Guitarists spend endless time debating about guitar bridges: which Floyd is better, Kahler vs. Floyd, Floyd vs. Strat, trem vs. stoptail. There might not be as much paid attention to the other end of the guitar though. The headstock is the first place many guitarists look when they see another guitarist playing, and the shape is the highly-protected trademark of most guitar companies. The headstock contains one of the most important parts of the guitar – the tuners. Because no one will notice how much you paid for that RockStar LesOCaster with the perfect flames (and skull inlays, dude) if you aren’t staying in tune. This article will explain some of the differences between traditional tuners and the benefits of choosing one over the other.
Announcements before the fight
First thing to remember: Many tuning problems are not the tuners’ fault. If you are changing tuners because your guitar is not remaining in tune, be sure to check that the tuners are the problem. Buying and installing new tuners is an expense of time and money, and those problems will remain if other aspects of the guitar are not eliminated as a source of the problem. If you are sure you checked the nut, the bridge and the intonation, then lets get this puppy started!
We know these, because they are the most popular out there. Carried over from the acoustic guitar, these are the ones you attach by putting the string through the hole, and winding. There are lots of different, valid ways of winding the string, but it helps if you have a peg winder, or some time and a strong wrist. Just be happy we still don’t use friction pegs, like many other stringed instruments do.
I think the first reason people choose these is because that is what came on the guitar in the first place. It makes perfect sense to replace failing tuners with ones that look and feel the same as what you are used to. A majority of Strats and Les Pauls (and derivatives) use traditional tuners, and have for over 60 years. As we know, tradition in our Guitar Universe is a tough one to shake. Traditional tuners hold tune well, especially when wrapped properly.
Changing strings with traditional tuners can be a zen-like ritual for many guitarists, and many actually enjoy the process. Besides, you may not want to change the look of your guitar, much less drill new holes in the fragile headstock. Tuners are not difficult to put on, but it is made a lot easier when you are using direct replacements: the holes all line up, there are no holes left showing, and you keep on restringing and tuning like you always have.
The other reason to go with traditional tuners is weight. Adding any additional components to the headstock will shift the center of gravity of the instrument, and just might send your headstock diving to the floor. There isn’t much to a traditional tuner: the post, the gear, the bushing and the knob. Add an additional knob and locking post in there, multiplied by 6, and it can cause balance issues.
The downsides? Well, decades after the invention of the traditional guitar tuner, I am amazed that wrapping the string around a post and winding is the idea that sticks on most guitars. Everything in our lives gets easier, and we are ready to accept anything that makes whatever we are doing take just a little less time. Except in guitar tuners. For some reason, we are willing to accept the time it takes to apply the winds perfectly, and cut the string ends leaving a deadly fingertip-piercing string end as the price for owning an electric guitar.
Locking tuners are a newfangled invention in the Guitar Universe. We’ll get this out of the way first: Locking tuners do not lock your guitar in tune. Your guitar will still go out of tune as often as with traditional tuners. What they do is lock your string on the post, making sure the winding or slipping of the string won’t be the reason your guitar goes out of tune. It’ll still go out of tune when stretching, using the trem, using a badly cut nut or bridge, or with a bad setup. So as far as tuning stability goes, I am not convinced it is a whole lot more stable tuning-wise vs. traditional tuners.
However, what it does do better is save time. Ahh, glorious time. Strings have to enter the tuner hole, then pulled straight, and locked. Half-a-turn later, you are in tune, and on to the next string. There are no winds to worry about, and no locking the string under itself, like on traditional string wraps. There are many kinds of locking tuners, and newer ones can use the same mounting holes as traditional tuners. Some even hide the locking mechanism, which keeps the vintage look. With new alloys, and better designs, locking tuners are showing up on more mid-priced instruments, when they used to be a premium feature.
The drawbacks to locking tuners are few, but significant. On some, weight is still an issue. More parts mean more weight, although new alloys and better designs have produced a new variety of lightweight locking tuners. More parts also mean there is more that can go wrong. I have seen people turn the wheel of a locking tuner too hard, and it either strips or falls off, sending a few parts scattering.
Price is still a factor, although super-premium traditional tuners can get very expensive too. Let us not discount vanity too- some people just don’t like the way they look, even if it saves time. Locking tuners are certainly not for everyone, but everyone should give them a try before dismissing them; although that can be said for almost anything, can’t it?
How I Roll
As someone who appreciates not having any headstock at all, I have put a lot of time thinking about tuners and how they function. Most of my guitars have a headstock, and given all of the points made, I love locking tuners. While not as easy to use as a double-ball string system* on a few of my guitars, they save about 15-20 minutes when restringing, and make changing a string on stage a 20 second operation. I am all for making things easier, and love when new ideas come around to make things just a little easier.
*The double-ball system is for guitars with tuners at the body end. There is a ball on both ends of the string. You drop it in a channel at the nut, and one at the bridge. The string stretches and you are in tune in seconds.
What kind of tuners do you like? Is there a reason you prefer one over the other?