Locking Tuners: What Are They, Benefits, and Drawbacks

Published Categorized as Tuning

Struggling to keep your guitar in tune and in check for extended periods of time no matter how often you tune it and how delicately you play? Or, perhaps you are simply looking to expand your knowledge of the options available to guitar lovers modifying their steed of choice?

Whatever your reason for arriving upon this article here today, we will be guiding you through the relative benefits and drawbacks of locking tuners, and how they can help and also hinder each individual guitarist on their respective developmental journey.

Table of Contents

A Word About Tuning

No matter how much money and time you sink into a guitar, if you do not pay any heed to the parts of the instrument that contribute to its stable tuning then you are not going to end up with a stable result.

Guitars often fall out of tune, much like any other string instrument, a fact that is inherent no matter what you might do to prevent it. However, there are several factors that can exacerbate a guitar’s inability to stay in tune for an extended period of time. That’s why it’s so important to know how to tune a guitar & how to use a guitar tuner.

The quality of the instrument and all of the components upon it that contribute to its proper tuning stability is of vital importance. The bridge, its saddles, and the nut, as well as the tuners, are of the utmost importance in maintaining a stable tuning for an extended period of time, all helping in their own special way to keep the tuning where it needs to be, or at the very least where it is set to be by you, the player.

The ambient atmosphere that the guitar is being played in will also have an obvious impact on the instrument’s ability to remain in tune, which, if refracted through the guitarist in question’s penchant for big bends, excessive use of the vibrato arm, and an overall aggressive playing style, will result in a guitar whose tuning and temperament are left in tatters.

These kinds of conditions are fed to almost hyperbolic levels in sweaty gig environments, hence why regular touring bands will hire roadies and the like to ensure the proper upkeep of their gear, and also the reason why you will tend to see artists looking at their feet and fondling their headstocks while engaging with the audience in between songs – tuning their guitars while they think we are not paying attention!

Tuners & Locking Tuners

So, if a guitar’s tuner is that which – eponymously – tunes the guitar, and ideally that which also keeps the guitar in tune as much as possible. A locking tuner seeks to take this a step further, by offering a firmer grasp on a guitar’s tuning, alongside a locking nut and the like.

Though a locking tuner is, of course, of use to just about anyone looking to ensure their guitar has a firm grasp on its tuning and temperament, one ought to inspect other parts of the body before making any hasty purchases and installations on one’s instrument.

Very often in cases of poor tuning and an inability to maintain it, the issue lies in the nut and the bridge rather than the tuners, the latter being the mere spokesperson for the tuning of the guitar rather than the culprits.

It is all too common for musicians to install locking tuners onto their guitars thinking that any issues they might be having with maintaining their guitar tuning and maintenance will be automatically and miraculously solved serendipitously.

This is rarely the case, and often the problem can even be mended a little at home, without the need for external equipment or the help of a licensed professional, saving you heaps of money and time in the long run.

Thus, I feel it is my duty to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the fabled guitar tuners that we have before our magnifying glass today. A locking tuner can certainly minimize the risk of the guitar falling out of tune, but are they going to utterly eradicate any pre-existing problems that the guitar might be experiencing? I suppose I will let you be the judge, though you have my warning and my blessing.

Traditional Tuners vs Locking Tuners

Both traditional tuners and locking tuners will be approaching the guitar from the same point, or at least with the same objective in mind, that being to tune the guitar strings wherever the user desires them and to keep them there as much as it is in their power to do so.

They could even be mistaken for one another in their appearance, certainly by those less experienced or knowledgeable about such things.

They are, however, going to change the game for just about any guitarist, hence why so many guitarists will wholeheartedly recommend a locking tuner if and when they are given the chance to voice their opinion.

Where traditional tuners usually require the user to wind the string around them several times, a locking tuner will negate this aspect of the process completely, and it is in this aspect that a lot of the locking tuners’ ability to maintain tuning better than traditional tuners lies.

In the arguably unnecessary coiling of the string about the traditional tuner, there is imbibed ever more chance for the tuning to waver and fluctuate than in locking tuners, wherein you simply place the end of the string straight up.

More specifically, it only takes turning the tuning peg around halfway in the case of locking tuners, which does not even bear comparing to the several revolutions one has to engage with when restringing and tuning up a guitar with traditional tuners.

This is a boon for those seeking convenience in their instrument, with many gravitating towards locking tuners to minimize the amount of time that they spend tuning up their instruments and the amount of time they might spend restringing them. These points will be of especial significance to those who live and thus play guitar in climates that are not as friendly to a guitar’s temperament.

The Benefits of Locking Tuners

So, without further ado, let us explore some of the advantages of a locking tuner so that you can decide for yourself whether they might be something worth investing in for your own instrument(s), or whether they will simply be another hole in your wallet and/or bank account.

