by Professor String

The Biggest Tuning Problem is...




A bad guitar string? Tuning problems are often resolved by a series of adjustments to an instrument. There is often a misunderstanding about what exactly is being adjusted, and what cannot be adjusted. There is a rule of thumb that states: The instrument is adjusted to the string. Many musicians often have this rule of thumb backwards. They think the string is actually being adjusted to the instrument. The following are all adjustments to the instrument:
    1. Saddle positioning (intonation)
    2. Nut depth
    3. Bridge height
    4. Truss rod tightening/loosening
    5. Fret height
    6. Tuning peg turns
Nothing in the list is an actual adjustment made to a string. If we were to make a list of string adjustments, it would look like this:
    1. Wrap wire tension
    2. Alloy balance
    3. Gauge leveling
    4. Ball-end twist
    5. Core wire coupling
    6. Plating thickness
Again, as musicians we are limited to instrument adjustments rather than string adjustments.
The string is merely positioned on the instrument by adjusting its height, pulling it tight, and moving the anchor points. In most situations, our instrument adjustments will get us to the desired tuning. But what about those situations where none of our adjustments seem to work? No matter what adjustment you make, the thing will simply not tune correctly. There is no electronic tuner on the market featured with an indicator that says, "Hey dude, your string is bad." Indeed, a bad string is not as easy to recognize until you know the symptoms.


A Tour of Tuning

As the expert musician you must be able to recognize this situation on your own. It starts by going beyond the basic open tuning. Just about every guitar, bass, banjo...etc., will tune correctly with open strings. You know the drill. Strike the string, watch the tuner, and twist the peg until you are four-four-oh. It's not until we start playing in the upper positions we start to realize we have tuned to Fore-Fore-Uh-Oh! In fact, you could think of tuning being similar to a golf shot. The nut is the tee and the fret board is the fairway. Everything is fine at the tee, until we get farther down the fairway and see our aim issues. Just like in golf, it will take minor tweaks in our, um...tuning to get things straightened out. The next stop on our pro tour of tuning (okay, no more golf!) would be intonation setting.


Intonation. Not so much.

Once you do your open tuning, we reach for the screw driver (or Allen wrench). With you finger pressing on the twelfth fret, you adjust the saddle position, until you see four-four-oh. Don't be fooled if you think that adjustable bridge is going to get you out of a tricky tuning jam. Remember, we are focusing on a situation where none of the "common" adjustments are going to work. For the pesky tuning problem, you can have great open tuning, and good tuning at the twelfth fret. For those of you paying close attention to your tone (...all of you we hope!), you start making some thick chords in the middle of the neck and start to notice something slightly out of whack. Or perhaps you have recorded yourself and hear something off in your tuning. You reach for the tuner again. The open tuning and intonation seem to be in check on the tuner. What is going on? What more can we do? It's time for our next stop on the tuning tour.


Stretched to the limit

At this point, it would be a good idea to check the tuning at the intermediate positions which would include the 5th, 7th, and 9th frets. If the tuning in these positions is significantly off the mark on the digital tuner, this will surely make our instrument off-pitch. Just one string with this behavior will throw everything else out. I have seen guitarists claim this tuning problem attributed to fret boards being incorrectly cut, frets profiled asymmetrically, or the necks being twisted. While these can be attributed, there is something more profoundly overlooked: The string. A string is usually the first culprit to have imperfections and quality issues. This becomes more obvious as a string starts to wear. As the string is played and bent by players over many cycles, it starts to lose some of its elasticity. The common misunderstanding is the string loses its elasticity evenly up and down its length. In truth, the elastic properties of the alloy can change at various points up and down the length. We end up with a string that exhibits different vibratory behaviors along its length. So, it might sound fine in open and upper registers, but perform poorly in the midrange of the neck (i.e. frets 5 through 9). This is either a string that is worn out, or it was improperly made. Fortunately the solution to this problem is simple. You replace the string. But what if this was already a new string?


Don't be fooled.

The real problem is when we see this tuning behavior happening with a brand new set of strings. The paradigm in the players mind is this, "This is a brand new set of strings. Something must be wrong with my guitar." In truth, there are plenty of defective "brand new" strings to go around. It happens. Step back for a moment. Consider a defective string, or worn out string, if you start to see the tuning problems go beyond the adjustment of the instrument. A defective string has become significantly easier to detect with a digital tuner at your side. It is still up to you to identify it. Hopefully, we have increased a little more awareness about troubleshooting a bad string.



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About The Author


Professor StringTM is a leading expert in the musical string business. He leads a development group that specializes in guitar and bass string research for musicians. You can visit their site at