We receive many questions from potential customers about whether the guitar will ‘stay in tune’, and sometime we get complaints from customers that the guitar ‘does not stay in tune’. So here is my attempt to explain this issue. When it comes to guitar tuning the first question is – can you get it to play in tune in the first place. This is mainly a questions about whether the guitar is well intonated and whether you really know how to tune a guitar well. Small guitars with shorter scales present their own special problems with tuning and intonation that I explored in a previous blog post. Here I will assume that you know how to and can get the guitar to play in tune for a while, but that it just won’t stay in tune the next time you pick it up or even after playing for a little while. In more than 95% of the cases the reason for this is one: failure to ‘stretch’ the strings of the new guitar during the initial tuning process.
Let me say it simply: there is no such thing as a guitar that does not stay in tune. And the common assumption that the cause of the guitar not staying in tune must be a problem with the tuning heads (also called, tuners or tuning machines) is false. Tuners cannot ‘slip’ as a result of the strings pressure. In general a guitar, unlike say a piano, is not an instruments that is expected to stay in tune over time. Rather, like violins and other string instruments, it needs to practically be tuned almost every time you pick it up to play. For that reason it is very important for a child to learn how to tune a guitar often and properly. However tuning a newly received guitar, or the first time after changing to new strings, has to be done in a special way. Guitars are usually shipped with strings strung loose in order to protect them from damage during shipment. Tuning it for the first time requires repeated ‘stretching’ in order to enable the strings to ‘settle’ so that they will not get out of tune as a result of slippage. The same is true whenever you put new strings on the guitar, which in the case of steel string guitars should be done quite often . (How often depends on your fingers, the way you play, the strings, the environment, and how picky you are about comfort and sound quality. Many artists who perform daily will replace their steel strings every day. For children who play daily I would say change the strings at least every month or two. To check the state of your strings hold one of the thiner strings (the ones with the higher pitch) between your thumb and index fingers and ‘slip’ with your fingers over te length of the string, especially over the beginning 6 to 8 frets where they are fretted most. If they feel rough and rusty it is time to change them. If you don’t want to spend $20 or more every time they need to be changed it is a good idea to learn how to change them yourself.)
So how do you ‘stretch’ the strings when tuning for the first time or after changing the strings? I recommend using a digital tuner during this process. (I also recommend using a tuner for tuning a short scale guitar whenever you can each time you tune your guitar, but it is especially important during this ‘initial’ tuning of your guitar). The way you do it is this: tune the string to the desired pitch using your tuner. Then grab the string around the middle and pull about 2-3 inches away from the guitar, thus giving it a good stretch. You will find that the pitch of the string went down maybe a step or two. Tune it again to the desired pitch and stretch it again in the same way. This time you may find that its pitch dropped again, but not as much as before. Repeat this process 5-6 times. You should fine that each time the drop in the pitch of the string is less then before. Eventually the stretch is not going to cause any drop to that string’s pitch. At this point the string has ‘settled’ and should play and stay in tune. Do this for all 6 strings. Then tune again without stretching. The next 2-3 time you pick up the guitar you may need to do this again, perhaps to a lesser degree. But if you go through this process as I described, as long as the strings where wounded rightly on the tuning pegs, and as long as you could get it to play in tune in the first place, it will stay in tune. I promise.