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There are hundreds of fantastic guitar players worldwide, but even players like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Nancy Wilson of Heart, or B.B. King need their guitars to stay in tune to sound their best.
Regardless if you are playing songs in standard tuning or looking for something more unique musically, the strings need to stay tuned to whatever designated note you’ve tuned them for; otherwise, your playing won’t sound quite right.
Having a correctly tuned guitar is just as important as devoting time to improving your playing because no matter how good you are, you won’t sound great if your strings go out of tune.
More specifically, why do guitar strings go sharp?
Brand new strings will often go sharp if they have not been stretched correctly or if the overall manufacturing quality is low and older strings will lose their ability to hold tension. How the strings are tuned, friction issues at the nut, playing style, and climate conditions all contribute to strings going sharp.
Having your guitar strings go sharp can be frustrating, but knowing some of the most common reasons can put you one step ahead of the game so you can always sound your best and play more like your idols. I’ll explain how you can tell which reason makes the most sense for your guitar and what you can do about it!
First of all, what do I mean by strings going sharp? I am not talking about strings turning into a final destination-style razor wire that will slice your finger off when you try to play a G Major chord.
A string going sharp means the string has gone higher than the desired pitch. Even just one string slightly out of tune can make chords, scales, or songs sound wrong and unappealing, so it is essential to keep strings from going sharp.
Please don’t fret. Below, we will take a closer look at some easy solutions to this very common problem!
What is Causing Strings to Go Sharp?
Let’s dive deeper into some of the most common reasons for this, and how we can solve this frustrating issue.
1. Strings Aren’t Stretched Enough
Many guitar players make the crucial mistake of not stretching strings when putting on a fresh set on their guitar. This can lead to frustration as you might find the strings quickly going sharp after only playing for a few minutes.
Stretching strings is a relatively simple process, although it may take some time to do correctly, and there is a risk of the strings popping out, or breaking altogether, so it is best to hold the guitar as you would when playing to avoid a string hitting you in the face. You begin by stretching the low E string, starting near the bridge, moving towards the nut, and then back again towards the bridge.
After you do this, tune, stretch again, and tune at least one more time or until it stays in tune after stretching. You would then repeat this process on all the strings. This helps tremendously in tuning stability and avoiding going sharp.
For those of you who are more visual, here is a great video showing exactly how this process works:
2. Low-Quality Strings
What do dentists, tattoos, and guitar strings have in common? You shouldn’t try to save a buck and go with the cheap option.
Some lower-quality strings will affect the tone, output levels (if using electric or acoustic/electric guitars), and of course, the potential for going sharp more frequently.
Even brand new guitars can have string quality issues. Sometimes stock guitar strings will not be of the highest quality from the factory, especially on those $100-$600 range guitars.
If you have stretched your strings and they are still frequently going sharp, consider picking up a packet of high-quality strings, like Ernie Ball (which are good enough for Paul McCartney) or D’Addario XL (the ones with the colored ends). The good news is that high-quality guitar strings won’t break the bank.
3. Old Strings
Eventually, those nice new strings you worked so hard to stretch and tune will begin to wear out and have to be replaced. Old strings are also notorious for becoming more unstable and frequently going sharp rather than becoming stiffer.
With old strings, the issue is that they often tend not to be able to hold tension. String tension is one of the most significant determining factors for the string’s ability to remain in tune. Because of this loss in tension, old strings will often become sharp and sound sharp because it can be harder to hold them down on the frets- even more so if your fret is worn out as well.
You don’t have to be using the strings for this to happen either and older strings can go sharp even when the guitar isn’t being played.
If you see visible wear and tear, such as dirt or grime build-up, or if you are having issues with your strings continually going sharp, it might be time to change them.
4. How Strings Are Tuned
Another often-overlooked way to keep strings from going sharp is how you tune the guitar. You should always tune up to the desired note, not down, even if your string is sharp.
For example, say you have just strummed a few chords and realize that your D string is now hovering close to D#. Instead of simply tuning down directly to D, you should go slightly flat and tune back up to D.
Tuning up, not down, will help with tuning stability and keep your guitar in tune for longer. The main reason this happens is that it helps to reduce the friction where the string passes over the nut. Tuning up also helps maintain the overall tension of the string, which again aids in tuning stability and helps prevent those strings from drifting sharp.
5. Friction Issues at the Nut
Since the nut holds the strings in place and is where the neck meets the headstock, it is a crucial component of maintaining proper tension and thus keeping the strings from going sharp. If the nut slots are not the correct size, it can place increased tension on the strings, making them sharp.
There are many ways to tweak the size of the slots to help maintain the correct amount of tension in this area of the guitar. Firstly, applying some lubrication in the nut slots can help prevent strings from going sharp.
I have heard of many different ways guitarists do this, such as using graphite from a pencil, Vaseline, or Chap Stick. However, when in doubt, it might not be a bad idea to use specially designed lubrication, such as Big Bends Nut Sauce, or other similar products, to be on the safe side.
If lubrication doesn’t solve the problem, you might have to do some actual filing down of the nut grooves or even replace the nut altogether if it is too worn down. However, in this situation, it is better to take your guitar to a luthier to ensure the process is done correctly.
6. Playing Style
The style of play can also influence how often a string might go sharp.
If you are hammering down on a whammy bar, Eddie Van Halen style, you might experience your strings going sharp frequently. This is because as you push down on the whammy bar, the strings lose tension and move through the nut towards the tuning pegs. When you release the bar, they might not travel back through the nut to normal tension, thus creating more tension, which pulls the strings sharp.
Another reason your strings might sound sharp is how hard you apply pressure to the strings when you press them down. Too much pressure will cause too much tension in the strings, so relax!
Similar to pressing too hard on the strings is strumming or picking too hard. Hitting the strings too hard can also drive strings to go sharp, as the amount of tension will increase.
Thus far, all of the content in this article has dealt with why guitars might go sharp while playing. However, if you have had a guitar for any length of time, you have undoubtedly found that it has magically gone sharp after you have left it alone for a while.
In fact, I just took a break from this article, picked up my D’Angelico acoustic/electric, and found it almost a full-step sharp on every string. How can this be?
Guitars are sensitive to subtle changes in climate, temperature, and humidity. Most of the components of a guitar are made of wood, which naturally expands and contractions with changes in humidity and temperature and it’s one of many reasons why you want to avoid storing your car somewhere that isn’t climate controlled like your car.
Further, most guitar strings are some type of metal alloy, which are also quite sensitive to changes in temperature.
As the ambient temperature drops, you can expect your guitar strings to go sharp. This is because as the temperature drops, the metal strings cool and contract, creating more tension.
Regarding humidity, as humidity increases, the wood in the neck and body can expand and swell as it absorbs moisture, which will increase the tension of the strings, which you well know by now will make the strings go sharp.
One of the most common issues that plague guitarists are strings going sharp. Knowing the most common reasons why this is happening allows for quick solutions, which keeps us playing the instrument we love. Familiarize yourself with the seven reasons above, and you will be one step ahead of the game when the inevitable occurs. Happy playing.