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…
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