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Stay Tuned

For Hassle-Free Playing

1/30/11 – This article was featured in the February Finger Lakes Guitar Repair Newsletter. 

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String Bending (above); and tremolo systems (right) test the limits of a guitar's tuning stability.

1.1 stay tuned gretsch bigsby tuning stability.JPG
String bending is one of the most fun and versatile techniques that I use as a guitar player. I can’t help but love the feel of those strings gliding across the frets as that warm, crisp tone bends up a step and a half. With a Bigsby in hand, I’m captivated by the punch of vibrato.  But if your guitar won’t stay in tune, these pleasures will stand in the shadow of frustration.

 

 

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Clean Your Hardware with a toothbrush (above). Really grungy saddles can benefit from a bath of naptha and sewing-machine oil (below).

 

As a guitar repair professional, I’ve encountered misconceptions regarding tuning stability. Many guitar players simply don’t realize that their instrument isn’t living up to its full potential. Some folks think that a new set of tuners will solve their tuning woes. Others believe that it’s necessary to start replacing their standard hardware with components made from graphite. Achieving tuning stability, however, doesn’t have to be an expensive or invasive job.

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Burrs or irregularities in the saddle slots (above) can be removed with a nut slotting file (below).

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The basic concept is to reduce friction by maintaining the parts of the guitar that touch the strings. Start by giving your hardware a good cleaning. An old toothbrush will work just fine to clean up most bridges, saddles, and string-nuts. If the saddles are filthy, you can remove them from the guitar and give them a bath of naptha and sewing-machine oil. VM&P naptha produces dangerous vapors, so be sure to do this in a well-ventilated area.

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1.6 stay tuned gretsch electromatic lapping saddle with diamond sharpening stone.JPG

Polish the Leading Edge of the saddle (above) with a fine grit sharpening stone. (Below) Use abrasive cord to polish the saddle slots and nut slots.

Deburr the saddles.  String-wear creates irregularities in the surface of the saddles. These burrs will prevent the strings from freely moving across the saddles, which will cause tuning problems.

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Floss the String Trees with abrasive cord (above); and restring the guitar wrapping the strings around the machine heads no more than necessary (below).


If you have a tun-o-matic style bridge, gauged nut-slotting files matching your preferred string gauges can remove these irregularities in a few quick passes. Be sure to hold the file at a consistent angle between the plane of the fretboard and the string path between the bridge and tailpiece. Lapping the saddles with a fine-grit diamond sharpening-stone will de-burr the leading edge.

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2.3 stay tuned fender strat restring.JPG Polish away your file marks. With the correct gauge of abrasive cord, floss the saddle slot at an angle shallower than that of the strings. You can clean up the string trees and nut-slots in the same manner. To avoid damaging the nut by accidentally deepening the slots, color the bottom of the nut slots with a sharp pencil. Stop flossing just as the graphite disappears from the bottom of the nut-slot.

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Lubricate the nut slots, saddle slots, and string trees with graphite or a friction remover (above) such as Planet Waves' "Lubrikit".


Lubricate the nut slots, string trees, and saddles. You can use graphite or a guitar friction remover such as Planet Wave’s “Lubrikit.” With these surfaces properly maintained, your guitar strings won’t have any irregular surfaces to get hung up on. Now you can focus your attention on playing your guitar, not tuning it. Happy bending.