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If you’ve had trouble with your guitar staying in tune, you might have wondered about locking tuners — can you put them on any guitar?
One big advantage of locking tuners is that they can be installed on nearly any guitar and leave little to no trace if you or the next owner wants to change to different tuners. That makes them a great fit for installing on existing guitars, as well as for new builds.
Let’s look at what locking tuners do, why players choose them and what kinds of guitars they can be installed on.
What Are Locking Tuners?
Locking tuners, first developed by Sperzel USA in the late 1970s and early 1980s, try to solve an age-old physics problems that confronts guitar players. The tension from bringing strings up to tune, the friction and vibration from playing and even changes in temperature, cause guitar strings to move, which puts the guitar out of tune.
To understand this, it’s worth thinking about how strings work. The length, tension, and weight of the string help determine the frequency the string gives off when played.
That means when any of those things change, your string will likely go out of tune. Tension usually changes over time and with swings in temperature, which is one reason you need to re-tune your guitar after not playing for a few days.
Length, as I noted above, can be affected when the string moves off the post, which causes the pitch to change.
One solution to that is locking strings onto the tuner post with a slip knot, which holds the string in place. This video gives an overview of the procedure.
There are issues with that method, though. It doesn’t hold the strings perfectly in place, so they can slip off the peg and still go out of tune.
Bending the string can also weaken the string, causing it to break when you tune up in some cases.
Locking tuners, on the other hand, use a different method to achieve the same end. They have a locking ring on the back which has to be loosened to remove the strings.
When you install new strings you just pull the string straight through the tuner until it’s taut, then tighten the locking ring down to clamp the string in place. You trim the string and then tune as normal.
Why Do Players Like Locking Tuners?
One advantage over the method of locking strings to the tuner with a knot is the speed of changing strings. Locking tuners are much faster and require fewer steps.
They also hold the string much more firmly in place than the knot method. Using a knot has the potential to be less consistent from string to string, for example, while using locking tuners ensures each string will be equally well secured.
The more securely the strings are held in place, the longer they’ll stay in tune. That’s especially true for players who use a vibrato or tremolo system, which can tend to stretch and move the strings.
That’s the same basic principle in place as for a locking tremolo system like a Floyd Rose, which uses a locking nut to clamp the strings in place. The systems are quite different in practice, however.
One difference is how much easier locking tuners are to install. We’ll cover the details of a locking tuner install shortly, but to install a double-locking tremolo system, you’d need to remove material from both the body and the neck of the guitar to install the tremolo locking bridge and the locking nut, respectively.
It’s major surgery and is hard to reverse if you decide you want to remove the locking nut.
Locking tuners can also be installed on pretty much every kind of guitar, while only solid and semi hollow body electric guitars can really use a tremolo system with locking nut.
What Kinds Of Guitars Can Have Locking Tuners?
When it comes to installing a string locking system, the kind of guitar you have plays a pretty big part. If you’re building a solid body guitar like a Stratocaster, for example, you have almost unlimited options.
If you’re trying to improve tuning stability on your Scotty Moore inspired ES-295 complete with a Bigsby vibrato, on the other hand, locking tuners are the only feasible choice. The same is true for most acoustic guitars.
While there have been some custom and specialty acoustic guitars with a Floyd Rose style locking nut and locking tremolo, the concept won’t work on most acoustics.
That’s because a Floyd Rose uses a solid block and a spring claw to balance the tremolo. That isn’t possible based on how a traditional acoustic guitar is put together.
But as anyone who has ever played guitar knows, acoustic guitars can go out of tune from the strings moving while playing, even without a vibrato system. That makes locking tuners very helpful for tuning stability.
And the advantages to the speed of restringing are the same for acoustics and electrics when it comes to locking tuners.
There is, however, one kind of guitar where locking tuners are difficult, but not entirely impossible: Acoustic guitars with a slotted head stock.
Much of that has to do with how tuners made for slotted head stocks are built and how the strings need to be placed to clear the head stock. This video from Martin Guitars about how to re-string a guitar with a slotted head stock might give you some idea of what I mean.
Many tuners made for slotted head stocks have thicker tuner pegs than for tuners installed in solid head stocks. The way the gears are installed on the side of the head stock also limits the possible size of any locking mechanism.
That’s not to say it’s impossible. If you’re working with a good builder or repair person they’ll likely be able to come up with a solution, whether a custom head stock or modifications to the tuners themselves.
That is a far cry from the installation process on guitars with solid head stocks, however, which often requires very little.
How To Install Locking Tuners
The process of installing locking tuners can be anything from a simple drop in affair to a full custom job, but the basics are the same for nearly all of them.
- If you’re replacing existing tuners, remove them
- Measure the tuner holes in the head stock
- Determine the size of the tuner pegs
- Using a tapered reamer, make the size of the holes match — if the tuners are already a loose fit, a bushing installed later will help
- Fill any previous screw holes
- Test fit the tuners and mark their screw locations
- Drill pilot holes for the tuner installation screws
- Place tuners into the holes and screw them in place
- From the front of the head stock install a washer and then screw the included bushing down
You’re ready to re-string the guitar and tune up now.
Locking tuners are one of the major leaps forward in tuning, just like the switch from friction pegs to geared tuners. They make it much easier to keep an instrument in tune, even if you use a vibrato or tremolo system regularly.
One of their major advantages is that they can be pretty easily installed in just about any guitar, from those with six on a side like a classic Fender to a more traditional three on a side design used on everything from acoustics to electrics. That makes them versatile and means just about any guitar can stay in tune better than before.
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.