Chatter: Gary Brawer - Fine Tuners

January 10, 2014

Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”

WHEN I WAS A KID, IF YOU wanted to “upgrade” your tuning machines you had to go with tuners that were big and heavy and forced you to take a scary drill to your guitar peghead to install them. This meant either getting lucky or chipping, splitting, or denting your peghead. It’s not surprising how often I am asked to restore those early upgrades. Lucky for us, there are now many choices out there that require little or no modification and can easily be installed quickly at home.

So what makes a tuner better? First would be the mechanics of how smoothly you can turn the tuner without grinding or sticking. There are also many more ways to mount them, which can be more solid and less invasive. In addition, there is a lot of talk about “ratio,” the number of turns of the button to achieve one turn of the string post. A finer ratio is easier to turn and more precise but can take longer to tune up. A happy medium has been established in the neighborhood of 14:1 up to 21:1.

One company that has taken the ratio question to a new level is GraphTech. These tuners, appropriately called “Ratio,” are engineered so that each turn of the button changes the same amount of pitch for each string. If you use a lot of alternate tunings, this could be a good idea for a more predictable adjustment. The ratio— or algorithm—of pitch change to string movement is determined by the size of the core, or solid part, of the string. The high E and wound D strings, while different outside diameters, have about the same core size, as do the B and A. The G and low E are also similar and change pitch the most with movement. That is one of the main reasons the G and low E are the hardest to keep in tune. A small movement or slip will give you a greater change in pitch.

Another new concept in tuner construction will be coming out soon from EDG Guitars— the Toroidal Tuner. They have found a way to give you a finer gear ratio with a new way the gears mesh. Coarse tuning after changing strings can be done using a coin or wrench on the back of the tuner to quickly turn the tuning post to get it in the ballpark. You can then do fine tuning with the roller-style buttons, which are said to be so easy to turn that they can be adjusted with just one finger.

In the past, if you wanted to upgrade a vintage guitar with small tuner holes and push-in top grommets, you pretty much had to buy newer versions of the same tuner if you didn’t want to drill your vintage guitar. Well, Hipshot has saved the day with their UMP, or Universal Mounting Plate. The tuners are fine quality and come in open or closed gear, locking or not, with a mounting hex nut on top of the peghead to snug the tuner tight. The UMP sits on the back of the peghead and holds the tuners in position, eliminating the need for a mounting screw. Well played, Hipshot!

Other cool tuner upgrades you should check out include Sperzels, one of the first locking models I ever saw and still some of the best tuners out there. Grover and Schaller basically started the tuner replacement revolution and have lots of great models to choose from. Planet Waves has incorporated an Auto-Trim function into their locking tuner that automatically cuts the string end off as you tune up. If you’re into preserving the vintage look, Tone Pros/Kluson has an entire line of vintage-style tuners with much-improved internal workings and mounting. And, let’s not forget the Tronical motorized tuning machines that can tune all six strings with the touch of a button. There are more ways than ever to tune up, turn on, and rock out.

Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.

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