Could a poorly set‑up guitar be compromising your recordings?
Whether you play guitar yourself or record other people’s performances, it’s helpful to understand how to keep guitars in good, playable condition, and how to spot when a poorly setup instrument is responsible for disappointing recordings. The good news is that most electric guitars available today are better made and more playable than ever. Still, you can’t expect a budget instrument to have had a premium setup, and even pricier models need a spot of maintenance from time to time if they’re to give of their best.
In this article, I’ll explain the basics of maintaining an instrument yourself, and how to recognise when it’s time to call on the services of a professional!
Hopefully, you already understand the importance of an instrument being in tune! But if the guitar feels OK to play and you’re experiencing tuning problems, there can be several causes. It’s important that you learn to distinguish between tuning stability, whereby the strings keep going out of tune, and intonation problems, where you’ve tuned the instrument but chords further up the neck refuse to sound in tune. Both need attention, but the solutions are different. I’ll take tuning stability first.
On electric guitars with no vibrato arm fitted, the bridge end of the string is usually fixed securely in place by its ball end. The same is true for acoustic guitars, as long as the bridge pins fit securely. At the headstock end, though, the strings are wound around the pegs of the tuning machines and care has to be taken when fitting strings to avoid slippage at this point: problems with string fitting usually cause the tuning to go flat as you play, as the windings tighten and shift.
An effective technique that many players use is to bend the end of the string back around itself once it has been passed through the hole in the tuner shaft, so that the string winds over its own end and effectively holds it in place. Three turns of string around the peg is usually enough — too many turns risks the windings slipping. It’s important that the strings wrap neatly, starting at the top and running downwards, without windings passing over each other. If you have a Fender guitar with slotted tuner posts, the best way I’ve found to fit strings to these is to cut the string to length, then poke the end down the hole in the middle of the tuner before starting to wind. This grips the string very securely. If your guitar has machine heads secured via a nut on the headstock face, also check that each one of these is reasonably tight, as these can work loose, causing tuning issues.
After fitting new strings, tune up, then give each one a tug by gripping it about half way along, then pull it away from the body for a few seconds. Check the tuning to see if it has gone flat — it almost certainly will have, in which case tune back up to pitch and repeat until the tuning remains stable....