Tuner design, mass, and material have an effect on tone. Replacing the stock tuners on this guitar
with a set of low-mass locking tuners with brass cams yielded more highs and better sustain.
Playing a guitar that easily slips out of tune
is like taking a flight with a lot of turbulence.
Whether you’re a player or an audience
member listening to poor tuning, or a passenger
on the bumpy flight, the dissonance
and turbulence can greatly interfere with your
ability to enjoy the respective experience. In
the sonic hierarchy, tuning is king and several
of the elements that affect your tuning also
affect your tone. Most tuning problems I’ve
encountered are related to the string nut.
I’ve had the best luck, both tonally and
tuning-wise, with nuts that are cut out of
bone. Of all the materials I’ve experimented
with, bone provides the most lively sound
and feel, and is easy to mold and manipulate.
If you have a guitar with a cheap plastic
nut, upgrading to a bone nut will provide a
significant sonic improvement. Plastic has a
tendency to produce a “doinky” sound and
muffled feeling. In the ’80s, solid brass string
nuts were a popular choice among guitarists.
Brass nuts have a pleasant brightness in
their tonality, but I’ve found the material to
be difficult to work with when setting the
height of the string slots. Now, let’s address
some issues associated with those string slots.
If you ever hear clicking and pinging
sounds as you crank the tuning peg, chances
are there is a burr or some foreign material
in the slot that prohibits the string from
moving smoothly. You can remedy this issue
by lightly running an appropriately sized file
through the slot. Also, string trees can cause
tuning slippage and pinging sounds if they
are bent out of shape.
Another classic fix to temporarily
improve tuning involves applying a small
amount of pencil lead in the string slots.
Generally, this tactic is more successful on
bone nuts than it is on plastic nuts. The
lead acts as a dry lubrication for the string
to easily glide over the nut slot. I asked
my friend John LeVan, of LeVan’s Guitar
Services in Nashville, about his thoughts
on the old pencil lead trick and he told me
that pencil lead is also useful to apply where
the string rests on the bridge saddles.
When you install a new set of strings, you’ll
want to make a quick checkup in a couple
of areas. First, ever wonder what those little
screws on your tuning pegs do? Not only do
they change how easily the tuning peg turns,
but they also ensure that the peg will not drift
on its own. Check the screws and gently but
securely tighten them to a uniform tension.
If you have locking tuners, make sure the
cam collars are securely tightened. These collars
play a big role in making sure the whole tuning
mechanism doesn’t move around. Some people
think that little things like the cam material
don’t make a difference to the sound or feel
of a guitar, but I disagree. I replaced the stock
tuners on my PRS SE Custom Semi-Hollow
with a set of low-mass PRS locking tuners with
brass cams. The swap boosted the overall high
end, added some glimmer and sparkle to the
guitar’s sustain, and improved tuning.
Installing a quality string is also vital to
well-tempered tuning and excellent tone. I
know the lure of saving money by purchasing
$2 packs of economy strings is appealing, but
you can end up paying for it in bad tuning and
shorter string-life. Using strings from a reputable
manufacturer pays off in the long run.
When it comes to installing your string of
choice, there are several schools of thought on
winding techniques, but they agree on two
things: You want to keep the winds tightly
grouped together on the post and you want to
avoid string-on-string overlaps. When installed
properly, a string should look like a Slinky toy
that’s in a resting position. Personally, I like to
put three to four winds on the post because I
get a little more snarl and rumble out of the
string that I don‘t get with fewer winds.
After you stretch your strings, always tune
up to pitch whenever you tune. If a note is
reading sharp on your tuner, make sure you
dip below your desired pitch first and then
raise the string back into the note. This will
ensure that the tension is properly distributed
and the string will be less subject to slippage.
If you’re interested in the system that’ll
end all of your tuning problems for good,
check out the EverTune bridge. It’s certainly
one of the most revolutionary products in
the history of the electric guitar. I don’t even
take a tuner when I take a guitar with an
EverTune to a show or session. (For more
technical details, check out the company’s
videos on evertune.com. But before you do,
be fair warned that you’re going to have a
hard time not shelling out the dough for one
of these bridges once you see it in action.)
When I flip through the pages of PG, I’m
always impressed by how many options we have
as players to manipulate our guitar’s tone with
different pickups, amps, pedals, and countless
other components. We can swap and modify a
wide range of parts, but the fact is, all of that is
in vain if your guitar is out of tune. I encourage
you to take the time to extensively research
all the ways you can stabilize your instrument’s
tuning so that unwanted dissonance won’t create
any turbulence at your next gig.