Cage Match: Locking vs. Traditional Tuners

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

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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!

Traditional Tuners

Fender's Safe-T post tuners eliminates the chance the needle-like ends stab me and make me scream like a 12 year old girl.

Fender’s Safe-T post tuners eliminates the chance the needle-like ends stab me and make me scream like a 12 year old girl.

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.

This Planet Waves peg winder combines a string cutter and string stretcher to the winding abilities.

This Planet Waves peg winder combines a string cutter and string stretcher to the winding abilities.

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.

Plastic n' Metal: The traditional Gibson tuner is light and holds tune well.

Plastic & Metal: The traditional Gibson tuner is lightweight and holds tune well.

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

On my Warmoth, these locking tuners have a wheel which engages the lock in the tuner post.

On my Warmoth, these locking tuners have a wheel which engages the lock in the tuner post.

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.

Many PRS guitars use these 'wings' on the tuners to lock the string in place.

Many PRS guitars use these ‘wings’ on the tuners to lock the string in place.

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.

My SUB1's tuners lock from above, with a screwdriver or a penny.

My SUB1’s tuners lock from above, with a screwdriver or a penny.

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

While the double ball system doesn't lock strings, it is really fast!

While the double ball system doesn’t lock strings, it is really fast!

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?

Written on March 21, 2014, by Dave Eichenberger

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Comments (14)

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    Love em all!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    I like locking tuners, they make it easier to change strings, contribute to tuning stability and don’t add much excess weight.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    WHAT???: ´So as far as tuning stability goes, I am not convinced it is a whole lot more stable tuning-wise vs. traditional tuners´ man i´m SURE you DON´T have a guitar with locking tuners…. I bend a lot and pull the strings and what not and with the locking tuners my guitar NEVER GOES OUT OF TUNE!!! or VERY little, how could you say it`s the same and you only save time changing strings??? (30-40 bucks, i changed them in 10 minutes, they come with the exact size and screw for your existing holes, you don´t have to drill anything…) You DON´T have locking tuners… It´s a shame so many guitarist could read this and miss on the greatest cheapest mod for any guitar. Every time i pick my guitar it´s on tune AND BEST OF ALL!!! i can play a WHOLE set LIVE and i don´t worry anymore about tuning in between songs.. i just PLAY. All night. IN TUNE. Amazing. I`m not kidding, my life is before and after with locking tuners.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

      It’s rare that the holes are the same size. You got lucky. Grovers’ holes are big enough for Sperzels and Planet Waves. Klusons will have to be reamed.

    • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

      Actually, most of the guitars in the pictures are mine. I have 4 or 5 guitars with locking tuners. I have played guitars with traditional tuners that are set up right, and wrapped properly, and those don’t go out of tune either. I prefer locking tuners for fast string changes though. I will say that many locking tuners are not direct replacements for vintage tuners, so it is a consideration if you want to change them on your guitar. In the end, I like locking tuners as much as you do, and won’t buy a guitar anymore without them, but then I think the whole idea of a headstock is kind of archaic anyway. 🙂

    • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

      Seriously???

      • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

        Sorry guys, but the best tuners or tuning systems on the market – are motorised tuners, bar none. You can bend,pull,whammy your bar to death – and each of the tuning motors and sensors INSTANTLY put your guitar right back in tune. Plus, you can choose from a LARGE variety of tunings with a push of a single button (or even create your own tunings as well.) But If any single note goes out of tune, even for a millisecond- the motorised tuners brings it back instantly and in real time – how can you beat that or ask for more? Not to mention, you can even ‘morph’ into say, an open-style ‘slide tuning’ for a solo piece, and then instantly go back to your standard tuning for the remainder of the song if you’d like – again, all with a push of a button. Something like this is simply NOT POSSIBLE with either of these two archaic ‘locking’ or ‘standard’ tuners. I’m sorry, but I just believe that being able to stay in tune ‘instantly’ at all times, AND being able to choose instantly to ANY tuning of your choice, in real time, and during ANY part of your song as well – is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than seeing if you can keep a single string in tune for more than 7 seconds because you bent it too hard. (that sounds like something that would be extremely important for bands like the goo-goo dolls, nickleback, or even Taylor Swift – “ALL notes MUST be pitch perfect at ALL TIMES, or somebody’s getting fired for this!! We are PERFECT, PROFESSIONAL, POLISHED & PLASTIC! And even though our music sounds like complete heartless, retarded, sonic-dribble, each and EVERY cliche’ note that we produce and force feed down your eardrums will NEVER even come REMOTELY close to being ‘out of tune’ because THAT would prove that we in fact have NO ‘originality’ or ‘soul’ within ourselves whatsoever – and frankly, we have NO CLUE as to what either of those words even mean anyway!! (now someone bring us a Diet Coke and a hairdresser immediately if not sooner, before we REALLY get upset and (god forbid) write ANOTHER song about our so-called, ‘true feelings’!!!!! (….whatever those things are….)

        Give me a break.

        (not to mention that Hendrix used to play a good bit out of tune quite often, and still made it sound
        pretty incredible! But given the choice of ‘perfect pitch’ -or- cool motorised tuners and the ability to push the envelope even FURTHER, – I personally think he’d choose the ladder any day of the week if that technology would have been available back in his day. So just put that in your pipe and smoke it:)

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    Planet Waves on most of my guitars. Locks the string AND cuts it off flush with the post. NO finger pokes changing strings! I disagree about the author’s assessment of the Klusons on Gibsons: Complete dog poop. Gibson charges 5 grand for a Les Paul with those things??? Hubris….!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    Never had locking tuners, so can’t say much about them. But the “sideways” tuners on my slotted head 12-fret resonator guitar stay in tune better than all my other guitars. Just a pain to change strings.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    All kinds of GOTOH Locking Tuners in my strats. PERFECT!

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    Something not mentioned is what the post material is made from. If you are an aggressive player you will create grooves on the posts from vibrato play style. These grooves will break your strings down the road. It’s hard to beat traditional style “Grovers or Schaller” tuners. In my experience (over 50 years), locking tuners break strings more frequently. I have tried many different lockers with the same basic result.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    Personally, my solution to my tuners is the fact that I play with a double locking trem system, I only tune once, and lock it down.

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    I have anamerican special and an American elite, i have the standard American tuners for the special and the locking for the elite the standard tuners are great theystay in tune pretty well except when you put them in a gig bag or the second you use the tremelo arm which is the reason why i got a guitar with them these locking tuners are incredible i wammy the shit out of it playing joe satriani songs and my own and i can do that for 5 days and after it will be a smidge out if tune much less than an hour or two for the other guitar. So you ask yourself do you want to tune every week if you use the whamy to a month if you dont or do youbwant to tune 5 times a day, its up to you dosnt matter to me i can tune by ear i really got it for the trem which is if you use you absolutely absolutely need unless you want to tune every time you use it and guess what i cant believe it yes i can barley lift the guitar the tuners are so heavy lol what a dumbass theirs no weight difference at all but anyway you can buy locking tuners for fenders for only 51$ on Amazon i think the regular ones are 30 so for 20$ its so worth it, infact im going to buy them for my other guitar with standard tuners

  • Dave Eichenberger • 6 years ago

    should i change my vintage tuners to locking tuners?

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