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I used to have a guitar teacher that said you should always finish tuning each string by tightening/sharpening the string. So for example if the top E is a little sharp, you should turn the peg to make it flat and then tune it up to the right pitch, as opposed to just turning the peg to the right pitch from above.

He claimed that the increase in tightness as opposed to loosening from above kept the string in tune longer. Is this true?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 24 down vote accepted

When you lower the pitch by releasing tension, there might be slack in the gears in the tuning machines, which might make the string go below the intended pitch. By going further down and approaching the target note from below, there will be force applied to the gears and when you've reached the correct pitch the gears have less potential to move. So your teacher is correct.

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Note that this effect is common in many kinds of mechanical adjustment. I ran into it most recently when adjusting a woodworking plane's blade. –  keshlam Apr 6 at 3:54

Yes, because that is the way that the gears in tuning machines work best.

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Yes, as the strings are kept under tension better. It works with all stringed instruments (inc. piano!), for the same reason. Also, somehow, it seems easier to hear a note coming up to pitch rather than approaching it from above. 'We're tuning up'.

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Interesting. From the DJ world, it's the opposite direction but for the same general reason. When making fine adjustments to the speed of a turntable, you can slow it down more accurately than you can speed it up (b/c you can oh-so-lightly drag your finger to slow, whereas "pushing" the deck is a grosser motion). So, when bringing a new track in, I bias toward knowing it's slightly fast vs. slightly slow. You want them to be perfectly matched, of course ... but they won't be, so it's better to know which direction you're off. –  John Hart Apr 6 at 2:02

There will often be some friction at various parts of the tuning linkage, as well as at the nut (where the string passes over). At some points, including the nut, things may bind slightly. Think about what would happens if the string is binding where it passes over the nut, both in the "tightening" and "loosening" cases.

If the string binds where it passes over the nut while the player is loosening it, then the portion of the string between the peg and the nut may be at lower tension than the main sounding portion of the string. Each time the string is plucked, its tension will be momentarily increased. Consequently, even if the tension difference at the nut wasn't sufficient to cause slippage while the string was resting, the act of playing the string might cause it to slip at some inopportune time.

If, by contrast, the last action was to tighten the string, then the portion of the string connecting the peg will if anything be tighter than the sounding portion. If it's not "enough tighter" to overcome friction when the string is resting, it will be even less inclined to move when the main string is drawn more tightly (reducing the tension difference).

Although it's easiest to visualize the above behavior happening at the nut, it can also happen at other parts of the mechanical linkage. For example, the peg might bind slightly such that it would stay put (at least for awhile) even if the worm cased to exist. Ideally, the tuning gear would always ride against the worm, but if the peg binds, it might not turn to loosen the string unless or until the worm pushes it. If one turns the worm enough to turn the peg 0.4 degrees, but the peg binds after turning only 0.3 degrees, then one would initially hear the string's pitch as though the worm had been tuned 0.3 degrees, but if the peg slips (as it likely would at some point) the tuning would change by an extra 0.1 degree.

As a principle, what's important is not whether the pitch of something is being raised or lowered, but rather whether one is pushing something in the direction opposite where it wants to be. For most instruments, that would represent raising the pitch, but some electronic instruments which are tuned by adjusting inductors work in the opposite direction; I wouldn't be surprised if some mechanical acoustic instruments do so as well.

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Yes... on all the above. Plus, in case it isn't mentioned in there somewhere, when a new string is a little sharp you might want to give it a gentle tug outward to make it flat, and then tune it up. This way, if there's any looseness at the peg end, you can get rid of it.

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