Guitars and other stringed instruments tend to go out of tune over time, especially if they aren't maintained. Still, they will also experience detuning, often quite noticeably, when new strings are put on.
Why do new guitar strings go out of tune faster than old strings? New guitar strings require a stretching out process to adjust to the tension and designated length between the guitar's (or another stringed instrument) nut and bridge. During this process, any shifts in tension, position, and mass between the nut and bridge will cause detuning.
In this article, we're going to be delving into the main reason why new strings go out of tune faster than older strings, some factors to look for, and methods for fixing this apparent anomaly.
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Why Do New Strings Go Out Of Tune Faster Than Old Strings?
New strings need to adjust their tension after being pulled out of their package and strung to the guitar. This will surely affect their pitch stability for a while because they're starting from a point of virtually no tension.
Therefore, due to the resilience of the strings' materials, it's only natural that they detune faster as they seek to return to their new “tensioned” position.
Guitar tuning is not as easy as it might seem at first. Most beginners have problems dealing with guitar strings. Particularly, they can experience a certain level of frustration with new strings since they're prone to detuning frequently during their first uses.
This may give the impression that the strings are defective or that there is an underlying problem with the guitar that needs to be fixed. However, this phenomenon is fairly normal and should not last more than three or four weeks.
Tension is rendered as an effect of tuning and is defined by the vibrating length of the string, the pitch, and the string's mass. When we fix the string at the two ends of the guitar and stretch it, it will vibrate and produce a sound as we pluck it.
When the tension is high, the vibration length is low (meaning that the string is stiffer), and, consequently, the sound pitch raises.
What About Older Strings?
Older guitar strings usually lose their proper tension over time (say, after 100 hours of playing time) due to natural wear and tear, so they lose their ability to maintain the correct pitch. Corrosion also plays a role in shortening the string's life cycle, so, regardless of the playing time, they should be changed at least every three months (this criterion may vary slightly depending on the string's gauge, coating, and material.) However, this decaying process is usually subtle and progressive.
So the ideal stage for guitar strings is somewhere in the middle, where enough time and playing has passed for the strings to settle, but not enough time and playing has happened for them to wear out.
Proper Treatment For New Strings
Touring guitar technicians may restring instruments before each performance but ensure they “break-in” the new strings before the show. This yields the full, bright sound of new strings without the detuning that all too often accompanies a fresh pair.
There are ways to accelerate the stretching process of new strings so that they can adjust their tension quicker and, consequently, gain stability. They include manual stretching and wiping.
This method goes unnoticed, at times even by expert guitar players. The process is fairly simple, although it needs to be done with care so that the strings don't break:
- Facing the fretboard, place the index and middle finger below each string, at approximately fret 15 or 20.
- Next, the thumb should be placed onto the string, some frets above the ones where the other fingers are located.
- Using the thumb as support, pull the strings slightly upwards with the middle and index finger and remain in that position for a few seconds.
- Repeat this process on the same string but at higher frets, until you reach fret 6 (two more positions should be enough). Don't go above the 6th fret, for fear that it may cause damage in the nut slot.
- Tune the string again (since it will detune) and repeat the same method a few more times, until the string reaches a point in which it doesn't need retuning.
Wiping the strings will help avoid damage caused by debris, sweat, and moisture. But, at the same time, you can also stretch the strings in the process. This should not be seen as a substitute for the first exercise but as an addendum to it.
Carefully take a cloth or paper towel and tuck a portion of it below the string. Then, slide across the string slowly while gently rubbing and lifting it. Repeat this several times.
As with the previous method, don't try to lift beyond the 6th fret.
Other Guitar Factors That Cause Strings To Go Out Of Tune
Even though it's normal for new strings to go out of tune, there are other aspects that need to be factored in, particularly when a player notices that the strings keep detuning after the initial stretching period. These additional factors include the guitar intonation, defects, the environment, and the player's technique.
Bad intonation also causes the strings to go out of tune, notably when they're new.
Guitars are, in most cases, designed to be tuned EADGBE, and other stringed instruments have different standard tunings.
The fretboard and body are configured to account for the length of the strings and the tensions they should have. Short-scaled guitars tend to render less tension with the same tuning than other long-scaled guitars, but their architecture should, for the most part, compensate for these variations.
When you tune stringed instruments to alternative tunings for extended periods, it's best to adjust the instruments' setup or intonation. Otherwise, the guitar won't have the ideal setup for the alternate tensions of the tuning, and the strings will detune more quickly. One way to ascertain if we are using the correct tuning is by playing the 12-fret harmonic, immediately followed by the open string, to detect any dissonance.
Finally, there is a possibility that the nut slot is cut incorrectly, the tuning pegs are defective, or the guitar's bridge is slightly bent or loose. These are problems related to manufacturing and not with the handling of the strings, but new strings will be particularly sensitive to these adverse conditions.
Environmental factors are also important. Damp or hot environments are not favourable for strings. If you live in a place with a hot climate, the best way to preserve the strings is by keeping the guitar in its guitar bag or by using string protectors or straps.
At times, we're not aware of our playing techniques and how they affect our tuning integrity. The following techniques may cause premature detuning, especially on lower-quality guitars.
Bending strings is a superb technique but can stretch the string slightly out of tune. The same goes for whammy bars, which tighten or loosen the strings by moving the guitar's bridge. These techniques aim to alter the tension of the string, which may cause detune once the string is returned to its original position.
Tuning The Guitar
When you find yourself having to tune your guitar, there are various ways to achieve perfect tuning.
There are plenty of tuner units worth checking out with either a 1/4″ input or an internal microphone.
Clip-on tuners are a personal favourite of mine.
Tuner pedals are also available on the market. I discuss the best options in my article The Top 5 Best Tuner Pedals For Guitar & Bass.