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The tuning machines on a guitar are not the most glamorous part, not getting nearly the attention of wood selection, fret board material, or pickups.
But there is still an important decision to make there: Picking locking vs. non-locking guitar tuners.
Whether you should choose locking or non-locking guitar tuners depends on a number of factors, including your playing style, how important tuning stability is to you, and what kind of guitar you’re playing. Whether you’re buying a new guitar or retrofitting an existing instrument is also a consideration.
Let’s examine how guitar tuning machines work, the difference between locking and non-locking tuners, and why you might choose one or the other.
How Does A Guitar Tuning Mechanism Work?
Guitars, like every other stringed instrument, get their sound from the vibration of the strings being transferred to the body of the instrument, and use tension on the strings to bring them up to pitch. A nut and a bridge set the string length, while a tuning mechanism brings the string up to tension.
The very simplest tuning machines are the kind still found on violins today: a tapered peg that fits into a hole. The string is fed through a hole in the peg and when turned, the friction between the peg and the head stock holds the peg in place.
The earliest guitars had tuners similar to this, often made of a very hard substance like ebony or ivory. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, though, a new style of guitar tuner became common: the geared tuner.
The basic mechanism of a geared tuner is the same today as it was them: A post with a worm gear on one end and a knob on the other is turned and that turns a pinion gear that’s connected to the post the string is inserted through.
This is much, much more precise than the friction pegs of older instruments. That’s because the gear ratio, which shows the number of times you have to turn the tuner knob to get a full turn of the tuner post, means you can get very fine adjustment.
Early tuners had a gear ratio of 12:1, but today 14:1 and 18:1 are the most common ratios. Some precision tuners can have a ratio of 20:1 or higher.
Most changes to guitar tuning mechanisms have been small refinements, including the introduction of sealed gear tuners, which are less likely to get dirty and jam than open gear tuners.
Probably the biggest leap forward, at least before the advent of robotic tuners, was the invention of the locking tuner in the early 1980s.
What Does A Locking Tuner Do?
Keeping a guitar in tune is hard work. In addition to the tension the strings put on themselves — and the body of the instrument — there is the force of players pulling the strings and the resulting friction at the nut and the saddle.
The tuning mechanism has to resist all of these forces. You can see why geared tuners do a better job at this than friction pegs: As long as the tuner is working properly, the meshing of the worm gear and the pinion keeps the tuning post from turning backward.
But even still, strings can slip out of place, either at the nut or at the tuning peg itself. The more firmly the string can be held in place, the less likely it is to slip.
That’s the concept behind wrapping a string around itself to lock it in place when re-stringing a guitar. This video explains how to do that and what it does for tuning stability.
Another way to ensure strings are held in place is to use a double locking tremolo system, which includes both a locking bridge and a locking nut. The two locking locations keeps the string at exactly the same length, which keeps it in tune.
How Do Locking Tuners Work?
Locking tuners work in a similar way to a locking nut, in that they clamp strings firmly in place, but they use a different method.
A locking nut, such as that used on a Floyd Rose style tremolo, uses three locking bolts to clamp down strings in pairs at the nut and means you can’t use the tuners until it’s been unlocked. A locking tuner, however, uses a post or other kind of clamp to hold the string in place at the tuner post.
While you generally need to wrap a string around the post of a non-locking tuner several times, you don’t do that with a locking tuner. Instead, you install the string in the bridge and thread it through the post, pull the string tight, and then use a locking mechanism on the tuner to clamp down the string.
The resulting hold on the strings is not quite as strong as a locking nut, but there are advantages for locking tuners. For one, locking tuners are easier to install, and they also don’t change how the tuners can be used like a locking nut does.
Most locking tuners require little to no modification to the guitar to be installed, and many new guitars today come with them from the factory.
Are Non-locking Or Locking Guitar Tuners Better?
If we’re strictly talking about tuning stability, then locking guitar tuners are better than non-locking tuners. The same is true when it comes to ease of re-stringing.
After all, pulling a string tight and clamping down a screw is a much faster and easier process than bending, wrapping, and tying the string by hand. That’s even more true if you have to change a string while playing.
In some cases, non-locking tuners are lighter than locking ones, which might give them an advantage for some players, but the difference is very small and not likely to even be noticeable in most cases.
One area where non-locking tuners are often better is price, though. While some locking tuners can be had cheaply, most good brands are priced quite a bit higher than non-locking options.
Should I Pick Locking Or Non-locking Guitar Tuners?
Everyone should just switch to locking tuners, then, right? Well, maybe, but plenty of people are glad to stay with the tuners they have, and with good reason.
While tuning stability is very important, it also has to do with more than just the tuners. Having a proper set up, including neck relief, action, and intonation, will improve tuning stability, as will a properly cut nut.
And for many players, either because of the style of music they play or the kinds of instruments they use, tuning stability just isn’t an issue. Playing hard and loud, or playing solos that include deep string bends can both stretch strings and cause them to slip.
Use of a vibrato or tremolo system can do the same.
Players who find themselves having tuning issues, or those who play guitars with tremolo or vibrato systems will probably benefit from locking tuners.
But for players who mostly play rhythm guitar, for many acoustic guitar players, and for players who use a hard tail or stop tailpiece guitar, non-locking tuners are often perfectly fine, though, as noted above, locking tuners are much easier and quicker to re-string.
Vintage guitar players might also not want to replace their original tuners, depending on the condition of their instrument. Changing to locking tuners on a player-grade vintage guitar might increase its resale value, but you wouldn’t want to change the tuners on a rare, all- or mostly original guitar.
There are a lot of reasons to like locking tuners, from improved tuning stability when playing to making re-stringing fast and easy. In many ways, locking tuners can improve just about any guitar.
But there are some good reason to go with non-locking tuners, as well, from the extra cost to wanting to keep your instrument in original condition.
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.