Q: I’ve never had a slotted headstock guitar. Do they stay in tune as well as guitars with solid headstocks? —Jeff Fitzpatrick, Dexter, MO
A: Great question. It serves well to illustrate the universe of little details that can exist within an apparently simple feature such as the headstock shape. To begin, let’s consider some of the more common headstock-end causes for tuning problems.
On the repair bench, I often encounter strings that are not wound evenly and neatly around the string posts. Frequently, this goes along with excessive amounts of string wound around the post, which can cause the string to pile up, cross over itself, and not wind tightly around the post. In these cases, residual slack can be stored in the windings, and can slowly settle over time, causing tuning instability. Regardless of tuner or headpiece type, the strings should be wound with each wrap nice and snug against the adjacent ones, without crossing windings, and no more than three or so wraps for wound strings, and maybe four or five for plain strings.
Due to the design of slotted headpieces, the posts are more difficult to reach and the strings are harder to control as they are brought up to tension, so I often see more of these kinds of winding issues with slotted headstocks. Although it’s not the fault of the design itself, it takes a more careful approach to string correctly.
Slotted headstocks typically have a steeper break angle beyond the nut. This results in greater downward pressure on the nut itself. On occasion, particularly with softer nut materials, this pressure can cause wound strings to grab and dig into the nut material and bind up. When this happens, the strings cannot travel freely through the nut as you tighten or loosen the tuners—another very common cause for tuning issues.
At the design level, tuners for slotted headstocks have a challenge to overcome. They cannot easily be installed in bushings (the small metal cylinders that support the string post on solid pegheads). Instead, most slotted tuners simply live in holes drilled in the wood itself. These holes can sometimes get filled in with stray lacquer during finishing, or have rough interiors left behind after drilling, both of which can cause added friction and interference. Furthermore, because slotted-head string posts go through a pair of holes instead of just one, there is twice the potential for such fitting and friction problems. Careful luthiers who build slotted headstocks generally take extra time to refit and detail these holes, and some even install low-friction bushings around the posts, but many guitars are not lucky enough to get that attention.
Finally—tuners themselves have come a long way over the years. Slotted headstocks are often associated with vintage guitars, and many of those instruments come from eras when the materials, machining tolerances, and overall quality of tuners was substantially lower than today’s. Fortunately, some companies now offer tuners designed to fit vintage instruments both mechanically and visually, but with the well-cut gears and close-fitting parts that mark modern quality tuners. If carefully installed, these can make a sizeable difference in tuning accuracy and stability.
Q: I have played the classical guitar for quite a number of years and when trying to buy a new guitar, I’m invariably disappointed by a common problem. Why do so many guitars suffer from a dead G string? Is there anything I can do to avoid the situation or is it a build problem? —Keith Morris, via email
A: Ah, the G string. Obvious jokes aside, the G is easily the most problematic string on nearly every platform of guitar—classical, steel-string, or electric. One of the biggest challenges in designing a successful set of strings is maintaining an evenness and consistency of timbre and tone across the range. On classical guitars, where the repertoire often involves maintaining subtle tonal nuances while shifting between different playing positions, this becomes particularly important.
Keeping consistent tone between wound basses and plain trebles is a particularly challenging task for string designers, as the stranded core and metal wraps of bass strings are very different from the homogeneous composition of nylon trebles. Unfortunately for us, these differences tend to be most audible when the strings are particularly thin or thick.
As any material gets thicker, it gets more rigid/stiff. This stiffness interferes with the free vibration of the string, adding odd harmonics and reducing sustain. As the thickest plain string on the guitar, the G exhibits the greatest degree of these characteristics. A thinner G would likely sound more lively, but would also have lower tension, which would in turn make it sound and feel out of place with its neighbors.
To compound this, the tonal character of wound strings also varies with their thickness, and the side-by-side arrangement of the D and G can sometimes make the limitations of each more glaring by comparison.
Many classical players, both guitar and violin-family, choose strings not by the set but for each individual position, and I have known violinists who used a different brand for each of the four strings on their instrument. To be sure, string companies put great effort into designing well-matched sets. But nonetheless, it may be worth trying to mix and match to optimize your chosen set for your touch and your particular instrument. Fluorocarbon trebles are brighter and livelier than plain nylon, for example, and so your results may improve by using a carbon G mixed in with warmer, rounder nylon B and E strings.
Another thought: Since classical guitars are more lightly built than their steel-string counterparts, they can be more prone to the opening-up process that occurs during an instrument’s early life. The midrange of a guitar can often evolve quite dramatically in the first year or two after it is built. If your experience has been primarily with new instruments, it may be worth seeking out one that has already been played for at least a few years, to see if the more mature instrument has the characteristics you seek.
Finally, if you consider moving forward with a more expensive handmade guitar, I encourage you to play as many as possible, keeping an ear open for their performance in this area. Take notes of the makers, the wood choices, scale lengths, and the strings on each one, and keep track of which combinations most closely accomplish the tonal results you are seeking. If you commission a guitar from a luthier, be sure to mention this as a priority, and discuss how best to get a lively G on your custom instrument. I’ve been lucky enough to play a few classical guitars with unparalleled evenness and clarity in every range and position, and they are quite a joy to experience.
Martin Keith is a luthier, repair and restoration expert, and working musician based in Woodstock, New York.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.