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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?

  • 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
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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.)

  • 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
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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.

  • One should keep in mind though that the low bass strings have significant inharmonicity, so tuning higher overtones will not necessarily do a good job of getting the fundamental in tune. 2nd harmonic is generally fine, 3rd harmonic too (the 2ct discrepancy between the tuner's 12-edo fifth and the JI harmonic can also be ignored), but 4th harmonic or higher I'd avoid. — One of the advantages of a strobe tuner is that it doesn't really require the harmonic trick, because you can actually see the waveform rather than just a frequency indicator. – leftaroundabout Aug 27 '18 at 10:26
  • @leftaroundabout - fair comment. I only use 19 and 24 fret harmonics, even on low B string. Not sure if it's the 3rd or 4th harmonic, as fundamental sometimes gets called 1st. But it all works for me. – Tim Aug 27 '18 at 10:49
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Yes. I'e encountered the same problems with all too accurate tuners, especially on bass. Even headless ones where one tunes up back at the bridge. As fast as you touch the intrument the actual touching is enough to make the most accurate tuner showing you're out of tune!

Especially those by Sonic Research, called Turbo Tuner, and Peterson StroboSoft. They're true strobe tuners. But the Turbo Tuner, is spinning too fast like a roulette wheel when it's only 0.5 cents or 0.002 cents wrong which is too accurate for any plucked instrument. Because - always - when you hit a string it ALWAYS go up in pitch then settles at rigth pitch but 10 seconds in, it always drops flat.

This is mitigated by using tuners that aren't that accurate, or compensated for guitars and basses, and detects the initial attack. If you play speed metal on bass and repeatedly shredding fast 16th notes everyone of them becomes way too sharp regardless of how accurate intonation or accurate tuning.

These days, if you have the possibility to try out a bass that has longer scale on the lowest strings than the highest, called FANNED FRETS or MULTI SCALE you'll be in for a treat. The lowest string doesn't go up initially in pitch while whacking the string hard. Instead of buying one of these, I would suggest using less accurate tuners on stage live, actually. No one can tune any guitar to Turbo Tuners 0.02 cents accuracy anyway. 0.5 cents is enough since people can only detect +- 3 cents difference anyway.

Keep those strobe tuners at the repair bench for intonation, at home or studio where you have all the time in the world. But get a "fast" and "as good as it gets" tuner out live on stage. Just because that they - the too accurate ones - show that you're "out of tune" just by touching the bass or guitar.

I've even detected with some tuners that while I am turning a tuner up at the headstock FOR ANOTHER STRING the other say first string that I tuned up precisely starts to change tuning because of the added, or diminished tension of the neck relief that his held up by all strings correct tuning. Chew on that for a while. It sure ain't heard, but the tuner detects it.

  • Welcome to the site! Great first answer. Your last para. - it often is the case that as one string gets tuned, it'll put another out. Not just neck tension, but a vagary of having a fitted vibrato. All down to balance. But thoroughly agree that a too-accurate tuner isn't any help in live situations. +1. – Tim Aug 27 '18 at 10:59
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You can test this, as a measure of gauging if your instrument is too weak build, especially neck with tuners:

  1. Tune up, with the bass in playing position, as accurately as you can on the strobe tuner.
  2. Then, carefully, put the bass on a table on its back, with headstock resting outside the edge of the table.
  3. Strike the strings, one string each, and get the reading of the tuner.

If it shows the same, you have a sturdy built neck and bass, but if it's changing you'll probably hear some fret buzz too and notices that the action, relief has changed too. This is due to that the neck/bass/body hasn't got enough mass to withstand gravitation changes on its own total mass. Too weak and poor build. It flexes due to little changes in orientation. Most Gibson SGs and variatons thereof suffers from this and it's why they're poor in keeping in tune once tuned up.

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