I have just bought a steel guitar (actually a 10-string brazilian viola) and the tuning is too sensitive, because only a small movement on the peg changes the pitch too much. It's not an exaggeration to say that the "useful range" of movement is less than 5 angular degrees, and this is way different of what I got used in other instruments.

I suspect this might be due to two possible causes:

  1. The machine heads turning ratio is poor;
  2. The strings are too low-quality;

So, the questions are:

  • What is the expected turning ratio (handle revolutions per axis revolution) of a good-quality guitar machine head?
  • Is it possible that bad quality strings are the cause for my problem? Should I expect the tuning process to be easier with better strings?

Here's an image of the tuning machine model, taken from the manufacturer site:

enter image description here

  • 6
    Do you find that the strings squeak or make another sudden noise as you tune and they respond? This may be the result of the strings getting stuck in the nut and as you try to tune them, a certain amount of tension is needed to un-stick from the nut, which will typically cause the pitch to jump a bit, not allowing you to make small adjustments. – Basstickler Feb 24 '17 at 18:52
  • I'm guessing I'm off based on your description but thought it may be the case. – Basstickler Feb 24 '17 at 18:53

It is likely that the nut slots are too tight and the strings are sticking. When they respond to the tuning peg, they are actually slipping and so you aren't getting a gradual change in pitch.

Next time you restring the instrument, try thinner strings (maybe it was set up that way) and you could consider putting some graphite powder in the slots as a dry lubricant so the strings glide through easier.

Ultimately, you may need to go to a luthier to have the instrument adjusted in some way (either tuners, nut, strings, etc).

  • 2
    Hi, thanks for your answer! Actually I don't think this is the problem, because: 1) I have this problem in other instruments, it is very characteristic - to the point of an autible "twang" when the string unsticks and slides - and it actually responds to graphite. But the symptoms are quite different and I don't see them in my current case; 2) The variation in pitch is actually continuous and gradual, but it is too steep. Finding the exact pitch involves a sub-milimetrical hand movement, but I am able to control it quite well. I just lack that "micro-tuning" feel, having only the gross one – heltonbiker Feb 24 '17 at 20:53
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    @heltonbiker your last sentence probably nailed it. You need to learn to tune with a gentle hand. In addition, machine heads have a ton of hysteresis, so you're best off always tuning up from below. If you go over, detune low and approach again. – Carl Witthoft Feb 25 '17 at 14:45
  • @heltonbiker you may also have dead strings, which are harder to tune accurately. – Paul Feb 27 '17 at 15:07
  • Paul, can you elaborate on the "dead strings" issue? How is that a problem for tuning? The current strings came with the instrument, so I bet they are a bit old and quite low quality. On the other hand, they look brand new and sound fine (not great) once in tune. – heltonbiker Feb 28 '17 at 1:01
  • 2
    @heltonbiker for reasons I do not understand, older strings can be harder to tune accurately. Sometimes a string change takes care of the issue – Paul Feb 28 '17 at 21:36

Strings DO stretch when a new set is fitted. as well as taking up any slack in the windings on the tuning heads. All tuners only work accurately when tuning UP to pitch. After first time up, lift string over sound hole about 15-25mm and hold a few seconds. Tune again, repeat process 2-3 times, play guitar a while, bending notes also helps stretch and settle strings. They'll keep stretching for 2-3 days depending on how much you play and retune. If strings grab at nut as tuning, a tiny drop of any oil on the nut slots will stop it.

Sometimes stretching a string a bit, by pulling out on it, helps. At least I know that's what piano tuners do when they can't get a string to the right pitch, and I assume it would work on guitar or any other string instrument as well.

  • Steel string do not actually stretch (believe it or not). But the technique is still valid. The technique tightens the wraps around the post and anywhere else there could be slack. But this would not match the symptoms of the original question. I believe nylon strings actually do stretch. – Paul Feb 28 '17 at 21:38

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