“Why Doesn’t My Guitar Stay in Tune?” - The 10 Usual Suspects

You happily tune up your guitar, your bass, your ukulele or another string instrument and a few minutes later it’s already fallen horribly out of tune. In desperation, you look to the sky and cry out to the universe: “Why won’t it stay in tune?!!” It’s a simple question but it has at least ten possible answers. So, depending on the answer, you might be able to solve the problem in the blink of an eye. Or you might be working with an instrument that’s in dire need of a good tune-up. No matter the problem, you’ll be able to find the solution in this list of the usual suspects when it comes to wonky tuning stability.

#1. Always Tune Up Before Playing Your Guitar

Every guitarist needs to make this a habit: before you even start playing, tune up your guitar! It’s really not weird if, by the end of your last playing session, your guitar is no longer perfectly tuned. And because of how the strings are stretched between the bridge and machine heads, they are under constant tension. So even when you leave your guitar sitting in a corner for a few days, over time, they’re likely to fall out of tune a little bit.

If you’ve just kitted out your guitar with new strings, then tuning up will be even more important, since the strings need to stretch and get used to their new home. Also, if your guitar is brand new, it’s worth noting that the wood will need time to really break in a little bit, and this will also affect the tuning stability.

#2. Old, Dirty Strings

Every time you play the strings of your guitar, your fingers leave a little grub and grease behind. Even if you wash your hands before playing, a little dirt will still cling to the strings. By giving the strings a quick wipe down with a dry cloth every time you finish playing, it can help them to stay in tune longer. Old strings are also more prone to falling out of tune as they get closer to giving up the ghost, so if you noticed them losing pitch more quickly than usual and it’s been a while, then it can be worth getting a fresh pack of strings. For more help, see our other blog: When Do I Need to Change My Guitar Strings?

» Guitar Strings
» Bass Guitar Strings
» All Strings

#3. New Strings? Give Them a Stretch!

If you’ve just put a new set of strings on your guitar, then you need to make sure that they’ve been well stretched. The process is simple. Install your strings, tune them up and then one by one, gently and slowly pull up the string at certain points, all the way along its length. Tune up again and repeat the process until you can stretch each string without any of them falling out of tune.

“Why Doesn’t My Guitar Stay in Tune?” - The 10 Usual Suspects

#4. Check That Your Strings Are Well Installed

When stringing up your guitar, you need to make sure that they’re well installed. At the machine head side, make sure that each string is wound around the tuning post two or three times. This will prevent slippage due to the tensile force that you’re going to apply to the strings when you fully tune them up. At the bridge side, double check that each string is sitting where it’s supposed to. This will depend on what kind of guitar and what kind of bridge your model has. For help with this, see our blogs and video tutorials on re-stringing classical, acoustic and electric guitars.

» How to Change Classical Guitar Strings
» How to Change Acoustic Guitar Strings
» How to Change Electric Guitar Strings

#5. The Quality of Your Guitar

There is at least one good reason why one guitar is more expensive than another. Paying more for a guitar tends to mean that you’re also paying for higher quality parts and materials. High quality machine heads, for example, will result in a guitar with better stable tuning. The nut of your guitar also has an influence on the tuning stability. So, upgrading the tuners and the nut can really help raise a guitar’s game. Cheaper guitars are often also made from younger wood, which has yet to mature and settle, meaning that it’s still ‘active’ and more sensitive to warping out of shape, which will also have an impact on tuning stability.

» Guitar Parts
» How to Replace Guitar Tuners

#6. Have You Replaced Your Strings with the Same Gauge?

Are your new strings thinner or thicker than your old ones? This could be the reason why your guitar is no longer holding tune. Guitars are initially set up for a specific string gauge, so when the gauge changes, things can go wrong. If you have installed a different gauge, then your guitar will need setting up again (or you can get your local guitar shop to do it for you). Setting up your guitar is always a good idea when you step up to new strings that are more than one step thinner or thicker. One step, for example, is from .010 to .011 gauged strings. Are the new strings from a different brand as well? Then keep an ear on the sound. And of course, even if you’ve used exactly the same gauges from exactly the same brand, it might be that your guitar still doesn’t sound great. In that case – it’s time to check everything and set it up again.

Set Up Your Guitar Yourself or Get Expert Help

If you’ve done some work on your guitar before and feel confident, then our step by step guide to setting up your guitar will be a big help. Just make sure you don’t skip the intonation stage. Intonation refers to the tuning of each string all the way up the neck. So, while your bottom E string might be in perfect tune, it might not be in perfect tune when you fret it at the ninth, the twelfth or the fifteenth fret, so this will need checking. If you wouldn’t dare mess with the bridge or nut of your guitar then find a good local guitar shop and ask their in-house luthier for help or see if they can refer you to someone who can.

