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If you’ve heard about locking nuts and how they help with tuning stability, you might have wondered whether you could install one.
So can you put a locking nut on any guitar?
You can only use a locking nut in conjunction with a locking tremolo system, and the installation of both requires major modifications to your guitar. If you want to improve tuning stability on a guitar without a locking trem system like a Floyd Rose, you could consider locking tuners instead.
Let’s look at what a locking nut is, why you can’t put one on just any guitar, and what you could do instead to keep your guitar playing in tune.
What Is A Locking Nut?
A locking nut, most often used in a Floyd Rose-style tremolo setup, clamps the strings firmly in place at the nut. Normally, the strings are held down in three pairs, with each pair locked in place using an Allen wrench.
The idea behind a locking nut is that using the tremolo system in a Stratocaster style guitar can cause the strings to slip out of position on the nut and go out of tune. Floyd Rose, the inventor of the eponymous tremolo system, used a marker on a string to determine that, and that helped inspire the the locking nut.
Why Do Players Use A Locking Nut?
Rose was tinkering with the tremolo system in his guitar because he was inspired by the whammy bar antics of guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore. After he figured out how to keep the bar from breaking — he went with a 1/4 inch steel bar — he was faced with the tuning problems mentioned above.
That shouldn’t be news to anyone who has ever used the tremolo on a Strat style guitar. They can offer up everything from shimmery accents to wailing divebombs, but when you abuse them, the strings often don’t return to tune.
The solution that Rose and other makers eventually came up with was to lock the strings in place, hence the locking nut. But if you’ve ever restrung a guitar with a locking trem system, you know the nut isn’t the only thing that locks.
The way a locking tremolo actually keeps the string the correct length is by capturing it at both the nut and the bridge. In order to change a string out, you need to unlock both.
A locking nut by itself would at best be a partial solution, because the nut is only one place where strings can slide out of place or stretch.
How Can You Install A Locking Nut?
A locking nut is substantially larger than a standard guitar nut and can’t just be dropped in. You need to make clearance on a neck that wasn’t built for such a nut, and that requires carefully routing away material, then drilling holes to attach the locking bar to the lower part of the nut.
To give you an idea of what is involved in the process, this video walks through the installation of a locking nut on a Fender neck.
Why You Can’t Use A Locking Nut On Any Guitar
The installation process should give you some idea why you can’t just put a locking nut on any guitar — you need to be able to make enough room to install the nut itself. The way it works, which we talked about earlier, should give you another sense of why.
The locking nut clamps the strings down so they can’t slip out of tune, even when you try to pull the whammy off the guitar. But that means you can’t tune the guitar, either, at least not with the nut locked down.
If you tried to use the tuners with the nut locked down, in fact, you risk breaking a string.
That’s why most guitars equipped with a locking tremolo system also use fine tuners at the bridge, which are the small knobs you see protruding from the bottom of a Floyd Rose trem. When using a locking tremolo, you have to install the strings, bring the guitar up to tune and then lock down the nut.
If the strings go out of tune, you use the fine-tuning knobs to adjust. If that doesn’t offer enough, you need to unlock the nut in order to re-tune.
The other reason you can’t install a locking nut on any guitar is that the locking bridge mentioned earlier does a tremendous amount for tuning stability, as well.
Strings go out of tune when they shrink or stretch, which changes their pitch. Using the tremolo bar might make the string slide out of position on the nut, causing it to go out of tune, but it might also cause the whole string to stretch, which does the same thing.
A locking tremolo like a Floyd Rose solves that in a very simple, if not always simple to use, way: by locking the string firmly in place at the saddle. In conjunction with strings that are properly stretched before you finish tuning up, this makes string length very stable, and keeps the strings from moving from the nut and the bridge and saddle.
Without a locking tremolo, then, a locking nut would mean you couldn’t easily tune your guitar but you also wouldn’t get as much benefit in terms of tuning stability, because the strings will still be able to move at the bridge.
What Are Alternatives To A Locking Nut?
One option is always to go all-in and install a locking nut and tremolo in your guitar. And that is definitely a reasonable choice, especially if you find yourself using and abusing the whammy bar on a regular basis.
But if your style is a bit more roots and blues than thrash and hair, then you might not want to do that. And that’s not to mention the modifications to the neck and possibly the body to install a locking nut and locking trem system.
If you have a vintage guitar, or one you just don’t want to rout into, you don’t have to despair. Tuning stability is still possible, with a few options, including some easily installed accessories.
How To Lock Strings On A Tuner Post
One of the simplest ways to improve tuning stability, no matter if you use a tremolo bar or your guitar doesn’t even have one, is to lock the string in place when installing it. Here is a rundown of how to do that.
- Install the low E string in the bridge and pass it through the nut slot and through the hole in the tuner post
- Pull the string tight and hold it down at the first fret with one finger
- Using your other hand, wrap the string one time around the post, then loop it around itself, creating a bend at the tuner
- Hold the string in place as you turn the tuner knob and ensure the string winds over the bend you created
- Trim the excess
This, along with stretching the string when installing, should help lock it in place.
How To Use Locking Tuners
A good alternative to a locking nut is locking tuners, which you can install on nearly any guitar. The tuners turn the same as others, but hold the string slightly differently.
Here’s how to use a set of locking tuners.
- Lay your guitar on its back and support the neck
- Remove the old strings and turn the tuners so the hole in the post is perpendicular to the nut, so the string can pass straight through it
- Starting with the low E string, install the string in the bridge and pull it through the tuner post and hold it taut
- Turn the knob on the back of the tuner, which activates the locking mechanism
- Bring the string up to tune
- Trim excess string.
The big advantage of locking tuners over locking the string in the tuner by hand is that the mechanism on the tuner means you don’t need multiple wraps of string around the tuner post, something that can contribute to strings slipping and stretching, and then going out of tune.
While a locking nut isn’t for everyone — or for every guitar, really — that doesn’t mean tuning stability isn’t important. Using locking tuners can be a good alternative for a few reasons.
First, they can be used on pretty much any guitar with little to no modification, meaning you can put them in that vintage guitar and still gig with it.
Second, they can help you hold tune better whether you use a Strat style tremolo, a Bigsby, or even no trem at all.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.