It can be immensely frustrating when your guitar won’t stay in tune and you’re not quite sure why. Here are 12 common causes of tuning problems as well as detailed guidance on how to fix each one.
1. The Climate
Both temperature and humidity will affect the tuning of a guitar. High temperature and humidity levels will cause both the strings and the wooden components of your guitar to expand, meaning the tuning will go flat. Conversely, low temperature and humidity levels will cause the same components to contract, meaning the tuning will go sharp.
If you’re playing in less-than-ideal climate conditions, you might find yourself having to tune your guitar more frequently. However, it’s important to avoid extended exposure to extreme levels of temperature and humidity as they can severely damage your instrument. As a general rule, if the climate is less-than-ideal for you, it’s less-than-ideal for your guitar.
2. Old Strings
Whilst a guitar will generally sound better with age, guitar strings will undoubtedly sound worse. When your strings begin to reach the end of their life, they become brittle and subsequently more difficult to fret. As a result, fretted notes will often sound sharp (particularly in the upper registers).
There is no set time to change your strings as it very much depends on how much you play. However, you should change them once they start to display the following conditions:
- Dull sound & lack of sustain
- Poor tuning
- Difficulty to fret
- Grimy or dirty appearance
- String breakages (it’s generally best to change the entire set once you break a string)
The longest-lasting brand of strings I’ve used is Elixir. Their .010-.046 set (link to Amazon) is my favourite for general electric guitar use, whilst their .012-.053 set (link to Amazon) is my favourite for acoustic.
3. Not ‘Stretching In’ New Strings
Many guitarists don’t realize the need to ‘stretch in’ a new set of strings. When you restring a guitar, the strings will often stretch themselves out over the course of a week or two, which means they’ll go flat very easily. This issue can by bypassed by simply stretching the strings yourself. Here’s a guide on how to stretch in a new set of strings:
- Tune the string to pitch
- Place your index and middle fingers underneath the string at the 12th fret and pull upwards
- Retune the string to pitch (it almost-certainly will have gone flat)
- Repeat the process at the fifth fret
- Continue to stretch the string at until there is no noticeable tuning difference after stretching
- Repeat the entire process for the other strings
If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a great video tutorial from Sammy Bones on YouTube:
4. Not Wrapping Your Strings
Failing to wrap your guitar strings when installing a new set will inevitably cause the tuning to slip. Wrapping your strings essentially retains the tension and ‘locks’ the string in place. Here’s a guide on how to wrap your strings:
- Thread the string through the tuning peg
- Loop the string around the machine head, feeding the string underneath itself
- Fold the string over to lock it in place
If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a great video tutorial from Kennis Russell on YouTube:
5. Poor Intonation
If the open strings are in tune, but your fretted notes sound out of tune, it’s almost-certainly due to poor intonation. Intonation refers to the accuracy of the tuning along the fretboard and should be checked regularly (at least once every three months). Here’s a guide on how to properly intonate your guitar:
- Tune an open string to the desired pitch
- Play a fretted note on the same string at the 12th fret
- If the fretted note is sharp, the bridge saddle needs to be moved away from the headstock. If the fretted note is flat, the bridge saddle needs to be moved towards the headstock. Adjust the bridge saddle screw by half a turn
- Repeat the process until there is no noticeable difference in tuning between the open string and the fretted note
- Repeat the entire process for the other strings
If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a great video tutorial from LearnandMaster on YouTube:
6. Poor-Quality Machine Heads
If your guitar is on the lower end of the price spectrum, there’s a good chance the machine heads will be poor-quality. Poor-quality machine heads fail to lock in place, meaning the tuning will slip easily. This can easily be solved by simply installing a higher-quality set of machine heads. If you’re playing a Fender-style guitar, Fender’s Locking Tuners (link to Amazon) are excellent. If you’re playing a Gibson-style guitar, the Grover Accordion Accessory Series (link to Amazon) are my favourite and a standard feature on many Gibson guitars.
7. Issues With The Nut
Nut problems will make it immensely difficult to get your strings exactly in tune. Whilst tuning the guitar, it’ll often seem like nothing is happening until you hear a ‘ping’ sound combined with the string jumping out of tune. Additionally, nut problems will often cause your guitar to go out of tune when you bend a note.
There are two primary reasons a nut can cause tuning problems:
- The nut is cut too narrow: This pinches the string, which prevents it from moving freely.
- The nut is not well-lubricated: This also prevents the string from moving freely.
If you suspect that there’s a problem with the nut, use a pencil to lubricate the slots with graphite. If you’ve done this and the nut is still causing problems, it’s worth taking it to a luthier to get it filed down.
8. Poor-Quality Electronic Tuner
All-too-many guitarists try to get by with the cheapest headstock tuner they can possibly find. Cheap tuners are often wildly inaccurate and generally struggle to perform in noisy environments. It’s well-worth investing in a good quality chromatic tuning pedal to maximize tuning accuracy. My favourite is the Korg PB01MINI (link to Amazon), which takes up minimal room and has a clearly-visible display.
9. Poor Capo Placement
Capos can often cause your guitar to sound out of tune, which is most-often due to poor capo placement. When placing a capo, you should aim to keep it completely vertical and ensure the strings aren’t being pulled out of tune. Additionally, some capos enforce so much tension on the strings that they cause the tuning to go sharp. If this is the case, I’d highly recommend looking into a capo with tension adjustment, such as the Planet Waves NS Tri-Action Capo (link to Amazon).
10. Saddle Wobble
The bridge saddles of a guitar can occasionally come loose, which will inevitably cause tuning problems. Luckily, this can easily be fixed with a hex key. When adjusting the tightness of a saddle, you’ll want it to be ‘snug’ without being too tight.
11. Tremolo Arm Use
When the strings become slack during tremolo arm use, they can often change position in the nut, causing tuning issues. Luckily, this is often easily fixed by lubricating the nut with graphite as explained in the ‘Issues With The Nut’ section of this article.
12. Poor Technique
If you’ve tried everything this article has to offer and you still sound out of tune, it’s almost-certainly down to your technique. The following technique issues can cause your guitar to sound out of tune:
- Fretting with too much or too little tension
- Unintentionally bending the string when fretting
- Poor bending technique