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Tuning Stability Problems

If you're having problems keeping your guitar in tune.

There are 2 reasons why a guitar with a floating trem won't stay in tune. The first would be because you are not following the procedures you need to follow so that it will stay in tune. The other reason would be a problem with the guitar itself, including the setup, lack of maintenance, and possible design flaws. If you're very adept at double locking trems then look first at the possible technical issues, while those that are new to floaters must get the basic procedures down before you should even look for a technical issue. Always assume you are the problem, not the guitar.

Before going any further, if your problem is from using the trem, you must make sure your trem studs are lubed. Friction in the contact point between the knife edge and stud will cause pullups to return sharp, and then back in tune after a dive. I prefer Chapstick Lip Balm but any good PTFE impregnated grease [the stuff that allows engines to run without oil] will work also. This isn't your average white grease, look for names like Prematex Ultra Slick, then read the contents. Turn the studs 180* counterclockwise, use a toothpick to collect little goops and fill the groove of the now exposed knife edge side of the stud. Rotate back 180* and work the trem, retune as it may go a little sharp, the thickness of the lubrication can be worth a cent or 2 on a tuner. Done.

You May Be The Problem
Maintenance
Setup
The Guitar Has A Problem

 

You May Be The Problem

1. The most common problem with those new to floaters is not having the strings completely stretched. With a floating bridge when 1 string goes out of tune, they all go out of tune, so if one string [or more] stretch when playing, they all go out of tune. They need to be stretched hard (except the high E and B which will break under even moderate stretching, stretch a bit and finish stretching it with big bends of 3 steps or more) until you can stretch them twice in a row and they do not drop in pitch. The G string and the low E will stretch the furthest. Use your tuner when stretching strings. After you have stretched the string and they're at pitch lock the nut and do full range pullups with the bridge to see if they have stayed in tune, and/or finish stretch. Check this page for the full routine.

2. Lockdown and fine tuning procedure is a very common cause of tuning fluctuation. There is a very specific procedure that must be followed when locking down the nut and fine tuning. Read the complete procedure here.

3. You are also the problem if you do not maintain your guitar, because it will not maintain itself. Following section.

 

Maintenance

The guitar must be in good maintenance and setup before you can start to diagnose any other possibly problems.

1. Loose parts. All metal to wood contact points will loosen as the wood shrinks and should be checked and tightened every 3 months minimum. Movement is death to stable tuning, but every aspect of the guitar needs to be maintained, right down to tightening the jack every few years to prevent it getting loose and spinning, breaking/crossing the wiring.

2. A loose nut is a serious contributor to instability. Tighten the 2 Allen screws on the back of the neck/nut with a 2.5mm Allen wrench to make sure the nut is well secured. You want the nut *snug* but you do not want to OVERtighten. Too much torque on the nut screws is the primary cause of cracking the neck behind the nut! I'll use what I call "medium 1 finger torque", the amount of torque you can apply with one finger at the end of the Allen wrench. It's purely based on the way I feel the torque, but typically 1/4 turn past full contact will keep the nut snug and in place. It doesn't not need to be *tight*, it just needs to be tight "enough" that it won't move. You should also be aware of what is between the mounting screw and the wood. 1/3 of the time you'll have a regular washer and a "boat propeller" locking washer. 1/3 of the time you'll have just the regular washer, the rest will be just the locking. The locking washer against the wood will give alot as the "propellers" dig themselves into the wood. The regular washer will have no give. Knowing what's there will help determine how much torque you need to get the nut snug. If anything is missing it would be a good idea to make sure there are both between the screw and the wood. There are times, especially when using very heavy strings [but I've often seen this on 7 strings strung with 10's] when no matter how tight you tighten the nut the nut still wants to walk. Dive the trem and it walks toward the head, pull up and it reseats itself against the end of the fretboard. This produces an effect where when you dive the trem it comes back sharp, when you pull up it comes back flat. To stop the walking usually nothing short of gluing the nut in place with wood glue will work. Wood glue does not stick well to metal so it's easy to "peel" the nut off later, but will glue it tight enough to keep it from walking. If glue isn't something you want to "mess" with another trick is to cut a strip of a .1 nut shim, form it around the mounting screw and slip it into the hole. This way when you put the screws in there's a little forward pressure already on the nut, and if the screw can't move backwards, the nut ain't walking either. ;)

