For most people, a good set of tuning machines are like a nice mattress… You don’t notice how good you have it until you crash on your buddy’s futon!
Why Tuning Machines Matter
We’ve all played guitars whose tuning was handicapped by low quality or poorly installed tuners…
When playing one of these unfortunate instruments in concert, tuning can become a high-stakes guessing game and a distracting sideshow for the audience. Performers have enough to worry about on stage… a properly functioning set of tuners shouldn’t be one of them!
Some Things Never Change
Before describing the latest features in modern tuners, let’s talk about three important factors that ensure great performance in any set of tuners.
1. Correct placement of the roller holes
Unless the builder drills the roller holes exactly perpendicular to the plates and with precise spacing, the rollers will bind against the wood as they turn and the gears and worm shafts will fight against each other.
Even if you can’t see it, symptoms of poorly drilled holes include 1) the feel of high resistance and jerkiness when turning the knobs, 2) squeaking of the rollers, and 3) the appearance of metal shavings near the gears due to parts wearing against each other.
Inaccuracies in roller hole placement are troublesome but possible for repair persons to remediate. On the other hand, if drilled correctly from the beginning — using “jigs” such as the one pictured below — tuning can be exceptionally smooth and consistent given a quality set of tuners.
2. Precise gearing
You get what you pay for, and what you primarily pay for in high-quality tuners are better materials and precisely-machined gears and worm shafts. The result is a mechanism that directly drives the roller with even the slightest turn of the knob.
Two symptoms of poorly-made (or worn) gears include 1) delayed movement of the rollers, and 2) the ability to slightly shake the shafts from side to side when the strings are removed.
3. Clean and oiled
Finally, tuners will function their best if the gears are clean of debris and lightly lubricated. Players often make the mistake of over-lubricating with low-viscosity oil, which wicks behind the plates and damages the wood and finish.
To clean and lubricate your tuners, buy some high-viscosity bicycle chain oil at your local bicycle shop. As shown below, apply a small amount to an old toothbrush and use it to lightly brush dirt away from the mechanisms. Wipe the used oil off the brush with a paper towel often and repeat the process until you’ve covered all the surfaces of the gears and worms. The small amount of oil that is left on the parts is all you need to keep them happy.
Friction-Resistant Rollers — the New Standard in Tuning Machines
Over the last 10 years, the development of “friction-resistant rollers” has greatly improved the performance of tuning machines. As shown in these photos, the design employs bearings at the ends of the rollers which sit motionless in the inner holes of the headstock. When the knobs are turned, the rollers spin independently of the bearings, eliminating any friction caused by movement against wood.
Tuning becomes noticeably smoother and predictable. As they say in the States, “It’s like butter!” In some designs, friction is further reduced by placing steel balls in the bearings and adding bushings which sit stationary in the outer holes.
Friction-resistant rollers have become the new standard in virtually every brand of quality tuner. While not a substitute for perfectly drilled roller holes, the design can improve performance with less-than-perfect holes.
An Investment You Can Keep
The purchase of a good set of tuners represents an investment that you can keep, even if you change guitars.
It’s easy to move tuners from one guitar to another, so it’s a good idea to keep your old set in case you decide to re-install them later.
As mentioned in the last blog post, a luthier or repair person can install your tuners, but if you’re handy, chances are good that you can install them yourself. In either case, consult these installation instructions before purchasing your next set.
Don’t expect that twice the cost will get you twice the function. In truth, it’s far from that. Even the lowest priced tuners mentioned below will provide excellent performance. While it is true that higher-priced tuners will have more precisely machined gears, other factors such as engravings and plate/knob materials contribute to their cost.
Here are the approximate starting prices of some selected tuners that feature friction-resistant rollers (prices in USD):
- Gotoh — $250 (Make sure the model states “friction-resistant rollers”)
- Sloane — $315
- Alessi — $450
- Scheller — $650 (Not to be confused with Schaller brand)
- Rodgers — $700
We hope after reading this article you have a good understanding of the factors that make high-quality tuning machines a worthy investment.
Check out Gary's next post in the Guitar Care 101 series where he discusses neck specifications that make some guitars easier to play in the left hand than others.
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