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If you’ve ever picked up a guitar and had trouble getting it to tune up, or found awful rattling and buzzing when you started playing, you’ve probably experienced string slippage.
One important step in fixing the problem is learning how to keep guitar strings from slipping.
The best way to keep guitar strings from slipping is to make sure your guitar’s tuners are properly installed, that your strings are properly installed in both the tuners and the tailpiece, that your nut and bridge are cut correctly, and that your guitar is set up properly.
There are a range of possible causes of — and solutions to — string slippage. Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for it and how to address them.
What Causes Guitar Strings To Slip?
Guitar strings are under a large amount of tension, and translating that tension to a clear, reliable pitch requires a stable platform to allow the string to vibrate.
That means the anchor points on both ends of the string have to be secure, and the string needs to be suspended between two points in between the attachment points. The length, thickness and amount of tension the vibrating string is under all affect the pitch.
In most guitars, the two points that strings touch are the nut and the bridge saddle. The distance between these is the scale length, and that determines fret placement for proper intonation.
If the string isn’t securely attached at the tuner, you could have serious tuning stability problems, as the string loosens and the wraps around the tuner post begin to slip. You could also have problems getting the string installed in the first place on some designs, with the string slipping out of the post and needing to be re-attached.
If the string isn’t secure at the bridge or tailpiece, you risk it slipping out while you’re playing or tuning.
Problems with the depth, width, and shape of the slots at the nut and the bridge saddle can cause strings to slip out of the proper location when playing. If your string slips out of the nut it will sound nearly dead, as it can’t vibrate as freely.
If your string slips out of its location on the bridge saddle it could make a buzzing noise similar to fret buzz or it could sound nearly dead, as in when it slips out of the nut. Which happens is mostly determined by the type of bridge: those with individual string saddles will go dead if the string slips out of place, while those with a flat-top or crowned saddle are more likely to produce buzzing.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these issues and how you can fix them.
How To Stop Guitar Strings Slipping Off Tuning Pegs
On guitars with tuners like vintage Fenders, the strings are installed somewhat differently than on many guitar tuner mechanisms. Instead of a vertical post with a hole drilled at a 90 degree angle, the Fender vintage-style tuners have a vertical post with a slot across the top and a small hole drilled into the post itself.
To install the string, you have to insert the end into the post, then wrap the string around the post to tune it. When done properly, this is just as secure as any other kind of tuner, but it’s not nearly as easy to string correctly.
If you don’t get it right, you might find that the string slides out of the hole when you’re trying to tune up. When it does, it becomes nearly impossible to tune it.
This video shows one method to ensure the high E string on vintage-style Fender tuners doesn’t slip out of place when you’re installing it.
As the video shows, it’s important to lock the string in place.
The same basic idea applies to other kinds of tuners, as well. One way to ensure the string doesn’t slip out of the tuner hole is to put a 90 degree bend in the string, just as in the Fender style tuners, then use the angle to register the string against the post.
Holding it there while you turn the tuner mechanism will make sure the string gets securely attached.
Another potential problem with string slippage is with strings that are wrapped too many times around the post and not properly stretched. As we’ve discussed before, some players wind the entire length of the string around the tuner post.
This can be OK, but it can also lead to tuning stability problems as the string wrapped around the tuner post slowly stretch and then their position slips slightly, sending the string out of tune.
How To Stop Guitar Strings Slipping Off The Nut
Another potential area of string slippage is at the nut, which will make the string sound dead. If it keeps happening you risk weakening the string in that area, leading to eventual breakage.
There are a few things that can cause a string to slip out of the nut. The first is a string slot that’s too narrow or too shallow.
If the string isn’t firmly held in place by the slot, it’s more likely to slip out of place, especially if you play hard. A good rule of thumb is a nut slot should be the same size as the string you’re using in that position and should be half as deep as the string’s diameter.
Another cause of strings slipping out at the nut is a nut slot that’s partially broken. This is often caused by not leaving enough material between slots and the wall between the two strings either chipping or breaking out entirely.
Paying attention to string spacing is important when laying out a nut, and it’s worthwhile to check any guitar, in case a problematic part made it past quality control.
