My Personal Experience
When I purchased my Gibson Les Paul Standard Guitar a couple of years ago I was disappointed by how difficult it was to turn the machine head knob on the G and D Strings. I was honestly afraid that it was doing damage to the inner workings of the part. Not only was it hard to turn, it was inconsistent. This inconsistency made it almost impossible to tune precisely. I would turn the knob as slow as I could as I approached the target tone, and at the last second it would jump and I would pass the target. If I did manage to get it tuned well, it would immediately go back out of tune after the first bend on those strings.
I complained to the salesman as I was about to buy it and asked for a discount on the $2,600 price tag because clearly this was a defective product. His paraphrased response is very telling:
“Sorry, we can’t give you a discount, that is a common characteristic of the Les Paul guitars. For a $40 setup fee we can make some adjustments and it will be a little better, but it will never be as easy to tune as a guitar that has the tuners all on one side like a Fender.”
I was sat there in the “Premium Guitar” section of the store, holding my future Sunburst Les Paul Standard made in Nashville USA, being told by the salesman that this issue was typical. Of course, I did what any rational guitar player would do: I bought it anyway and spent weeks trying to make it work better myself!
The Cause of the Issue
I’m a problem solver and a Mechanical Engineer by trade. My Father was a mechanic and I’ve always repaired my own cars, trucks, motorcycles, iPhones, hot water heaters, etc. I’ve been a practicing Engineer for 17 years after being a Mechanic myself for 9 years. There was no way I was going to spend another $40 for some random guy to fix this guitar. I wanted to understand the problem, learn from it, and fix it myself. So I did some research and reflection on the design and it turns out the problem is really pretty obvious when you look closer at the design.
There are two main reasons that this type of guitar is more difficult to tune:
- The headstock angle is high on the Gibson Les Paul Guitars. This is done on purpose because some people believe that it increases sustain. You see, there is more force between the string and the guitar nut when the head is at a steep angle and there is a theory that this transmits the vibrations from the string cleaner. When you tighten the strings the increased angle pulls the strings down harder into the nut. History has shown that Gibson Customers want that feature, even if it is just a myth. They once changed the angle from 17 to 14 degrees and then later changed it back due to customer demands.
- The machine head tuning pegs are not in line with the strings because the Les Paul guitar (like many guitars) has a symmetric 3 + 3 headstock configuration (3 tuners are on the left, 3 tuners are on the right). Since the tuning pegs are not in alignment with the strings as they pass through the nut this means that the strings have to make a sharp turn at the nut. This causes a side load between the nut and string. This side load results in friction. Also, the sharp turn kinks the strings. Both the string friction, and the kinks, cause the tuning difficulties. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some way to route the strings straight through the nut without making that bend?
The Solution – Guitar Design
The problems described are well-known and have been addressed in many ways. In some cases, the problem is addressed in the base design of the guitar. For the first of the causes listed above, you just need to change the guitar head angle. This would reduce the friction a little, however, the bigger issue is really the second cause. The kinks combined with the high side load is the real issue here.
Fender guitars were designed by a man who wasn’t caught up in musical instrument tradition. Leo Fender designed a guitar that was easy to hold, tune, and mass produce and I don’t believe worried too much about how prior guitars looked. The standard Fender headstock is therefore an example of a design that is optimized for ease of tuning. It has the Tuning Pegs in line with the strings and there is NO head angle. The strings are pulled down slightly into the nut to keep them from jumping out using the familiar string trees. A straight neck is easier to manufacture and strings without kinks at the nut are easier to tune.
The Paul Reed Smith guitar head is an example of how the issue can be addressed in the base design while maintaining the 3 + 3 configuration. Notice how the strings are not kinked at the nut in the following picture.
The Solution – How to Fix This on an Existing Guitar
There are some things you can do to reduce the friction caused by the string bend/kink on the 3+3 models with this issue.
- Using a nut file you can gently round the edge of the string slots in the nut for the A, D, G, and B strings on the sides. This reduces the sharpness of the kink and the point contact load between the string and the nut at the bend. I did this with my Les Paul and it helped a little.
- You can, and should, lubricate the strings in the nut using Graphite, or nut lube. Lubrication will help a little. I did this as well and it made things a little better. But still it wasn’t enough.
- You can install an aftermarket device that routes the strings straight through the nut. Believe it or not, this exists and it works! I found a product advertised in Europe called the String Butler that did just this. When I saw the design my jaw dropped because I couldn’t believe that I didn’t think of the idea myself. I installed it on my Les Paul and now it is as easy to tune as my Stratocaster and PRS.
The Best Solution – The String Butler by Dietrich Parts
This little device mounts to most 3+3 guitars using the existing nuts and washers of a pair of the tuning pegs on your guitar. So, for most people, no permanent modification is required. Once installed it straightens the strings through the nut and it routes them to the tuning pegs using little floating rollers. It is actually shocking how well it works, how easy it is to install, and how many decades it took for it to be invented and patented. I was so impressed by it that I actually started a company to import it into the US!
If you really want to fix this issue on your guitar, for good, I recommend checking out the String Butler product info page: click here
If you already know that you must have one of these in your life click here for purchase options. Right now the String Butler is on sale and includes FREE shipping at some outlets.
You can find the inventor’s website at the following link (German Website): click here
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