Everyone’s personal and professional circumstances will no doubt be wholly or partly different, and so it would be well worth measuring up the pros and cons before making any kind of an investment like this, especially considering the fact that you will likely need to hire a licensed technician or guitar luthier to do the installation.

Here are the benefits of using locking tuners on your guitar:

  1. Better tuning stability
  2. Faster string changes
  3. Neater looking headstock

1. Better Tuning Stability

Traditional tuners require a string to be wound around the post several times, with the winding of the string being the only thing preventing the string and its tuning from slipping, in and out, in and out. No matter how much you wrap the string around the post, it will still slip in and out of tune, and will in fact do so more if given more string space with which to do it.

On the other hand, locking tuners have a clamp within that locks the string firmly in place, requiring at most a half turn to be properly tightened, robustly holding the string in place to prevent the string from slipping in and out of tune as much as is mechanically possible.

Installing locking tuners provides you with reliability in this regard and they are also easy to use, for you only have to operate them by turning a lock on the underside of the machine head after the string has been fed through, negating any confusion and ensuring that the strings in question are kept in tune to the best of their ability.

Though certainly not an altogether common occurrence, string slippage – or, the act of a string slipping past its bounds and drastically out of tune – is far more likely to happen on a guitar fitted with traditional tuners than on a guitar fitter with locking tuners.

Sure enough, this is only one of the possible ways for a string’s tuning to waver in and out, but it is a central part of the temperament of the guitar that, when combined with those other parts, will leave you leagues ahead of the game, perfect if you are a touring musician or otherwise.

2. Faster String Changes

One of the more notable advantages, and one that will often be touted above the rest, is the fact that in having the best locking tuners installed on your guitar – or even purchasing a guitar specifically because it comes already equipped with the best locking tuners – you are going to be spending far less time tuning the guitar back to its central equilibrium tuning (whatever that is), and far less time restringing the instrument in the first place.

Some guitarists simply do not enjoy restringing a guitar for whatever reason. I personally find it rather therapeutic and cathartic, though no doubt owing at least somewhat to the fact that I do not change them as often as I ought to.

If you are one of those guitarists, one who is driven to lunacy even by the mere thought of having to restring your guitar again – and especially if you do not have your own dedicated guitar tech around to do the dirty work for you – then you are going to want to seriously look into the acquisition and installation of some locking tuners onto your axe(s) of choice.

The restringing of an entire set of guitar strings can even take professionals in the field around 20 minutes, which can be really tiresome if you are changing strings as much as you ought to – every 100 hours of playing according to some sources.

Standard tuners slice this time apart, taking a mere few minutes in total to install a whole set of strings on a six-string guitar. There is no time wasted carefully crimping and preparing the string to be sent through the rivulet: this is not sewing or crotchet after all. Nor will there be any need to carefully measure the amounts of strings to cut off and discard, the locking tuners making this self-explanatory.

3. Neater Looking Headstock

This will likely be a point of personal preference, but some guitarists feel rather strongly about how a locking tuner can have an aesthetic effect on the overall appearance of the guitar’s headstock, grooming some of the aspects that traditional tuners might encourage regarding the threading of the string into the machine heads.

Traditional tuners, such as those that can be found on most guitars one is likely to encounter in the wild, inherently require more winding upon their poles, the extra distance theoretically enabling more room for the string to fluctuate in pitch before it becomes noticeable. With these extra lengths of string, there is therefore more string to get in the way of the appearance of the headstock, something which can bother some guitarists to the point that they simply will not be able to play the guitar in such a state.

This is, however, one of the less important benefits of using locking tuners on the guitar instead of traditional tuners, for this will certainly not matter to as many people as some of the other benefits listed above.

I have chosen to include it, though, as it is worth considering, whether as an afterthought or as something that pushes the hesitant but interested buyer over the edge of their trepidation. In these instances, it will be worth comparing such minor advantages with the following disadvantages, to weigh them on each hand and see which feels more important to you.

Drawbacks of Locking Tuners

As with almost anything, just as there are some strong positives for locking tuners, there are some negatives that you ought to consider before rushing out and purchasing a bunch of them to fit all your guitars. Such hasty decisions belie the significance that the result can have, both on the user in question and the instrument in question, and in turn can dull the significance of the medium, period.

Here are some drawbacks of using locking tuners on your guitar:

  1. Price
  2. Weight
  3. Installation
  4. Tuning

1. Price

One of the central complaints, and one that you are likely to see everywhere when looking to buy locking tuners, is the sheer price of them.

If they were not so expensive, locking tuners might even come as standard tuners on most guitars, but it is their price that prevents them from being more widespread and from being installed as standard on most guitars.

Some guitars do come out of the factory pre-installed with locking tuners, though they are almost certainly going to be in a higher price range; those in a mid to low price range are rarely if ever produced and pre-installed with locking tuners.

