Guitar tuning is the most important step in becoming a musician.
Believe me, I have seen generations come and go and intonation, string stretch, and many other techniques are paramount to sounding good. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you are the next John Scofield, John Frusciante, or Steve Vai, if you are out of tune nobody wants to hear you play.
Your guitar sounding out of tune is the result of several combined factors.
So, why does a guitar always sound out of tune?
The first thing to do is to go for the tuner, then check the tuning pegs, then check the intonation, then the weather, then your hands, and finally the accessories. All of those factors play a role in the final tuning of your instrument. Also, tuning is not exact, instruments are made of wood, and wood changes with climate, moisture, and many other reasons.
The secret to a perfectly tuned instrument is the knowledge I’m about to share with you in this article.
I have been a guitar player for 20+ years and owned almost every guitar quality out there. I started with a cheap knock-off strat and went all the way to sixties vintage Gibsons and Fenders and even a Custom Shop Telecaster.
During all that time I learned how to avoid common mistakes and what to do with a guitar that won’t stay in tune. I am very happy to share all that knowledge with you and hear more and more perfectly-tuned guitars out there.
Are you ready to start learning about your instrument? Let’s do it!
If you haven’t got a tuner already I highly recommend Planet Waves PW-CT-12 NS Micro Headstock Tuner
You can read more about this brilliant tuner here in another article from this site.
The first thing you need to understand is the difference between Tuning and Intonation. In basic terms, if you tune all the strings of a guitar separately you would say they are in tune.
This of course is true. The difference between tuning a guitar and intonation is getting the strings in tune with each other.
Getting all the strings in tune with each other (Intonation) Is the key to stopping the problems you have with finding your guitar is always out of tune.
Here’s a great video that explains nice and clearly about tuning and intonation. This might be the most valuable 5 minutes of your playing career.
Intonation is a basic part of guitar tuning.
In fact, many guitar players play for years without knowing what intonation actually is. Some players go for decades doing string stretching and changing the strings and the guitar still won’t stay in tune, and then take it to our trusty luthier to have the intonation checked. Information is key to resolving tuning problems.
These are very basic common mistakes for beginners so if I just described you, don’t worry, we all went through that.
Now, intonation is not some kind of magic or hidden alchemy only learned and taught to the few. It is closer to a mathematical, numeric science than it is to any kind of esoteric art form. Let’s take a look at the different intonation problems your guitar might have.
The Truss Rod
First of all, let’s clear out what the truss rod of your guitar is.
As you might know, every time you put strings and do some guitar tuning on your instrument, the weight of the strings being tense pulls the neck of the guitar forward.
In the inside of the neck, you find a metal stick (the truss rod) going all across it. What this metal piece does is the opposite force to match the strings pull. When this relation of forces works well, you’ll be keeping the neck from bending because of string pull.
Tightening and loosening the nut plays a major role in your guitar’s intonation and more so in the height of your strings.
What happens when your truss rod adjustment is not right is that your notes fretted and non-fretted will not be the same.
This means that no matter how many times you tune your instrument, it will never give you a perfect in tune chord.
This being said, it is important that if you are a beginner, do not try and fix the truss rod yourself or you might be in serious problems.
How so? Very simple, if you tighten it too much, you might break the bolt, and replacing your guitar’s truss rod will indeed cost you a fortune plus it will never play the same or be its original worth again.
Now, the thing is that if the truss rod adjustment is not right, your instrument will not stay in tun
The solution in this case is to fix the truss rod strength. Imagine it is a long bolt; take it to a professional luthier to adjust it.
Here’s a video that goes into a little more detail. Be sure to watch this as knowledge is power.
The second part of intonation that helps guitar tuning all along the fretboard is bridge intonation.
This intonation is achieved by moving the saddles in your bridge back and forward. There are some exceptions to this rule which are “wrap-around bridges” on electrics, acoustic guitars, and “Spanish” or classical nylon string guitars.
