We've all had our fair share of guitars with a tuning issue or two - there are few things more frustrating than kerranging a huge chord, then having to stop playing to tune up for the next one.
In our case, we recently acquired a beautiful Rickenbacker 325 - the only annoying thing about the guitar is the tuning stability. As it turns out, just fitting the right gauge strings worked wonders for our little Ricky.
Thinking about what strings you use and how you fit them - and how they interact with the guitar and its hardware - could solve your problems. Let’s get to work.
Stretch and stretch again
Don’t underestimate the value of stretching your guitar’s strings. Even if they’ve been on there for a while, give ’em a tug halfway along their length. Once the strings settle down, so will your tuning.
Gauge your interest
Fit the highest gauge strings you can. Super-light strings (0.008s) might suit some lead players, but their low tension doesn’t help tuning stability on guitars without locking bridges and top nuts.
Don't go too light
Super-light strings can allow the guitar’s neck to flex too much, causing tuning issues. We need the strings to apply tension that will be counterbalanced by the neck’s stiffness… and the truss rod.
The great electrics – Teles, Strats, Les Pauls, SGs… and our Ricky 325 – were designed in the 50s and early 60s, before super-light and light-gauge strings. Yet most new guitars come with 0.009s.
Fit 0.010s or 0.011s to a Strat or Tele, and you should get improved tuning stability. A shorter-scale Les Paul can take 0.011s or 0.012s comfortably. Our short-scale Ricky needs 0.012s to 0.054s.
Heavier strings are harder to bend – and you’ll likely have to adjust the guitar’s setup to accommodate them. The payoff? Thicker wires promote better tuning stability.
Most guitars are made of wood, right? Well, wood contracts and expands in response to extremes of temperature and moisture in the air. That means that neck screws (and others) can work loose.
Check the neck
Pay particular attention to the neck screws. The guitar’s neck has to be fixed securely to the body - if it can shift in its pocket, you’ll have problems keeping the guitar in tune.
Using the correct-sized screwdriver, turn each neck screw slowly clockwise until it feels solid. Whatever you do, don’t use brute force or you may break one of the screw heads. That would be bad.
Squeaks 'n' creaks
If the strings are sticking in their top-nut slots, the guitar will work its way out of tune. Wiggle the whammy bar and listen for squeaks and creaking noises coming from the top nut.
If the string slots are big enough but you hear creaking, lubricate them with the graphite of a pencil tip or some Big Bends Nut Sauce. The latter is great at helping the strings guide through the slots.
A right wind-up
A final word: make sure you wind your strings on the machineheads neatly. Three to five neat winds will do the trick. Once the strings are stretched to capacity, your tuning troubles should improve.
For more tips, check out our in-depth guide to restringing an electric guitar.