One of the most common issues guitarists of all levels experience is their guitars not staying in tune. Guitars are complex instruments with many moving parts that can easily cause your guitar to not stay in tune as well as it should. So, it’s important to know how to troubleshoot this and fix your tuning issues when they arise. You don’t need to take your guitar to a technician for most of these problems, as they can usually be solved with a screwdriver or basic tools.
Here are the main reasons your guitar won’t stay in tune and how to fix them.
What makes your guitar stay in tune?
There are several parts of your guitar that keep the strings in tune. If your guitar won’t stay in tune, there is usually an issue with the intonation or the tuning stability.
If you need to go back to basics and learn how to tune your guitar, check out my ultimate guide to tuning.
Guitar strings connect at the tuners and the bridge. So when you play the open string and the pitch fails to stay in tune, the issue generally lies with the stability of these 2 parts of your guitar.
Intonation refers to the guitar’s ability to stay in tune with itself. For example, if the intonation is off, you may play an open note that is in tune, but when you play at the 12th fret, the same note an octave up is out of tune. Bad intonation can be caused by issues with the truss rod, the nut, and the saddle/bridge.
Why won’t your guitar stay in tune?
Here are some of the main reasons your guitar won’t stay in tune.
1. The nut is not adjusted properly
9 times out of 10, the reason your guitar is sounding out of tune isn’t that your tuning pegs are broken but that your nut is not adjusted. This means that the string indentions in the nut are not low enough, causing the guitar’s action to be high and fretted notes to be slightly out of tune.
The slots in the nut may also be too thin for your string gauge, causing your strings to slip around.
2. Mistakes when restringing
Changing the strings on your guitar isn’t rocket science, but if done incorrectly, your strings may break or not stay in tune well.
Wrap the strings properly
When restringing your guitar, you should wrap the string around the tuner post properly. Tuners are designed to hold your strings in place, so as long as you keep the tension as your turn the peg and allow the string to wrap naturally, your string should be secure.
Stretch the strings
Many guitarists forget to do this when changing their strings, but stretching out the strings makes a lot of difference when it comes to staying in tune. The best way to stretch out the strings is to hold one finger on the third fret and stretch the string by pulling it up with the other hand.
3. Time for new strings
Old worn-out strings, as well as brand new strings, won’t stay in tune well. Old strings won’t hold their tension well, so they tend to go flat. Check out my article on when to change your strings for more info on how often you should be restringing your guitar.
4. Tune up to pitch (not down)
When you tune your guitar, you should always tune up rather than tune down. This means even if the string is sharp, you should turn the peg so that the pitch is flat and then tune up to the correct pitch.
The reason for this is that tuning down will loosen the tension of your tuning pegs and may cause the string to fall further flat over time. This is not as big of an issue with newer tuning machines, but it is good practice for every guitarist to help their guitars stay in tune better.
5. Loose tuners
While it is easy to immediately blame your tuners for the guitar going out of tune, they are not usually the issue. But, if you have already checked the other methods on this list, loose tuning pegs could be the culprit. If this is the case, you usually just have to tighten the screws holding the tuners in place. However, if the problem persists and your tuners continue failing to keep your guitar in tune, it may be time to replace the tuners completely.
6. Check your bridge
Your bridge is another part of the guitar that can cause your strings to go out of tune. Make sure that your strings are locked into the bridge and that the bridge anchors and parts are secured tightly. Whenever you change your strings, it is a good idea to check that all these parts are tightened. Most bridge types can simply be tightened using a screwdriver.
If the screws are stripped and will not tighten, I recommend taking your guitar to a technician to redrill the holes for your bridge pieces.
7. Using a tremolo bar
Your tremolo system or whammy bar may also be knocking your strings out of tune. Unless you have a Floyd Rose tremolo system, your whammy bar will likely mess with the tuning of your guitar. So, be careful if you plan to use your whammy bar a lot without a locking Floyd system, as it will likely make your guitar go out of tune.
8. Badly placed capo
If you are using a capo, this could also cause issues with your guitar staying in tune. Some cheaper spring loaded capos will add to much pressure to the strings causing them to go out of tune. I recommend using adjustable capos like the D’Addario Adjustable Cradle Capo because you can adjust the amount of pressure on the strings.
It is also common to just badly place a capo when using one. If you are in a hurry, it is easy to place it crooked or not in the center of the fret, which can make your playing sound out of tune. For the best results, always place your capo right being the metal fret, not on top of it or in the middle of the frets.
Have you ever played guitar outside and noticed your guitar does not stay in tune as well? This is because extreme weather can knock your guitar out of tune quickly. If you are playing your guitar indoors at room temperature and you decide to go outside to play where it is significantly colder, your guitar strings and tuners will contract, which causes them to go sharp. If it is significantly warmer outside, your guitar strings will expand and go flat.
Changes in humidity will also affect the tuning of your guitar. If the air is particularly humid, the wooden parts of your guitar will soak up moisture and expand, causing your guitar strings to go sharp. High humidity can also make your neck warp and mess with the structural integrity of the instrument. Dry weather will cause the wood in your guitar to contract, which can cause a whole array of issues, including cracks, low action, and glue joint separation, not to mention your strings going flat.
10. Other intonation issues
This is where things get a bit more complicated. Bad intonation is an entirely different issue usually caused by the nut, but it can also be an issue with the truss rod or the saddles. If you have already adjusted the nut and the intonation of your guitar is still not right, you should then move to adjusting the saddles.
Guitars are imperfect instruments, so you will never get the intonation 100% perfect across all of the strings and frets. But, as long as the truss rod is adjusted right and the neck is straight, you can get it pretty darn close.
Plug your guitar into a tuner pedal or use a clip-on tuner if you are using an acoustic guitar. Play an open string and then at the 12th fret of the same string. The tuner should read that both notes are perfectly in tune. If the open string is in tune and the 12th fret is out of tune, your intonation is off. Use a screwdriver to adjust the saddle until both the open string and the 12th fret are in tune.
If your guitar is still having intonation issues after adjusting the saddles, the issue may lie with your truss rod. I don’t recommend messing with your truss rod AT ALL unless you have experience working on guitars. So, if you have a truss rod issue, take your guitar to a technician.
If your guitar is not staying in tune, don’t panic! It is most likely a fairly simple fix you can easily do yourself. Most intonation or tuning issues don’t require complex guitar technician fixes and can be done at home with simple tools you have at hand.
Have more questions on guitar maintenance? Feel free to contact me; I am always happy to help!