Most new Ibanez guitars have gone to top mounted screw on nuts and some specific care must be taken with these. Stripping the hole tightening the screw is common and even many will leave the factory already stripped, or one tighten away, I know because of how many I deal with. I've also had a walking screw on nut on an older J Custom because the screws had ovaled the holes enough. You can get away with running a little super glue then accelerator into the hole to build and harden the threads that are there, but mostly you'd be doing a splinter fill and build, try to keep it very even around the hole center, or packed more toward the back side of the hole so the screw is pushing the nut toward the the end of the headstock.

3. Neck screws not tight. This allows the neck to move slightly, enough to throw tuning out. Another metal to wood contact point that must be checked periodically.

4. Tuners loose, and these can get very loose. While a serious contributor to fixed bridge guitar instability, it won't affect the tuning once the nut is locked down on a floater, but it is part of maintenance and you don not want any loose parts on your guitar.

5. A slightly loose saddle will move occasionally and when it slacks that string makes it and the rest of the strings go out of tune. Make sure all the saddle lock down screws are tight using the 2mm Allen wrench. Might as well set the intonation while you're at it!! ;) This is not maintenance, and you do not want to do this continually. The heads of the screws are soft and you will round one off if you don't use a good fit [factory preferred] Allen wrench. When tight they'll stay tight, but many will be loose enough on even new guitars to move a saddle stretching strings.

 

Setup

1. Loose studs. The higher end Japanese guitars will have locking studs to give a solid fulcrum [only applicable to Edge, Lo Pro, and Edge Zero trem systems [or Edge Pro with locking stud mod]]. There is a set screw inside the trem post which can be seen here and here. Make sure these are tight using the 1.5mm Allen wrench [2mm on Edge Zero and current Edge applications using Edge Zero studs ie. JEM77FP2]]. To make sure they are firmly set after tightening the set screws, turn the posts down slightly using the 4mm Allen wrench, just enough to take the slop out and lock the threads together. You don't want to force it enough to spin an anchor, but you want the threads firmly locked together. If you find the stud anchors do spin see "Loose Anchors". below. Loose studs will not create dramatic fluctuations in pitch but they are one piece of the overall puzzle. Of course this feature was dropped by Ibanez in 2003 with the new Edge Pro versions of the trem system. The non-locking studs do cause quite a bit of instability in some guitars and not in others, and you will find this true on cheaper and more expensive models. Some have tried wrapping studs in teflon [plumbers tape] and many other concoctions to try and tighten this contact point. I like to use Ibanez' method where they started shooting clear down into the anchors holes during painting, using a disc of paper as a stop in the hole. This leaves a buildup ring of thicker clear in the threads. Using that method, flow a little super glue, then accelerator around the back side [away from the head] of the anchor. Screw in the stud to check for slop and form threads while the glue is not yet rock hard. Repeat until the desired lack of stiff has been achieved [STOP before the stud is too tight to turn!!!] . I use the back side of the anchor so the constant pressure of the studs will be in the metal to metal side of the anchor and stud.

2. The trem should be at the proper angle. See the section on Trem Angle and correct the angle as needed. Although having the bridge at the correct angle has more to do with keeping the strings in the correct radius to the fretboard than it does in instability, again, another piece of the overall tuning puzzle that can add cents of instability if not setup as designed.

 

The Guitar Has A Problem

1. Inspect the nut pads for grooves on their curved bottoms that would allow the strings to slip, and also the nut base for the same grooves. Pretty unusual but I have seen this on older models. Also make sure you are putting the pads on correctly. The curve on their bottom conforms to the curve on the top of the nut. Some older pads have the curves faced opposite of what we see today. i.e. an LNG Jem's pads peaked tops line up in a row, where a modern pad the peaks line up the same direction the strings run.  If you have grooves test that is what is making the strings slip but plucking the string that's going out of tune between the nut and tuner while you dive the bar. If the pitch changes the string is slipping.