You’ll notice there are no saddles to move in these cases, so this step doesn’t apply to them. For all other guitar models (95% of the total electric guitars in the world), the saddles need adjustment.
If you fret a note beyond the twelfth fret and notice that it is a little below or a little above from what it should be (flat or sharp), then your bridge needs fixing in terms of intonation. You can correct this by moving the saddle back and forth, modifying the length between the saddle and the nut. Unless your saddles are correctly intonated, your guitar won’t stay in tune.
The solution is once again to take it to a professional luthier to intonate both parts. If you want to look up a YouTube tutorial, all you need is a tuner and a screwdriver. You can’t do your guitar any harm by trying a DIY approach (just be careful with the screwdriver and the paint!).
Here’s a video that explains the process.
If there is something affecting guitar tuning directly, those are the tuning pegs.
Once you’ve fixed intonation, it is time to look at other parts of your hardware.
Low-quality tuning pegs do not hold firmly enough and tend to become loose with playing. If this is the case in your guitar, you will notice that it will hold the tuning for maybe half a song or one song and then lose it again towards the flat side regardless of how new the strings are and how much string stretch you’ve done to them.
If the tuning pegs are damaged or low quality your guitar can be tuned perfectly but won’t stay in tune.
On the other hand, if the issue is regarding intonation, your guitar will simply not be in tune ever because it is physically impossible. Pay attention to mid-gig tuning or even mid-song tuning. Going to an important show with a guitar that goes out of tune in the middle of a song is part of the common mistakes of beginner players.
To fix tuning pegs problems, the idea is to change them. Most professional guitarists in the world change the tuners (tuning pegs) of their instruments for high-tech locking ones.
Here’s a really great video that shows how to “upgrade” the tuning pegs on a guitar.
This is one of the most overlooked spots in guitar tuning with a huge impact on the final result.
The nut is the little white, black or metal addition to the neck through which the strings pass to get to the tuners. The friction generated here can make your guitar tuning a very complicated and imperfect endeavor.
There is a very common way to know if this is a problem in your guitar which is to turn the tuning peg and feeling it makes no difference until you hear a “ping” noise and it suddenly is too high. Well, if this happens to you it is because the string is going through a channel that is too narrow for it and it gets stuck in the nut. This can make your guitar tuning inaccurate, annoying and difficult.
The solution for this is to make the hole a little bigger and to put some pencil graphite in it to make the string move at ease. Again, if you are a beginner, don’t try to go DIY on it because you might create a disaster. You can always buy a new nut, they are not expensive or hard to find, but changing it is a whole different story.
Here’s a great video on how to replace your guitar nut.
This is one of the first things we, guitar players, do when guitar tuning gets complicated.
In fact, before checking for intonation issues, you should change your strings, do some string stretch and check again. If your guitar still won’t stay in tune then it is time to have intonation checked with a luthier.
One of the most common mistakes I see in beginning guitar players is to try and make strings last longer than they should. You need to take a look at the little marks that the frets create on the strings from the bottom part.
If you have never noticed it, next time you remove the strings gently put your finger underneath them and feel the difference. These marks, with time, make the guitar go out of tune when the string stretches more and more because they will no longer sit on the frets that marked them in the first place.
The bottom line is that the age of the strings affects guitar tuning negatively.
The only possible solution to this is changing strings at least three times a year. This is the absolute minimum; there are players who change them every show (this might mean every day). Change your strings often and stretch them well and they will stay in tune.
Here’s a video from guitar giant Fender that shows how to change the strings on an electric guitar.
Do You Use A Capo?
Well, this is a huge no-brainer, beginner mistake I see in many people.
The whole concept of guitar tuning changes drastically when you play with a capo. Wait, did I go too fast? OK, a capo is an accessory that you can put on the guitar’s fretboard and it will take the zero fret to that note.
For example, if your low E string receives a capo in the third fret becomes a G string. This applies to all the strings in the guitar when the capo is on.
