Why do guitars go out of tune?

Why do guitars go out of tune? Guitars go out of tune for a variety of reasons, such as the state and quality of the strings, the climate conditions, the use of accessories like capo and tremolo, loose tuning pegs, or the nut.

Many first-time guitar owners may find their guitars suddenly out of tune. One day they were using it and everything was fine and dandy; then the next, some chords unexpectedly sound different —a little off-key, or maybe, jarringly out of tune.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the deluxe Fender American Ultra Telecaster or the low-key but trusty Yamaha FG820, a guitar’s sound is bound to go out of kilter after some time. This is why regular tuning is an important part of guitar maintenance.  Proper tuning ensures that the guitar will sound excellent and is ready for jamming.

If you find yourself with an out-of-tune guitar, check out the following possible causes below.

10 Reasons Guitars Go Out of Tune

1. The Strings Are New

Much like shoes need a period of breaking in to allow them to adjust to the user, the same concept applies to new guitar strings. New strings not only sound bright and tinny, but they are also sort of unyielding to the touch. New strings need to be properly stretched out a little by gentle strumming, picking, or plucking until they elongate and become somewhat pliant to the action.

The Remedy: First of all, congratulations on your brand new strings! Now, what you need to do is to break in new strings. To do this, play the guitar—remember to be careful not to snap the strings—and then tune to pitch, and repeat the process over and over. The guitar will naturally go out of tune again, but keep on playing and re-tuning until the strings no longer go out of tune.

2. The String Are Old

You know your strings have seen better days when, no matter what, they just won’t stay in tune. Unlike most things that improve with age, guitar strings deteriorate until they are no longer serving their job.

The Remedy: There is no other way; you need to replace those strings. After you have replaced them, refer to the previous entry “The Strings Are New”. Be sure to break in your new strings!

3. The Strings Expand and Contract Due to Temperature

Who would have thought that climate change can affect your guitar, too? Well, by climate change, we mean the temperature and the humidity level that your guitar has been exposed to for a while. The strings expand in warmer temperature and increased humidity, while cooler temperature and decreased humidity give the opposite effect. These changes affect the strings’ length and tension, and thus, cause tuning problems.

The Remedy: Keep your guitar protected from temperature and humidity fluctuations by storing it in its bag or case when not in use. Put it in a place where it will not be disturbed by weather changes.

4. The Strings are Too Tight

Perhaps the strings are too taut and there’s just too much tension, it’s uncomfortable to play. And of course, it goes out of tune. To reduce the tension, you may have to look at different places

The Remedy: Check that the nuts are not holding the strings tighter than needed. Also, you may consider using lighter gauge strings for your guitar. Check if the strings are pushed down to the fretboard and not high up. Be sure not to push the strings too far down to prevent fret buzz. Check the bridge saddle as well, and make sure it’s not set farther back than necessary.

5. The Strings Have Loosened

Of course, the strings will wear out and loosen with frequent use, especially with such techniques as bending. The strings yank at the tuning pegs and weaken the tension of the string, causing the tune to go down.

The Remedy: When the strings loosen, you will have to add a bit more tension. The strings need to be tightened in this case. Here is a helpful video about tightening the guitar strings:

6. The Kind and Quality of the Strings

As with most things, if you buy something of low quality, you can’t expect it to give fabulous results. That’s the same thing with guitar strings: cheap ones get damaged fast. And when they get out of shape, they get out of tune. Also, bear in mind that nylon strings stretch a lot easier than steel. Lighter gauge strings also take longer to properly stretch.

The Remedy: The only real remedy for this is to buy only high-quality guitar strings. Avoid cheap ones, especially those that come bent or kinked out of the package; these will not straighten out properly and completely. Best-selling strings like this D’Addario EJ15 Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, or this Ernie Ball Classic Pure Nickel Hybrid Slinky Electric Guitar Strings, ensures a smoother, marvelous sound.

7. Poorly Placed Capo

Capo is such a great friend to the guitar. This little device clamps onto the guitar’s neck and shortens the strings’ length. It allows the guitarist to play in different keys while still on the first-position open-string chord forms. But this can also be your guitar’s enemy, as capo can squeeze the strings and wear them out, causing the tune to go weird. It can also damage the guitar’s neck finish.

The remedy: To minimize harm on your guitar, make sure the capo applies just the right pressure. Place it properly and be careful when taking it off.

8. The Tuning Pegs Have Loosened

Tuning pegs slacken over time; this is a common problem with old guitars. Tuning pegs getting loose is a normal part of guitar wear and tear, but it doesn’t mean you need to get a new one. What you need to do is simply tighten the tuning pegs from time to time to keep the strings—and the tune—on the spot.

The remedy: To fix this problem, you need to inspect the tightness of the tuning peg washers and bushings. Using a nut driver or an adjustable wrench, check if the bushings have loosened; they have if they turn easily. Correct this by tightening the bushings up, but be careful not to overdo it.

9. The Tremolo Factor

The tremolo arm (and other vibrato tools like whammy bar and floyd rose) can throw the guitar’s tune off with extended use. The tremolo causes the strings to pull on the tuning pegs and become loose. This movement also affects their position in the nut. Eventually, the guitar goes out of tune.

The remedy: If you want to keep your strings in optimal condition longer, use only a good-quality tremolo with lock nuts.

10. The Cut in the Nut

At the upper part of the fretboard, close the tuning pegs, is the nut where the strings move through. Now, it is important that strings move through the nut grooves, otherwise, your guitar will go out of key. To make sure that strings can move through the slots, the cut must neither be too shallow nor too narrow.

The remedy: You can either file down the nut groove so the strings can fit better, or lubricate the nut so the strings will move through the slots smoothly. Here’s a video on how to file down the guitar nut correctly:

Final Thoughts —It Just Happens; Deal With It

Perhaps, the guitar is not completely in tune to begin with. It could be that it is not intonated properly.

Or maybe, the instrument has been left alone for a long time. It will indeed go out of tune when this happens.

Or it could be that your instrument is either poor quality or high maintenance.

Perhaps, it’s just you!

Maybe the oil from your fingers transfers on strings, which will eventually make the strings heavier over time and make the pitch go wacky.

You may be pressing the strings a little too aggressively or bending so much. Maybe you just have to improve your playing technique.

But no matter what, the guitar going out of tune is something that just happens. The strings oxidize as they age, and it’s something you cannot help happening. The only thing you can do is deal with it.

We know this is a no-brainer, but part of owning a guitar is not just all about learning how to use it, but also how to keep the instrument properly maintained.

The main takeaway is to know your instrument; recognize the ABCs of your guitar and learn how to handle those little intricacies that can impact your sound and the whole playing experience.