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I recently started using Peterson’s iStroboSoft strobe tuner app to tune my guitars, and I'm running into a couple of common problems, especially when tuning my Fender Standard Precision Bass.

  • I’ll get a string tuned just right, and then it drifts a couple cents out of tune as soon as I let go of the tuning knob. I suspect that I’m putting a little tension on the neck while I’m tuning, but I’m concerned that there might be a problem with my tuners.

  • My bass E is especially difficult to tune, as the pitch steadily drifts flatter as I’m tuning and rarely stabilizes on a pitch long enough to tune it, even if I strike the note very gently with the tone knob rolled off.

I figure that these problems are mainly because I’m not accustomed to the extreme precision of the strobe tuner, but I’m a little concerned that it may indicate a problem with my instrument’s tuners, nut, or neck. Is there anything I can do to use the strobe tuner more effectively? How can I tell the difference between problems with my tuning technique and problems with the instrument itself?

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Awesome bit of software! I own one of the original (analog, tubes, resistors the size of small cigars) Conn Strobotuners-- love that gadget. – Carl Witthoft Jun 13 '14 at 12:05
up vote 2 down vote accepted

The drift you see is normal -- so much so that Steve Howe entitled a tune Sharp On Attack. The amount of flattening drift will increase with a vigorous attack.

EDIT (per request, adding comments into my answer). I would examine the neck joint screws for snugness and check the joint itself for play. (When I first assembled my project Tele, I was unhappy with the neck alignment. It wasn't until I slightly loosened the four neck screws -- with the strings installed and tuned to tension -- that the neck shifted slightly and was pulled into its pocket properly. THAT corrected the alignment.)

As for other culprits, if you are not equipped with locking tuners, then the string could be slipping on the tuner post. In the absence of locking tuners, I have found it necessary to wrap one turn of the string below the hole, and the remainder above the hole, so that together they cinch the string into place. This is a visual example of what I am attempting to describe. Before adopting that technique, I have had strings slip on the tuning posts. I would double-check your E string winding around the peg. (On my electrics, I have abandoned original equipment in favor of locking tuners. Just one less thing to worry about, and the time to wind the cinching wraps has become unnecessary.)

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OK, between this and neilfein’s linked answer, it sounds like the bass E behavior is normal. Any comments regarding the drift when I left go of the tuning knob? Is that normal too? – Bradd Szonye Jun 13 '14 at 0:26
Thank you for the additional details! My factory-installed strings are not nearly as tidy as that, so perhaps I need to wind them differently. – Bradd Szonye Jun 13 '14 at 21:34
Neck joint is snug and appears to be seated correctly. – Bradd Szonye Jun 14 '14 at 17:35
All the answers were very helpful – accepting this one for providing the most troubleshooting advice (which I actually tried). – Bradd Szonye Jun 14 '14 at 17:37

Yes, strobe tuners are very precise and can give you a lot of trouble until you get used to it.

As far as the bass goes, try tuning it from the 12th fret E, or use the E harmonic. Sometimes tuners just can't get enough signal or vibration to give an accurate reading. This doesn't tend to happen with a strobe I think, but I can recommend giving that a try!

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Often, I use 24th fret and 19th fret harmonics on bass, as these notes have higher frequencies that tuners seem to find easier to 'hear'. Once one string is in tune, I'll use harmonics to get the others in tune with it. Probably makes no difference, but I'm happier with the strings being in tune with each other than each being in tune with a tuner. Assuming, of course, that the instrument is properly intonated.

Have you pulled the strings as tight as you can prior to tuning. It sounds obvious, although I meet many players who have similar problems, often solved by a severe stretch of their strings, obviously never done thoroughly when they were put on.

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