The solutions and reasons behind a mind numbing problem that has plagued electric guitar players for decades: “Why is the G string always out of tune?
The Problem: G String Tuning Stability
For decades guitar players have been plagued with various tuning issues with respect to strings – particularly the G string.
Some of these tuning problems are an easy fix, such as simply changing your strings, others require a bit more work such as making detailed adjustments or repairing parts.
If you guitar’s G string (or any another string for that matter) is giving you grief, what’s the underlying cause? And what can you do about it?
If you’ve had the luxury of setting up thousands of guitars, you may have a pretty good idea of what the most likely root causes may be ;)
If not, you’re in luck, the answers to why your electric guitar’s third string is not staying in tune can be found right here:
Why Does the G String Go Out of Tune?
Unless you’re cold blooded (or not among the living), there’s not much you can do about body heat. The simple fact is the heat from your fingers will affect the pitch and stability of guitar strings.
Here’s an interesting video that illustrates just how susceptible your G string is to body heat:
The same goes for the other strings, but for most guitars the amount of deflection from pitch is nominal and you probably don’t even notice it. Until you do!
Improper guitar setup
Anything that causes the G string to hang up and not return to its original pitch will ultimately cause tuning problems.
If your guitar isn’t set up properly, you may have loose parts or contact points that bind. For example, nut slots that haven’t been properly dressed out.
Any major point of friction, like the nut or the bridge, or anchors like the tuners are all very common sources of tuning issues.
Without a doubt, old strings can be the cause of a whole host of tuning issues – and not just the G string alone.
Finger junk, rot, rust, corrosion and micro-fractures (metal fatigue) will all work against any string’s ability to stay at pitch.
Poor quality strings
Poor quality strings can have a number of negative attributes towards tuning stability.
Most common would be the lock winding at the ball end. If this isn’t done properly by the manufacturer the string’s pitch will continue to drop due to slippage as it gets played – often in a relatively short time.
Improperly installed strings
Any string that’s not wrapped around the tuning post enough times is a prime candidate for slippage. Of course the same could be said for the other strings.
Similarly, tuning problems can stem from having too much string wrapped around the post. The pitch will tend to drop over time as each successive wrap slowly stretches out.
The mass or gauge of the G string
String mass has a huge influence on tuning stability. Just as a string that’s too thin for a given pitch can be unruly, a string that’s too fat is just as bad.
Because a typical third string G has the largest diameter for a plain string, strange things start to happen once it gets past a certain thickness, for instance .020 gauge and up.
In a nutshell, as the linear density (mass) increases, the more the string will warble. This is especially evident in the upper frets. You’ll hear the pitch flutter inconsistently as it starts to compete with its own vibrations and the pull from the magnetic field(s) of the pickups.
Excess mass will also make a G string virtually impossible to intonate accurately.
The amount of finger pressure you use and your general playing style can affect a string’s tuning. If your instrument has high or tall frets, and you play aggressively with a tight grip you will literally push the string out of tune.
If you’ve ever played a scalloped fretboard, you know just how critical finger pressure is in keeping the guitar sounding in tune.
The environment is too cold
Imagine you’re playing live on an outdoor stage in sub-zero temperatures (I’ve experienced this). That’s a minimum temperature differential of 67 degrees fahrenheit or 37 degrees celsius.
This difference between the cold instrument and your body temperature is pretty drastic. Without taking some kind of precautions, the cold will definitely have an affect on the stability of your instrument’s tuning.
String tension at pitch
For most players, the 3rd string regardless of pitch is usually referred to as “the G string”, yet the pitch has a ton of influence as to how the string reacts with the guitar.
For instance, a drop-type tuning will reduce tension causing it to react “wildly” or “wrangley” as it becomes more elastic.
In other words, the lower the string’s pitch goes, the more prone it is to tuning issues.
For tuning stability, a straight-pull string design is always going to be better.
Ideally, the string should span directly from any contact point to its anchor with little or no deflection.
The tradeoff though can be loss of tone because the amount of pressure needed to transfer string energy through the main contact points, the nut and bridge, is lower.
It’s well known that the design of the traditional Gibson headstock with its tilt back and angled nut slots is prone to tuning instability.
This double whammy of string pressure may be great for tone and sustain, but has to be dealt with carefully if you want to rely on it to stay in tune.