This video offers up a few tips for making a nut.
A final potential reason that strings might slip out of the nut is insufficient downward pressure between the tuner and the nut.
That pressure is essential for good playability. In guitars with a head stock that tilts backward, like traditional acoustic guitars and many three tuners per side style electric guitars, the angle creates that downward pressure.
In guitars with flatter head stocks, like most Fender guitars, the angle isn’t enough to create that pressure, so instead string trees are used. The trees go between the tuner and the nut and press the string down, creating more pressure at the nut.
If your guitar has string trees and they aren’t adjusted properly, your strings might not be held with enough pressure, causing them to slip out of the nut.
This is relatively easy to fix, as string trees are generally screwed into the head stock and so can be adjusted to get the correct pressure.
How To Stop Guitar Strings Slipping Off The Bridge
The last areas to examine are the bridge and tailpiece of the guitar.
Some instruments have a separate bridge and tailpiece while others have a combination or use a bridge and a different kind of string attachment method, and those factors will all have an impact on how to solve string slippage.
For instruments with a separate tailpiece, it’s important to install strings the correct way, taking into account whether they need to wrap around a bar or are just held in place with the ball end of the string.
If you’re using a Bigsby style vibrato, for example, you have to install strings the correct way, including making sure the ball end is secure on a post, to prevent slipping.
Other kinds of separate tailpieces have small diameter holes that allow the string to pass through but securely capture the ball end.
Many guitars use a string through body attachment, where the strings are installed through the back of the guitar and wrap up through the bridge and go up the neck. Famously, the Stratocaster uses this arrangement for its tremolo bridge and the Telecaster uses a similar but slightly different method without a tremolo mechanism and using a somewhat different bridge.
When the string is captured by the tailpiece, it’s unlikely to slip out, but the bridge can be a common area of slippage.
This could be caused by the bridge not conforming to the right string radius or spacing, so it’s worth double checking that before going too far.
In a Tune-O-Matic style bridge, the individual saddles are slotted, and if the slots aren’t the correct size, string slippage could be a problem. Another potential source of string slippage is if the bridge is positioned too low, the tailpiece might not have a sharp enough break angle to keep the strings in place.
Just like downward pressure at the nut is important for secure strings, it’s essential at the bridge, as well. This is known as break angle.
In a guitar where the strings pass through the body and over the bridge, the angle is sharp enough that this generally isn’t a concern.
An instrument where break angle is essential is a traditional acoustic guitar. The strings pass through the bridge, where they’re held in place with the bridge pins, then over the saddle.
If the saddle gets too low over time, the strings can develop a tendency to wander. This is somewhat less of a problem with a traditional acoustic guitar bridge, which has a one-piece design, as opposed to individually adjustable saddles, but it’s far from ideal.
Where a string popping out of an individually adjustable saddle would make the string sound nearly dead, the shallow slots in an acoustic guitar bridge mean that if a string wonders it’s likely to buzz and rattle.
If that happens, two possible solutions are raising the saddle height — being careful not to raise the action too much — or lengthening the string slot in front of the bridge pin holes.
A final potential way that strings can slip on a steel string acoustic guitar is unlikely, but can happen with guitars that weren’t put together properly or have been worn.
The pins that hold strings in an acoustic guitar bridge are tapered, and the hole, which passes through the bridge and the sound hole through a strengthening plate below the top, is, as well.
If those tapers don’t match, you could have real problems seating the strings without them slipping out. You might not be able to get much tension on the string without the bridge pin lifting and the string slipping out.
In a worst case scenario, you might be able to tune the guitar, only for the pin to lift while playing.
If you’re having that problem, you might need a new bridge, but you might be able to ream the holes to the correct taper depending on how far off things are.
The clear, ringing sound of a single note is a hallmark of the sound of the guitar, and that comes from the way the instruments are put together.
Because of string tension and tight tolerances, it’s possible to end up with strings that slip out of the nut or bridge saddle, or, in some cases, out of the tuners themselves.
It’s important to understand how these problems happen to make sure you can fix them and prevent them in the future.
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.