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Get Better Tuning Stability & Sustain: Optimizing Guitar Tuning Machines

Guitar Tuning Machine System

Get Better Tuning Stability & Sustain: Optimizing Guitar Tuning Machines

T3 guitar Tuning machine book cover resized.fwI find that many times the act of refining the smallest details of my guitar can yield big improvements in design. A mistake that is easy to make as a luthier is to feel like the path to improving your guitar consists of some monumental task like a total redesign of your bracing, a new body shape, or a radical new bridge, but I have found that a lot of the time my biggest breakthroughs come from seemingly small details that just need some fine tuning, deeper analysis, and creativity applied.

Today I want to talk to you about something that at first glance might seem like an insignificant detail, but has resulted in a noticeable improvement for me in the design of my guitars and in the way they sound, play, and look.

Foundations Anchor Points & Levers

tuning machine holeWhen I was making my first guitar I had a very limited set of tools. Among the many things I didn’t have at the time was the proper sized drill bit for my tuning machine holes. The few guitar building resources I could find back then recommended that I make the hole for the tuning machines a little oversized to allow for the lacquer overspray to build up in during the finishing process. This is common in factory guitars to avoid “wasting time” cleaning out the tuner holes during the final assembly and installation of the tuners.

This didn’t seem right to me on an intuitive level even then, but I went along with it since the only drill bit I had was a little big anyway and it seemed to work fine as far as I could tell. After I built a few guitars this way and some more time passed, I noticed some chips in the lacquer on the headstock around the edges of the washers used to secure the tuning machines. I hated that! At first, it bugged me because of the way it looked, but then I started to think a little bit about what it meant from a functional standpoint.

The fact that the washer moved enough to chip that finish meant that the string tension and vibration were actually producing micro-movements of the tuning post. That’s a big deal to me! Let me explain why:

Energy Conservation & The Guitar String

Exampl 3 guitar tuning machine postThe guitar string has a finite amount of energy loaded into it when plucked, so I don’t want to waste a single drop. The best guitars (most sensitive, responsive, dynamic, powerful,etc.) do the best job of getting more of that energy efficiently converted into a pleasing audible sound. If I spend all my time working on the bracing of the guitar and the tuning of the top, but overlook the very foundation, the anchor point of the string (the tuner) then I am missing out on a huge opportunity to increase the efficiency of converting that string energy into sound for the other parts of the guitar to utilize.

Imagine if you had a rope tied to a post and that post was loosely sitting in a hole. If you were to move the rope up and down to simulate a large scale version of the guitar string in motion, you can probably imagine that the loose fitting post would start moving all over and would be leeching a large portion of the energy you were loading into the rope. If you set that post firmly in concrete and then did the same thing to the rope you would have a very different result right?

Exampl 1 guitar tuning machine postThe same goes for the tuning machine. After I realized what was going on there, I started drilling my tuning machine holes just a touch on the tight side. Then I carefully worked the hole a little with some sandpaper or reamer to get a perfect fit for my tuner. They fit perfectly and press right into place. This little adjustment resulted in more sustain and better tuning stability AND less marking of the finish over time from the washers.

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You can try this simple change on your next guitar and maybe, more importantly, apply this way of looking at the little details for opportunities that result in big improvements across your whole guitar’s design.

The Evolution Continues

Little did I know the discoveries and realizations I described above were only the first step in this journey. Shortly after that I took my trip down to South Carolina to spend some time with archtop guitar luthier John Buscarino. When I was there John opened my eyes to an even further refinement to this aspect of this tuning machine mounting technique. I took what I learned from him and added an extra touch of my own, as we luthier’s always do, that refined and improved my guitar’s sustain and tuning stability even further. In the exclusive tutorial linked to below, I will walk you step by step through my special process and simple tooling, it’s available now in your luthier’s EDGE library.

Luthiers Edge Logo CBG V3 600 exclusive content.fw

T3 Tuning Machine Anchor System

In this Tutorial, “T3 Tuning Machine Anchor System” master luthier Tom Bills shares his insights, experience, and step by step approach to effectively using specialized tooling and design for optimizing the string anchor points and increasing sustain and tuning stability.

Tuning Machine Anchor System

  • Step By Step Photos
  • Tooling
  • Theory
  • Applications
  • Design
  • Final Fitting
  • Aesthetics
  • 31 Pages

Get This Step-By-Step Tutorial

About the Author

TomTom Bills has been hand crafting one of a kind custom guitars for the top players and collectors around the world since 1998. Tom is also the author of the guitar making book/DVD set - The Art Of Lutherie - published by Mel Bay, and has written for and been featured in may publications both in print and online as well as several television and film spots. You can view and learn more about his guitars by visiting his website: tbguitars.comView all posts by Tom →

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