The Mod Squad

there’s sim­ply no ex­cuse to be out of tune. But why do so many peo­ple still strug­gle with this ab­so­lutely ba­sic re­quire­ment? Dave Bur­rluck goes back to ba­sics…

Guitarist - - Contents -

It amazes me how many times I’ve heard: “My gui­tar won’t play, or stay, in tune. Help!” over the years. Back in the days when guitars weren’t built to quite the ex­act­ing stan­dards as they are to­day per­haps it was un­der­stand­able. Hey, it wasn’t un­known to no­tice a fret in slightly the wrong place af­ter all.

To­day, un­less it’s a built-in-the-shed project gui­tar, I doubt you’ll see that. So in these times of CNCs and pro­duc­tion au­toma­tion, how come I still hear this rum­ble of dis­con­tent?

Let’s just con­sider the the­ory for a mo­ment. A string is an­chored at the bridge, it lays over a sad­dle then heads off to the nut and be­hind that is an­chored and tuned to pitch by the ma­chine­heads. On a hard­tail gui­tar like a Tele­caster or Les Paul, the only move­ment of the string hap­pens when you tune it, or bend it. The an­chor point at the bridge isn’t the prob­lem. Pre­sum­ably you know how to at­tach the string to the

Be­fore you spend money on new parts make sure you un­der­stand the the­ory, ba­sics and how to stay in tune

ma­chine­head’s post and just re­mem­ber, con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, ma­chine­heads them­selves are very, very, rarely the prob­lem when it comes to tun­ing sta­bil­ity. Which leaves three po­ten­tial is­sues: the nut, the bridge sad­dles and, let’s not for­get, the strings them­selves.

New strings take a lit­tle time to sta­bilise – that’s why we stretch them. Some peo­ple will yank them away from the fin­ger­board a few times, while oth­ers will stretch the whole length of each string by grip­ping and squeez­ing each one with your left-hand thumb and fin­gers. Af­ter a lit­tle while, with re­al­is­tic bends, the string should stay at pitch – if it doesn’t you might need to con­tinue stretch­ing. That or look more closely at the nut or sad­dle.

Both are very sim­i­lar: they pro­vide the break-point, or launch-point of the string’s vi­bra­tion. There is very lit­tle move­ment from the bridge an­chor to the sad­dle but enough, cer­tainly on a tune-o-matic bridge, to cause some prob­lems, not least string break­age. The notches in which the string sits mir­ror the nut’s grooves. They need to be smooth, the width of the string, and re­flect the back an­gle to the an­chor point.

Un­like the nut, be­cause most sad­dles are ad­justable, the break-point isn’t al­ways ex­actly at the front of the sad­dle – a Tele’s brass rod sad­dle is a good ex­am­ple. How­ever, a nut isn’t (eas­ily) ad­justable and its front face is the start of the string’s speak­ing length and again the nut grooves need to fall away to re­flect the back an­gle of the string to the ma­chine­head. If the groove’s base isn’t flat, or it’s domed, that break-point of the string can be moved back­wards caus­ing en­hanced sharp­en­ing of the string in lower po­si­tions when you de­press it to the fret.

If the groove is too tight it might well grip the string: when you bend a string, stretch­ing it, it won’t re­turn to pitch, it will stay at that raised pitch; the same can hap­pen when you’re tun­ing. A sim­ple way to see if the grooves are clamp­ing the string is to bend be­hind the nut on each string. Once stretched prop­erly the string should re­turn to ex­act pitch. You might hear a small ‘ping’ which means the groove is too tight. Adding lu­bri­ca­tion may help but a well-cut (and main­tained) nut re­ally shouldn’t need any.

A few de­sign­ers have, of course, come up with roller nuts and sad­dles. While the for­mer are pretty rare, the lat­ter, on a tune-o-matic bridge, for ex­am­ple, is of­ten used with a Bigsby where the tune-o-matic is firmly mounted and doesn’t tilt as the vi­brato is moved.

Most sad­dles can eas­ily be notched and/ or main­tained with a com­bi­na­tion of nee­dle files and fine (600 grit and finer) wet and dry pa­per. Nuts do re­quire more spe­cial­ist tools, pri­mar­ily nut files and/or a fine ra­zor saw. Of course, such de­tails will be cov­ered by a set-up. Ask at your lo­cal mu­sic store: never be afraid to get pro­fes­sional help!

So, which­ever way you go, be­fore you start spend­ing money on new parts – tuners, nuts, bridges and/or sad­dles – make sure you get the ba­sics sorted, un­der­stand the the­ory and get your gui­tar play­ing – and stay­ing – in tune.

If you’re hav­ing prob­lems stay­ing in tune, the bridge and nut may hold some an­swers

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