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Depending on how long you’ve been playing guitar and what kind of instrument you use, you might have wondered whether it’s bad to have to tune your guitar a lot.
In general, you aren’t doing any harm to your guitar by tuning it, but if you notice your guitar going out of tune while you play it, there might be an issue with the instrument, the strings, or possibly your technique.
Let’s take a quick look at why guitars go out of tune, what’s normal, and how to make your tuning stability the best it can be.
Should You Need To Tune Your Guitar A Lot?
Having a guitar that seemingly won’t stay in tune is a huge frustration, especially, as is so often the case, when that guitar is in the hands of a new player. Starting out and having to deal with a guitar like that as a beginner is a sure way to get someone to stop playing entirely.
So how much tuning is too much, and how can you tell?
A decent rule of thumb is that you should tune your guitar up every time you play. So if that’s every day, tuning your guitar every day would be totally normal.
Any time your guitar sits for a day or more without being touched, you can expect to have to adjust the tuning, at least a little bit. That’s in part because changes in temperature and humidity can affect the length, and therefore pitch, of the strings.
You can expect to have to re-tune your guitar when going from somewhere cold to somewhere hot, like the transition from an air-conditioned house to outside in the sun during the summer, or from outside in the winter to a warm room, or vice versa.
If your guitar goes out of tune while playing, that could signal one of a number of issues, depending on what kind of guitar it is and how you’re using it.
Is It Normal For A Guitar To Go Out Of Tune A Lot?
The age of your strings might affect how often your guitar is going out of tune. Old strings no longer return to their length quite so quickly, and they also can become brittle at the saddle and tuner. There are some specific and highly used strings that tend to go out of tune more often.
And new strings need to be stretched so they stay in tune better. To do that, install the string and tune the guitar to pitch, then use both hands to stretch the string in a broad arc.
This removes potential slack and can make your strings last — and stay in tune — a bit longer.
Because the pitch of the string changes with the length, there are a number of things a player can do while playing to change that. The most common is for electric guitars: using a vibrato or tremolo system.
Despite the different names, the systems do the same thing: use a spring attached to the end of the strings to pull on the strings, which makes them rapidly change pitch. The effect is called vibrato, and can also be achieved with your playing hand, but the effect of using a whammy bar, whether it’s a Gibson Vibrola, a Fender Stratocaster, or a Gretsch hollowbody with a Bigsby, is far more pronounced and ethereal.
Except in the case of some specialized systems, like the Fender Jazzmaster’s “floating” tremolo, which uses a bridge designed to pivot, the strings are drug over the bridge and saddles when pulled.
That can cause them to slip out of place at the bridge and go out of tune, or they can be pulled out of place at the tuners and over the nut, causing the same problem.
Systems like a Floyd Rose double locking tremolo, which uses a locking nut, are designed to clamp strings down and lock them at a certain length, meaning a player can use the system to raise and lower the pitch of the strings far more than would be possible with a standard trem system while still staying in tune.
Locking tuners, which we’ll discuss more later on, can also help keep strings the same length when using a tremolo or vibrato system that doesn’t have a locking nut. In fact, you can install locking tuners on just about any guitar.
How hard you use the system and how the system is set up will both have an effect on your tuning stability. If you’re noticing tuning issues while playing after using the tremolo arm, look at the way the system is set up.
Make sure the springs are strong enough to make the bridge return to the same spot, and that the bridge is parallel to the body of the guitar.
If your tuning stability is fine when not using the tremolo system but goes out the window when you do, make sure it’s set up properly, then consider increasing the spring tension. That will offer more resistance to your pushing and pulling on the tremolo arm, which might help keep you in tune.
If that still doesn’t help, you might want to consider string wrapping, locking tuners, adding a roller nut and or roller bridge, upgrading your tremolo system, or switching to a locking tremolo system.
This video looks at multiple different kinds of tremolo systems and explains how they work.
If, on the other hand, you have a guitar without a tremolo system that’s going out of tune while playing, your problem is almost certainly with the tuners or the bridge. Make sure both are stable and positioned properly.
Check that the gears in your tuners aren’t stripped and that the bridge isn’t able to move. That should help diagnose what parts might need repaired or replaced.
Why Does My Guitar Go Out Of Tune So Much?
While guitars will always drift out of tune, real tuning stability issues often come from a mechanical failure, or at least, a mechanical fault.
In the case of a tremolo system that causes tuning issues while playing, both failures and basic faults with the design come into play. Mechanical failures are pretty easy to fix, once you diagnose them, because you change out the part.
When it comes to design problems, though, you sometimes have to find a work around. The biggest fault any non-locking tremolo system has is friction dragging things out of tune.
There are some simple replacement parts you can try to limit the impact of friction, but remember, anything short of a double locking tremolo system, where strings are clamped at the nut and the bridge, will have some string friction, and all will have friction in the mechanism.
The vintage Stratocaster style tremolo system uses six screws at the front edge of the bridge as a pivot point. More modern systems, including locking tremolo systems, use two posts to anchor the bridge and act as pivots in an effort to reduce friction.
You can also replace the saddles of nearly any bridge with a roller saddle, which helps strings move smoothly. Roller nuts are also available.
Instead of reducing friction, upgrades like locking tuners help keep strings the correct length. While some players suggest wrapping strings around the tuner post, which can help keep a string from slipping off the post, it’s not nearly as effective as a set of locking tuners.
Like their name suggests, locking tuners use a mechanism to firmly hold a string in place. That keeps there from being any potential slack in the string that could come out when you pull on the tremolo arm.
They also help make string installation much faster.
Tuning a guitar can seem like an onerous task to a beginner, especially if they’re experiencing any of the issues we’ve covered in this post.
If you think you have to tune your guitar more than you should, it’s worth taking it to a repair shop to have someone look it over. A decent set up, a set of new tuners, or even something as simple as fresh strings might make a huge difference.
The advantage of taking it to a reputable shop is the technician should explain not just what’s being done, but why, which helps you better understand your instrument, as well as giving you a guitar that plays as well as it possibly can.
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.