1.) Do you have more than 2 wraps?
The improperly wound string is the biggest offender when it comes to guitar tuning. I see people come in all the time with the entire string wrapped around the post, often times with the winding being tied in some elaborate knot. This is the best way to insure that you guitar will never play in tune. The strings on your guitar are made of metal, which is not elastic. If you have too many wraps on the tuner and excess gaps in the windings, the slack is taken out of all that extra winding when you stretch out the string (either bending notes or just simply strumming). When the strings go slack, the string pitch will go flat. We like to see one or two good full wraps, with no gaps between the string wrap and the tuning post. We do cinch the unwound strings with a “string tie”. It’s double secret, and I can’t divulge company secrets. However, I do recommend cinching the unwound strings in as simple a way as possible.
2.) How’s your nut?
The second most frequent tuning problem is a poorly made nut. The nut is the bone or plastic piece at the top of the fingerboard where the strings rest before they hit the tuning keys. If the nut slots are not cut at a proper angle or depth, the string will have a tendency to catch at a point in the slot. You can hear the “ting” when you’re trying to tune up. We use special nut slot files to correctly cut slots when we do a set up or if we’re making a new nut. Often, this just happens as the years go on and the string wears burrs into the soft nut material, but sometimes people have bigger strings than the factory installed on the guitar originally, or it has been miss cut or was never cut right from the start. All are easily remedied in the course of a good pro tech set up.
3.) Back in the saddle.
The saddle on either an electric or an acoustic can have the same problem with burrs as you have in the nut slots. This can cause string breakage as well as tuning problems. Once again, we just use the nut files on metal saddles or some sanding paper on acoustic saddles to elevate this common problem. I also like using liquid Teflon on all string contact points (keeps ‘em lubed up). If you have continuous problems, I would recommend replacement saddles. The String Saver saddles from Graphtech are wonderful and I highly recommend them (you can get those at most local guitar stores, or you can order a set from us). But if you want to stay original, most major manufacturers make replacements.
4.) Your tail.
If you have a Strat with a tremolo, and the bridge does not rest against the body when you’re not playing it, this may cause great tuning hassles. The bridge will never come back to rest in the same spot if you bend a string or use the trem. It’s been happening since 1954. Tack the bridge down to the body using the springs located in the back. This will let the bridge always return to the same position when you bend or wang on the trem. Or you can have the Hipshot Trem-setter installed. The Trem-setter allows the bridge to float and come back to rest at one spot, stabilizing the tuning. This should be professionally installed. Expect to pay about $45-50 for the piece and $30-$45 for install (not including a set up). If you have a Les Paul, the tailpiece should be no tighter than what allows the string to pass freely over the back of the bridge. If you have the tailpiece cranked down, the string will tend to bind up on the back of the bridge, and that won’t help with string breakage either. Just make sure the sting clears over the back of the bridge.
5.) It could be the Key.
Some times all of the afore mentioned elements are peachy, but your guitar won’t stay in tune. This means that your first hunch was right and it’s time to replace your crappy old tuners. Tuners come in a vast array of shapes, design and price. Many people prefer the locking tuners from Schaller or Spirtzel. These are great because they eliminate the need to wrap the string around the post (see #1). They don’t lock the string down like a double locking Floyd Rose trem system does, the just pinch the string so it has no winds. Very ingenious. Others just prefer the old fashion Grover Rotos (my favorite) or plane old Schallers or Gotoh. Tuners can be very expensive, so choose wisely. Also, if you don’t have much experience with drills and woodworking, I’d advise you see a qualified repair tech to install, as you can really maul your headstock, and the keys might not function properly. Be prepared to spend $15-$40 on this operation depending on the type of key and where you live!