Stable Pitch vs Being in Tune – There’s a Big Difference
Pitch stability and being in tune are very closely related elements in that they’re both based on frequency, yet their ideal conditions are completely different.
Pitch stability implies any single string on its own whereas being in tune includes the other strings as a group.
A G string that can return to its original frequency after a generous under-the-chin bend is called stable – and extremely desirable.
A G string that is in complete harmony with respect to the other strings across the entire neck is called in tune – which is an entirely different thing.
The vast majority of mass produced guitars use what’s called equal temperament tuning. In other words, each fret represents 100% of a semitone for every note on every string across the entire neck.
The problem is, this is not necessarily an ideal musical or harmonious relationship between notes or intervals on separate strings. We can thank Pythagorus for figuring all this out eons ago.
When we compared a guitar to a violin for instance, violin intonation is a product of precise finger placement whereas on a guitar, the intonation points are fixed.
Suffice to say, with the help of compensation systems such as modified fret placement (microtonal adjustments), compensated nuts etc, your chord work and in-tune-ness is much more pleasing to the ear.
If you really want to get your hands dirty with the science of guitar strings, check out the incredibly in-depth article “String Theory – The Physics of String Bending and Other Electric Guitar Techniques” by David Robert Grimes who uses math to explain the virtuosity of artists such as Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, Steve Vai and others.
Solutions To Keeping Your G String In Tune
Get your guitar set up properly by a professional
Considering the cost of a professional setup, it’s a small price to pay for a guitar that is reliable and stays in tune – G string included.
A good technician will be able to address any concerns you have regarding the sloppy G and other issues that keep you from enjoying the guitar to its fullest.
Use a wound 3rd string instead of a plain G string
Replacing a solid, plain G string with a wound or “composite” string will help stabilize the string’s vibration.
Because a wound string is made of two parts: the core and the wrap, it’s also thicker. This added thickness and construction (linear density) lowers the string’s fundamental frequency which makes it vibrate slower.
While the higher tension of a wound G is normal on an acoustic or jazz guitar, the trade off for electric guitar players is in less flexibility. Pushing around a wound 3rd string requires considerable knuckle power.
It’s also important to note that the nut also has to be re-cut to keep the thicker string from binding in the slot.
Use locking tuners
Installing locking tuners is a superb way of dealing with tuning instability. By eliminating the wraps and thereby extra string length required for traditional tuning machines, tuning stability goes up significantly.
It’s no wonder locking tuning machines have become a popular upgrade for guitarists, and often offered as a standard feature on better instruments.
Use a lubricant
Whether you’re just playing vibrato or doing serious bends, strings have to slide back and forth discretely through the nut slots and across the bridge.
Lubricants, whether pencil graphite or specialty products, help to decrease the friction that can cause strings to hang up at these main points of contact.
Use quality strings
Better string manufacturers will use overall better materials and have high quality controls in place. String consistency in thickness and finishing processes such as secure lock twists at the ball end will help ensure reliable tuning.
Make sure your strings are fully stretched out
Any string that’s not fully stretched out will drive you crazy. All your strings must be fully stretched to allow their pitches to normalize or return to zero, especially after a bend.
Fresh strings should get at least three significant stretches before you can rely on them to stay in tune. Waiting an extra day afterwards is even better.
Make sure your strings are properly installed and trimmed
A simple thing like the uncut tag end of a string wagging off the end of the headstock could be the cause of why your G string is always out of tune.
As mentioned, too little or too many wraps around non-locking tuner posts should be avoided. And whenever possible, use a luthier’s knot to make sure the strings are good and secure.
What About Fender-style Non-locking Tremolo Systems?
The #1 reason the G string is even more problematic on a vintage style Fender-style tremolo system is because the nut isn’t cut and dressed properly.
How the strings are installed at the tuners, and the type of tuners themselves (locking is always better), can make the difference in whether the guitar stays in tune as a whole.
It’s also good practice to lubricate the pivot points at the bridge as well.
Understand the Personality of Your Guitar
If your guitar’s pitch is just naturally prone to wandering a little regardless of all the fixes, you can save yourself a lot of aggravation by accepting that it’s just the personality of the instrument.
Some guitars are like that. Maybe the G or B strings take a second to fall into place when you first up the guitar.
Either way, it helps to anticipate the changes, and a little expectation goes a long way.