2. Interference - Check everything in the trem system for contact with the body, wiring, pickguard, your nephews bubble gum, etc. i.e. You'll find quite a few UV's with the pickguard slightly touching one of the tongues at the front of the trem. Any contact will not allow the trem to return to neutral. See this page for pickguard interference. I just did a JS1200 with Edge Pro and the back of the trem was in contact with the side of the rout, you could physically see how far off the trem would return, and most UV77RE's have some contact between the edge of the trem and the side of the rout. This is fixed the same way you would do neck alignment on a neck thru, by moving the curved knife edge. If the contact is on the treble side you want to pull the knife out a little to move the trem toward the bass. If the contact is on the bass side you have to pull out the curved knife [easier said than done] and grind off .5mm or more off the end of the knife so that it fits further back into the trem, thereby moving it toward the treble side. The only way I've been able to pull the curved side without destroying it is with cutting pliers, they bite into the knife enough to get it moving. Once it's far enough out you have a crack big enough to get a flathead screwdriver in it becomes a process of wiggling it out. Putting it back in is the easy part as you just tap it in with a hammer until it's flush, and then tap on a large regular screwdriver to finish setting it into the baseplate. If in doubt definitely leave this to a pro.

3. If it's a brand new guitar or one that has been at rest some time, break the springs in with some violent whammin, up and down. [This will also have a small effect in forming the knife edge to the posts] Same thing goes if it's a guitar that hasn't been played in a long time. Springs get static and create a memory, when you start to break this memory they can react in a non linear fashion until they get "broken in" again.

The next 4 points will require removal of the trem. Directions here.

4. Gummed up knives. Alot of people believe that you should oil the posts and knives. Personally I've never seen any improvement by doing this but what I do see is the oil collect enough dirt and crud to literally gum up the works. Use your wife's toothbrush to clean the crud off of the posts and knives. On the other hand I have seen great improvement on trem return using Chapstick [for the folk offshore that a lip balm product sold in the US and many other countries, it has a very waxy-greasy feel and does work quite well at improving free return to neutral]

5. Grooves worn into the trem post V. When the trem posts have worn out from use or constant adjustment, a groove will wear into the seat or V, this is rare on Edge variant trems but it does happen with some of the entry and mid line models because of their cheaper parts. Visually inspect and replace if necessary. If your guitar is a pre 2001' with Edge variant it's very possible it has bad posts. The tolerances at Gotoh had shifted and nobody caught it for many years. There is a redesigned trem post that has the correct tolerance in the V. Read more in the next section on Flat Knife Edges and Bad Trem Posts.

6. The knife edges of the trem become worn or damaged and require filing to get back to a proper knife edge. This is also rarely seen on Edge variants [except Edge3!] and some "mating" of the parts is actually preferred as they form to each other, and their specific use. Cheaper trems are more prone to wear. The same procedure as fixing a fat/flat knife edge, see this section to walk you through shaping the knives. Note, you do NOT want the knives sharp. You cannot replace knife edges if you screw them up or they're shot, Ibanez refuses to sell them, or the trem baseplates alone, you need to replace the bridge at that point.

7. The trem post anchor [insert] has become loose. This is the most common problem I will run into on older guitars, primarily basswood of course. Most types of tuning problems will give predictable trem return. With loose inserts the return is erratic. The trem posts screw into a metal anchor that is press fit into the body wood. Over time this anchor can become loose, especially on guitars where the trem post set screws have not been tightened allowing play between the post and anchor, and especially on basswood which is a softer wood. Remove the trem and with the post set screws tight try to move the posts [in the headstock to tail direction and back] with the 4mm Allen in the top of the stud to see if there is any play. Keep your eyes on the anchor checking for any play. If they don't move use a junk stud, or put tape around the top of the stud, and try again using pliers. [I've had many you couldn't move with the Allen alone but pliers showed how loose they really were. If you don't have a junk stud take the stud out and use anything [4mm Allen wrench from the stud, a bolt with the right thread, etc] put it in the hole and push the anchor toward the head, and back toward the tail. Even a little play will cause tuning instability, the anchor must by stable. There is over 100 pounds of string tension that makes the anchors move, test using the same kind of force] If they are loose you will need to pull them out of the body. Make sure to cut the paint away from around the top of the anchor 1mm or you will tear the paint up with the anchor as it comes out. Grab the post (preferably using an old junk post to use just for this, or a bolt with the correct thread) with a pair of pliers and work it out of the body. [I use a cats paw [tool for pulling nails] with shims laid across the body to protect the finish] If the play is minor give the headstock side of the hole a superglue coating, then use accelerator to cure it instantly. Check the fit with the insert, if it's still loose give it another coat of superglue, repeat. If it's tight use a good quality wood glue dabbled around the inside lip of the hole press the anchor back into the body the same way you pulled it with pliers on the post. Let sit for at least 24 hours before reassembly. NOTE - do not make the fit too tight or you may crack the wood behind the anchor [between anchor and trem rout]. Basswood has very little resin and after 10-20 years if plenty dry and prone to cracking if you give it a reason. [Many lower line guitars do not have post anchors. Some screw right into a metal plate that is screwed to the body. You get what you pay for.]