Now, the capo is usually made of rubber in the part that it touches the strings and uses a spring to keep it tight (in most models). There are several things to bear in mind in this case:
- How old is your capo? – Capos (like everything in life) don’t last forever. They have a utility life and then need replacing. The rubber part starts getting marks from the strings and eventually it will fret the strings unevenly making you sound out of tune. Also, the spring that holds the rubber to the strings might start losing strength and press the strings lighter or unevenly.
- Where are you placing the capo? – This is very important; the place the capo goes in makes a big difference in terms of tuning. It needs to hit the note perfectly or else it will ruin chords.
Making sure it is your capo and not intonation or string stretch that makes your guitar go out of tune is very easy: just remove it and play!
If your guitar won’t stay in tune with the capo on, turn on the tuner and go string by string. Move it back and forth until you find the perfect spot. If such a spot doesn’t exist, then it is time to replace it.
Here’s the ultimate video to watch on everything associated with using a capo.
Weather Is Crucial
Guitars are wooden instruments, at least in their vast majority.
As such, they suffer the consequences of weather. Humid, or dry weather will have an impact on your instrument as well as hot or cold weather.
When the weather is hot, it causes guitars to expand. On the other hand, guitars contract on cold weather.
This causes guitar tuning as well as intonation to change. It doesn’t matter how much string stretch you do, it won’t stay in tune. If you play mostly at home, then you can just get a humidifier and check on the temperature of the room you keep your favorite instruments in. If you are on the road a lot, you are going to have to deal with the nuances of humidity and weather everywhere you go.
There are two types of solution possible for this scenario:
- At home – Control humidity (exclusively for acoustic guitars) with a humidifier and a checking kit. Just check guitar intonation once in winter and once in summer to make your guitar go through extreme weather easier and stay in tune.
- On the road – If you are a guitar player on the road and travel different climates you need to let your instrument settle and absorb the weather nuances. The first thing you should do upon reaching the gig spot is to open your guitar case and let it fluctuate with the weather until it settles down. This way you can tune it perfectly and hopefully go through your set with no problems.
Guitar tuning is not only about the instrument, its intonation doing some string stretch and that’s it. There’s a big part played by well, you, the player.
If your guitar won’t stay in tune even after going through all of the above, then it is time to check your instrument, meaning your hands. Let’s go through common mistakes and how to solve them.
This is the pressing hand and it needs to be accurate in fretting notes as well as doing bendings.
But how do you check on such a thing? Well, one of the most common techniques is to practice with a tuner always on and make sure we hit all the notes and bend to the note in the scale we are trying to hit. This is very important and will help you grow as a player.
Another very important factor is the height of the strings and the frets.
The combination of these factors will change the strength you have to use to fret a specific note. Too much or too little strength can cause your note to be flat or sharp. String height goes back to intonation because you need to move the truss rod to fix it and fret height is only solved by re-fretting a guitar when they are too low.
If you think of it, a guitar is always going steel to steel (strings and frets) and that erodes the frets with time.
The hand that you use to finger or pluck your strings needs to be just as accurate as the one you use for fretting.
Sometimes we go over the top in some songs and tend to hit the strings too hard. If this happens, we can even move them from the pitch.
An example of this could be when your guitar goes out of tune always in the same specific parts of a song. This means that you are just plucking too hard and those strings are moving just too much. Just like you can press lighter with the other hand, you can strum lighter with this one too.
Guitar tuning is a combination of factors like intonation, string stretch, the tuning pegs, strings, fret wire, and of course, your touch. If after being through all of the above your guitar still won’t stay in tune then it is time to consult a professional.
Beyond all common mistakes, we all do as beginners, working on your guitar’s perfect tuning has to be a fight we pick up from day one.
The worst thing that can happen is that playing too much time a guitar that is out of tune will cause you to literally atrophy your own ears for good. Pay attention to these tips, grow a healthy ear, and practice a lot; there is a great path in front of you that will make every effort pay off.
I truly hope this article helps you solve any tuning or intonation problems you have with your guitar and enhances your enjoyment of playing the guitar.