Published On: Tue, Dec 3rd, 2013

Vintage – Willing and Stable

Tone, weight, looks, comfort, neck feel… many and varied are the reasons that we adore a guitar, but one crucial quality often gets lost in the mix. Phil Harris reminds us of a factor that can often send a guitar to the block

Some guitars can be put in a case for years, and they’ll still be in tune when you take them out; with others, you can put on a stand for 10 minutes and when you pick it up again you’ll swear that a three-year-old had messed with the machineheads while your back was turned.

As any guitar player will tell you (from bitter experience), a guitar can be great to look at and sound wonderful, but if your beloved instrument can’t stay in tune for very long then your life can get extremely frustrating. In fact, certain guitars make you tempted to do your best Pete Townshend impersonation.

As a pro player all my main guitars were structurally sound – you could throw them against the wall and they’d stay in tune. However, back in 1973 I bought a ’63 SG Special that I loved. However, the tuning problems needed to be addressed, and I spent a lot of time trying to work out how players such as Clapton and Santana managed. As they were using Grover Rotomatic kidney-buttoned machineheads, I duly put Grovers on mine. Apart from making it look better, it didn’t make a bit of difference.

So when investigating tuning stability, of course you should check all aspects of the machineheads. However, you should also check out other aspects – especially the neck. If it has a tendency to ‘wander’ then you’ll need to get it sorted, or select another guitar.

Dan Armstrong Plexiglass 1969

1969 – Dan Armstrong
The first Dan Armstrong I bought in 1972 had the thinnest neck of the three types that were made, and it had lots of ‘wander’. This one, bought 20 years ago, has the biggest, most stable neck – which is one of the many reasons why it’s a real keeper until I meet the Grim Reaper

Fender Strat 1961 PH

1961 Fender Stratocaster
When it comes to tuning stability, Strats are generally as solid as the most solid thing you can imagine. It would take a proper act of violence to destabilise this one, and it’s not a course of action I’d recommend

Gibson Les Paul custom 1968 PH

1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom
Compared to its ’58 or even ’56 ancestors, a ’68 Custom has an oversized neck, which makes it a joy for lead players. Find some early David Bowie footage and you’ll see Mick Ronson pushing and pulling the neck on his ’68 to get vibrato without ever reaching for the machineheads

 fender tele 69 PH

1969 Fender Telecaster
The only time you’ll come across a Telecaster with tuning problems is when there’s actually something broken, such as one of the tuning pegs. If tuning stability is your number one priority, then look no further than a Tele

Gibson SG Jr 1962 PH

1962 Gibson SG Junior
Play this one in your living room or in the studio, and it’s wonderful. Play it on stage, though, and the tuning problems of many SGs can be a real challenge. What’s more, it’s not down to the machineheads – it’s got the same Kluson gearing Fender used on Strats and Teles in the ’50s. It’s just that the neck is thin and structurally weak

rickenbacker 325 1964 PH

1964 Rickenbacker 325
There are lots of reasons to rate John Lennon, but though you can talk about his songwriting and his political and cultural achievements, to my mind not enough credit is given to him for his ability to keep a three-quarter scale Ricky in tune. The necks can move faster than Usain Bolt!



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