A standard set of locking tuners will likely cost upwards of $50, and this does not even include the price of hiring a professional guitar technician and/or luthier to get involved and potentially do the installation process for you.

When compared to the price of a set of traditional tuners (around $25) which will inherently excuse this installation price, it is no wonder why so many choose to opt simply to keep their tuners as they are, grinning and bearing any problems with tuning or temperament they might be experiencing.

This is a decision to be made based on your own taste and personal circumstances, and whether you think it justified to spend however much on a pair of locking tuners to replace those that you are already sporting.

2. Weight

Besides the heavy price, a locking tuner can also weigh a heck of a lot, especially when compared to their traditional tuner brethren. This extra weight will be negligible to some, but to those more sensitive to these sorts of things, it will be of the utmost importance. Thus, I include it here for your due consideration.

The weight difference on paper is not exactly anything to write home about, with quality tuners on average weighing between a half ounce and a whole (15 – 30 grams) heavier than traditional tuners.

Though this might seem small, this weight can, however, have a significant impact on the balance of the guitar, with the headstock weight increasing, a sensitive adjustment of weight that would be felt by the sensitive hands it is to be gripped by.

This will be more of an issue for those used to playing while standing upright, and especially for those who are not going to have much time in between the choosing of the locking tuners and their installation, and then going on tour or performing with them, as the change in weight will likely be something that takes accustoming oneself to.

3. Installation

As previously mentioned, locking tuners require a specific and dedicated setup. Now, this can of course be done by oneself, just as every aspect of the guitar (right down to the sourcing of the wood from which it is built) can be done by just about anyone with the right expertise and know-how. The act will, however, require dedication and enough base knowledge that any issues along the way can be navigated.

Besides the installation, some modifications to the entire headstock might even need to be made if the locking tuners that are bought to replace the traditional tuners already installed on the guitar are not specifically designed for, and thus incompatible with, the guitar in question. All of which take time and effort, and money if you choose to involve an outside party.

If the tuners are installed incorrectly then there are going to be even more issues with tuning and temperament on the guitar than there might otherwise have been, meaning you will have to go back on yourself and, in some of the worst instances, buy whole new headstocks and/or guitar necks to replace those which you have damaged in the process.

4. Tuning

On top of all this, they do not fully prevent the guitar in question from going out of tune! Granted, they do a better job of it than traditional tuners do, but whether this job is made worth it alongside all of the other financial, physical, and aesthetic drawbacks that come with it is really for you to decide.

There are in fact several other factors to consider when thinking about what has an impact on the tuning and temperament of strings instruments like the guitar, such as:

  • the way the strings are sat in the nut and how deep the grooves are for the strings in the nut
  • the overall intonation of the guitar, which has an effect on the relationships between different parts of the fretboard
  • the relative age of the strings on the guitar
  • the placement of the capo being askew
  • the temperature and climate of the ambient atmosphere under which the guitar is stored and most often played
  • the tuning pegs themselves

Locking tuners are not going to eradicate any problems you might be having with tuning and temperament unless, of course, those problems are only stemming from that one area.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are somewhat wiser about the wonderful world of locking tuners and are thus better equipped not only to navigate conversations, discussions, and discourses about them but can also see yourself weighing up those pros and cons internally with regard to your own guitar and your own personal circumstances.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is the point of locking tuners?

Though they are undoubtedly successful, the purpose of locking tuners is often misconstrued in the first place. Instead of assuring a guitar a totally stable tuning equilibrium, the intention with locking tuners seems more to do with attempting to perfect the art of the tuning and temperament of a guitar that is focused on the tuning heads. They work alongside the nut bordering the fretboard from the headstock, and the bridge at the very bottom of the guitar, attaching the strings to and through the body.

Are locking guitar tuners better?

This certainly remains to be assessed by each individual user. Locking tuners absolutely have their merits, providing the user with an inherently simpler method for tuning and changing their strings. The change over of one string to another string, or one string set to another string set, is going to be much faster and simpler, of special use to those who detest the procedure of changing strings. Locking tuners are, however, heavier and can be rather costly, so it is worth weighing these things up with your own wants within your own context.

How do guitar locking tuners work?

Traditional tuners work by providing a rivulet through which the string is threaded, after which it is looped around the rivulet’s pole several times to provide an adequate grip so that the string will stay as in tune as possible, using the winding of itself to grip onto. Locking tuners provide a mechanism that negates this need for several winds by coming with a system that latches onto the string, only needing a twist of a half turn to fully make contact with the string and ensure stable tuning.

Are locking tuners really worth it?

This certainly remains to be assessed by each individual user. Locking tuners absolutely have their merits, providing the user with an inherently simpler method for tuning and changing their strings. The change over of one string to another string, or one string set to another string set, is going to be much faster and simpler, of special use to those who detest the procedure of changing strings. Locking tuners are, however, heavier and can be rather costly, so it is worth weighing these things up with your own wants within your own context.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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