You'll have to do the same thing if your anchor is tight, but spinning in it's hole. Sometimes a set screw can be so tight you'll bend an allen wrench trying to get it loose, and turning the post without loosening the set screw causes the anchor to just spin. The only way to free the post is to pull the anchor out so you can grip the anchor with pliers while wrenching out the post. Reinstall as above.

If a loose anchor is neglected long enough it can actually oblong the hole, sometimes to a great extent. You can actually see that the post is not at 90* to the body. If the oblong is under 1mm using the superglue and wood wood glue will fill it enough. Be careful not to use too much glue or when you press the post back in it will be forced in through the hole in the anchor's base. Use plenty, but not too much ;) If the oblong is larger than 1mm you'll need to use a good non shrinking acetone based wood patch on the neck side of the hole. Pack it in, most at the top than in the middle of the hole, but not too much. While it's still wet [work fast, wood patch has a tendency to dry very fast] press the anchor back into the hole and seat it. Try to press it in at a perfect 90* angle to the body. When it's seated pull it straight back out keeping it at the same 90* angle. Let the patch cure for 24 hours and then reinstall the anchor using wood glue as described in the first paragraph. [Always check the bottom of the hole for excess wood patch that has been forced down there when "forming" the new hole. If there's too much it will prevent the anchor from fully seating. Use anything to scrape it out so the anchor can fully seat]

8. Wide flat knife edges. I see wide knife edges on even much order guitars sporadically but it's consistently seen on 1998' - 2001', through initial production Edge Pro guitars. Gotoh began grinding the flat side knives thinner of second production run EP equipped guitars, that could still be cleaned up with a file for optimal return, but the curved sides are typically found to be very fat for all EP's. Then sometime around 2006 they quit grinding them and we're back to the typical fat knives that started a lot of their problems to begin with. The next section is devoted to this problem.

9. Bad trem posts. The next section covers this problem.

10. Springs. It's very rare but every now and then I'll run into a used guitar that I've gone through everything and the problem persists, and as a last recourse I will change the springs to fix. Every now and then a spring will just go bad and not behave itself, soon to be destined for the landfill as just punishment.

Note - 100% trem float would mean it comes back from tune 100% of the time from whammy dives, but also 100% of the time from pull ups. Your guitar should always come back in tune 100% from dives. If it doesn't, you have a problem that can be found above. But guitar very rarely come back 100% from a pull up, in fact few will be at 98 or 99% from pull up which means neutral will have a few strings off by a very few cents, something that the tuner sees but your ears really don't hear. I consider a 95% float one where several strings come back far enough out I can hear it. All of these can be reset to perfect tune by pushing the trem down past neutral to low neutral. Worst case would be a 90% which comes back nearly 1/4 step out of tune on several or all the strings, usually caused by contact with a pickguard, or the wide flat knives with sharp corners in tight posts explained next. For whatever reason, and with *everything* perfect, checked, double checked, and allot of head scratching, I just can't figure out why a 98% guitar isn't 100%. Every now and then I'll actually get one that floats absolutely true, 100%, 0 cent raise in pitch, but man are they rare. The object is to get the performance to as near perfect as possible, and near perfect is easy to get. Near perfect NObody can hear the difference. [you can't fool the tuner though]  You should find that a dab of Chapstick on the studs will improve accurate return considerably even without doing anything else. With fully sorted knives and studs the Chapstick still adds a degree of improvement. The best cheap fix there is. ;o}

 

Copyright 2000 Ibanez Rules!! All rights reserved.
Revised: June 23, 2013.