by Michael James Adams
You know what I love about my job? Well, maybe I should clarify that question a bit, for there are many upsides to this line of work. For example, I love having the privilege of seeing gorgeous guitars of all makes, models and condition. I also love being able to refine instruments for the individual player that’s using them. I like that I can watch Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Star Trek: TNG and COSMOS while I’m working. I like that we get super geeky about things like Star Wars, Doctor Who and Weezer. I like working with my friends.
The thing I love most is helping my friends and customers become more self-sufficient. Sure, this is a move widely regarded to be bad for business, but I don’t see the point in hoarding trade secrets especially when it comes to musical instruments. No matter my level of involvement, there is absolutely no reason that every guitar shouldn’t play and sound its best. In that spirit, I’d like to address the most important, most simple fix for guitars that won’t stay in tune once and for all: how to properly string your damn guitar.
When a customer tells me their guitar won’t stay in tune, the problem could be caused by a number of things: the string could be binding up in nut slots that aren’t appropriately cut, strings might need to be stretched or are worn out, or maybe the tuners just aren’t up to the task. All valid!
However, the first thing I’ll check is how the strings are spun around the tuning post, and believe it or not, I’d estimate that with 60% of the guitars I see, the solution for unstable tuning is a proper restring. Seriously.
What do I mean by ‘proper’? Well, I’m referring to a few general rules when it comes to standard, non-locking tuners:
-it’s best to have 2-5 wraps around the post for stability, though at least three is preferred
-those wraps should not overlap, but wind down the post cleanly
-strings should be wrapped with their placement in mind (i.e. obtaining enough downward force on the nut with respect to their position on the headstock so more wraps may be necessary)
-‘locking winds’ are preferred but not always necessary (or possible)
Let’s dig in!
My first point may seem obvious to some, but I’ve been surprised as of late just how often this one seems to elude some players: too few or too many wraps will have negative consequences on tuning stability. Too few, and the string won’t grab onto the tuning post, continually loosening. Too many, and the string will overlap itself, causing it to shift around on the shaft. This is bad for stability when you’re playing, but even the act of turning the post will make for inconsistent tuning between notes.
Take, for instance, this before-and-after photo of a guitar I recently worked on. This Jazzmaster came in for help because it wasn’t staying in tune, and the problem was the way it was strung. You’ll see that the wraps around the post are sloppy, so when the tuner is turned, the string doesn’t just get tighter, it moves around its bed of windings, jumping from place to place. Not gonna work.
On the bottom is my more meticulous stringing job, cleanly wound and tuning smoothly. Having good number of wraps ensures the string won’t pull itself free from the tuner as well as enhancing the range of available with each turn. As I mentioned before, 3-5 wraps around the post is ideal, but of course, some tuners won’t allow for that many, especially on the low strings. On my ’64 Gibson J-50, two is the most I can get on the low E and A strings, but plain strings should always have at least three.
And how do I make certain I have 3-5 wraps? On Fender guitars, I’ll pull the string so that it’s semi-taut, then measure three tuners farther than the one I’m stringing. If I’m stringing the low E, I’ll cut the string at the G tuner. For the plain strings, simply pull the string to its respective tuner, then pull it back three tuners; if you’re stringing the G, pull it back to the low E and cut at the G tuner. Simple? I think so.
The above tip also works for basses with all of the tuners on one side, but depending on the diameter of the tuning post you’ll only need to measure out 2 or 2 1/2 tuner lengths away from the one you’re stringing!
For Gibson guitars, or those with the tuners spaced out on both sides of the headstock, I’ll measure in this way: I’ll thread the string through its tuner, then grasp it with my right hand. Extending my middle finger, I’ll touch the 12th fret and pull up just slightly, giving me exactly as much string as I need. Try it!
Winding the string in this manner also allows you to vary the number of winds to increase downward pressure on the nut. For instance, if you have strings that jump out of their slots, try a few more wraps first. This won’t work for every instance, but many times it does the trick. Additionally, some ringing out behind the nut can be solved with an extra turn or two, specifically with the G string on a Fender guitar. That string has the longest length of string behind the nut without a string tree, so it’s important to have enough break angle on the nut.
Note: Fender guitars with vintage or Kluson-style tuners, you’ll want to place the end of the string in the hole, then start cranking. That way, the string locks in more positively with the tuner. You wouldn’t believe the number of Fenders I’ve had in the shop lately with the strings just fed through the split shaft, then loosely wrapped around it. Just stick it in there just about as far as it’ll go, bend the string to one side, then go for it.
Locking winds are good for those of us who require some extra assurance that our strings won’t slip. This works best on any tuner that has a solid shaft, unlike those usually found on Fenders. All of my Gibson guitars get this kind of wrap, which is essentially just wrapping the string around itself on the post.
There are a few ways to do this, with one popular method being threading the string through the post, then the first wrap goes over the and all others go under. This isn’t difficult to master, but if my words elude you, I’ve made a handy gif to go along with them:
It the above gif, you’ll note that I’ve used the aforementioned middle finger trick, except that I’m not pulling up. The tuners on this guitar made by our friend Stephen only allow for two wraps at the most, so pulling up would have surely given me more wraps than I needed.
The second method (and my preferred) is a little bit more tricky, but it goes like this: thread the string through the post, bend it in toward the inside of the headstock, then back under itself and up and over toward the headstock again. If a picture’s worth 1,000 words, then this gif should be considered my first published short story:
See? Easy. This is the way I string guitars, and they don’t go out of tune when I’m done with them. Simply reverse the procedure for the plain strings, and for 6-on-a-side headstocks, all of them will be done as pictured.
It is my sincere hope that this helps those of you with nebulous tuning problems. As I said before, check the nut, lubricate properly and make sure your tuners are up to task, but start here first; your problem could simply be a few turns away!
We’ll be doing a separate post on locking tuners. It’ll probably be a short one.