“Why Doesn’t My Guitar Stay in Tune?” - The 10 Usual Suspects

#7. Feeling Comfortable?

When it comes to storing your guitar, try to avoid keeping it in environments that are extremely hot, cold or humid. Since the majority of your instrument is made of wood, these extremes can actually warp and change the shape of your guitar, resulting in unstable tuning. Basically, if you’re comfortable with the temperature and humidity, then your guitar is likely to be as well, so make sure it’s never left in too cold, too hot or too humid a room or car for too long. If your guitar has just made a long journey in the back of a cold or hot van, it also makes sense that it would be harder to tune at first. Try to give it a little time to get used to its new environment in the venue before tuning up.

How to keep your guitar healthy

  • You can use a hygrometer to monitor and make sure that the humidity level lies somewhere between 40% and 50%.
  • If the humidity level is too high, then place a dehumidifier in the room where you store your guitar.
  • If the humidity level is too low, then place a humidifier in the room where you store your guitar.
  • You can find humidifiers and dehumidifiers in any household shop. For acoustic guitars, a guitar humidifier that’s specifically designed for the job is a cheaper and better alternative to a normal household humidifier.

» Hygrometers
» Guitar Humidifiers

#8. Are All the Bolts & Screws Tight?

It’s also worth checking all of the parts and contact points of your guitar that are secured with screws – if your model has any. The point of this is to make sure that nothing can move or vibrate that shouldn’t. Gently tighten up any screws and bolts by hand and without using too much force or screwing them too far, making sure that you don’t break anything or screw anything on so tightly that you can never unscrew it again.

How to check your guitar

  1. Before you start, detune and loosen all of the strings to reduce the tension on the neck.
  2. Now, using a Philips screwdriver, check the screws securing the neck to the body.
  3. In some cases, you can also use the same screwdriver to check the bridge. If not, then you might need a flat-headed screwdriver or an allen key.
  4. Using a small precision screwdriver with a Phillips head, make sure that the back of every machine head is well secured. The mounting rings around the tuning posts of most electric or acoustic guitar machine heads (on the front of the headstock) can be checked with a spanner.

#9. Check Any Glued Parts

If your guitar has a glued-in nut, neck and/or bridge, then it’s worth checking the stability of each part. Start by playing all the strings. Move each glued-in part gently and listen closely to see if this affects the pitch. If you hear the pitch changing too much and can actually feel movement in the part, then detune and loosen all of the strings and take your guitar to a local luthier or guitar shop for a full checkup.

How to check glued-in parts

  1. Keep the strings tuned up while making these checks.
  2. When checking the nut, simply hold the nut (longways) between the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand, play the strings then gently wiggle the nut.
  3. Do the same to check the bridge.
  4. If the neck is glued in (set-in) to the body, then place your less dominant hand under the neck, play the strings with your dominant hand and then lay the same hand on top of the body before gently pushing down to check if there is any movement where the neck meets the body.

“Why Doesn’t My Guitar Stay in Tune?” - The 10 Usual Suspects
A Strandberg guitar with True Temperament frets (photo: Strandberg)

#10. No Guitar is Perfect

Even if you’ve followed all of the advice above to the letter, no guitar will ever be perfect. You might notice that while some specific chords sound flawless, others are nowhere near as optimal. If you really want perfection when it comes to the tuning, then in practice, every string would have to have its own set of frets laid out to support every note, all the way up the fretboard. Instead of doing this, guitar builders have to compromise by using one fret for every string and at each position, resulting in a few little imperfections in a few places. It’s just something we have to live with. Unless, of course, you’re willing to fork out for a guitar fitted with True Temperament frets.

See also…

» Guitar Strings
» Bass Guitar Strings
» All Strings
» Hygrometers
» Guitar Humidifiers
» Guitar Parts

» Replacing the Scratchplate of an Acoustic Guitar: Do it Yourself!
» Cleaning Your Fretboard
» How To Replace Guitar Strap Buttons With Strap Locks
» Guitar Maintenance: Wood Conditioning, Temperature and Humidity
» How To Replace or Adjust the Nut of Your Guitar
» How to Replace the Tuners of Your Guitar
» How To Change Electric Guitar Strings
» How to Change the Strings of Your Acoustic Guitar
» Set Up Your Electric Guitar
» How to Change the Strings of your Classical Guitar
» How does a clip-on tuner work?
» How to String and Set Up a Floyd Rose Tremolo
» How to tune your guitar or bass

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