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Why Won’t My Guitar Tune Up?

Jim Palenscar

     I am often presented with a guitar that will no longer stay in tune or tune up properly and I’d like to offer some suggestions that will enable most anyone to find and correct the problem(s). This method is used for the modern “all-pull” guitars (vs. the “push-pull” early Emmons guitars which are approached quite differently).

     I start by turning the guitar over and inspecting the position of all of the lowering fingers of the changer- making absolutely sure that all of them are exactly lined up in a row.  The lowering finger is the finger that the return spring on the changer is hooked to.  Any finger that is not lined up and is extending out toward the center of the guitar a bit I attempt to gently push it back in line with the others.  If it does so I then adjust or shorten the return spring to insure that in the non-lowered position it always returns to the same neutral position.  If it does not go back easily I look for the reason which is usually that one of the lowering pull rods is too tight- most commonly because there is not enough travel in either the pedal or the lever that is used in that change and I then loosen the tuner nut to allow for the lowering finger to return to the neutral position.  Because it is not as easy to see the position of the raise fingers I will then move each cross shaft slightly toward and away from the changer by grabbing any bell crank attached to it and ensure that there is free play or “slop” before it actually starts any raise or lower.  There should also be free play side to side on every cross shaft to insure that it is not binding. The reason for this is that if there is no free play you cannot be sure that the fingers are being allowed to return to the neutral position and consequently it is next to impossible to get the guitar in tune in both the open and raised (or lowered) positions.  I usually want between 1/16” to 1/8” of travel to occur before any change is started.  If there is no free play I will loosen the tuning nut on whatever string is starting too early until there is the proper amount of free play.  I will do this for every pedal and lever until they all have free play.  Only then will I tune the guitar with the tuners and then check to see if it will tune up properly with all changes.  The chances are good that it will not and the travel on those changes that I had to loosen will have to be increased- regardless if it is a raise or lower.  It is usually obvious how to accomplish this by observing how the manufacturer has accomplished the stop. 

    On most of the pedals the stop is found to be close to the inside of the front apron near to where the pedal rod attaches to the cross shaft and on most of the levers it is near the base of the lever itself and can either be a screw or sometimes a shaft with a collar on it- just follow the mechanism and you will see it.  Some guitars such as the Fessenden have the pedal stop being non-adjustable but instead have the backstop being adjustable and others like some older models of the Sierra use an eccentric nylon cam to accomplish both the stop and back stop simultaneously.  If the change in question will not tune to pitch then adjust the stop so that the travel is increased slightly to allow for the change to occur- this does not usually take too much. Make sure that you allow for the change to go farther than you want it to go and then adjust it to the desired pitch using the pull rod tuner at the changer end of the guitar.  If there is excessive free play I will usually shorten the travel until the free play is about 1/16” to 1/8”. 

    Once all changes are working appropriately I will then adjust the lower return springs to allow for the minimum amount of pressure needed to accomplish the changes and still insure that the fingers are returning properly.  This is accomplished by adjusting the lowering spring return tension usually with a screw at its base.  I will back off the tension until the lowering finger just barely won’t return after a lower is activated and then increase the tension by 2-3 turns on the screw until it does.  Once this is accomplished I will then activate the longest raise on that string and observe to see that the lowering finger is not pulling away from the neutral position.  This is something to check with every string and is a fairly common reason that the travel to affect the desired raise is excessive.  If it does not stay put I increase the tension on the return spring until the lowering finger does not pull away.  On some guitars such as the Carters and older MSA’s the springs are not adjustable and I will then remove the spring and cut off a few coils and re-bend the last coil and reattach the spring.  The guitar is now re-tuned and all changes are checked to insure that everybody is working properly in the undercarriage.

Getting the guitar to feel right

    I also want each change to be accomplished without feeling each string involved being activated- they should all be adjusted so that the player feels only one thing happening.  That is done by observing what is happening.  For example- if I see in the case of the A pedal on the E9th tuning that the 5th string is starting before the 10th string then I have two choices to make: either lengthen the travel of the 10th string or shorten the travel of the 5th string.  The choice is based on whether I want the change to be firmer or softer based on the preference of the player.  If I want it to be firmer then I will shorten travel of the 5th string and if I want it to be softer I will lengthen the travel of the 10th string.
     If one wants the travel to be shorter it always comes at the price of increased stiffness- there is no way to get around that.  An example of wanting the travel to be shorter might be on the E9th tuning the 1st string raise of a whole tone (F#-G#).  It is inherently a long throw to achieve that pull and many players want it to be shorter.  In order to accomplish this you either need to: 1-at the changer end move the pull rod closer to the top of the guitar (closer to the changer axle) or 2-at the bell crank end move the rod away from the guitar or “up the ladder” or both. Quite obviously do just the opposite to allow for a longer/easier throw.  I use both ends to enable the guitar to play optimally for the player and allow for all changes to start and stop simultaneously.

     Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or problems that you cannot resolve as there is always a reason.

Jim Palenscar
Steel Guitars of North County
3375 Mission Ave Suite D
Oceanside, Ca. 92058