return to the first string, it’s gone flat, sometimes by quite a bit). The truss rod allows you to counteract this pressure by applying force which pulls your headstock “down”, resisting the tension from the strings.
Wood is fussy; the truss rod helps you compensate
Here’s the freaky bit: wood changes. All the time. Humidity and temperature alone can cause your neck to tighten or loosen somewhat on any given day (or season, or region if you’re touring). That’s why sometimes you get your new axe home and a week later it feels off. Even if it started out perfect, the wood in your neck may relax or tense up, causing either a floppy feel (with slight intonation issues) or in the opposite case fret buzz.
This is why you need that big hex wrench that came with your guitar. By making slight adjustments, you can keep your neck as playable as the day you got it (or had it set up by a pro). And I mean slight; usually a quarter turn either direction is plenty to either loosen or tighten your neck. I check my necks every month or so, or during travel, to make sure they’re where I want them. I’ll be posting a video tutorial of exactly how to do this, but until then, Google is your friend. And don’t fear the truss rod; it was designed to be adjustable for a reason.