Tuning machines aren’t typically something us guitarists think about a lot. We may consider whether we want locking tuners or not, but that’s usually as far as it goes. However, the evolution of guitar tuners is actually quite remarkable and reflects the evolution of the guitar itself—starting with humble beginnings, eventually becoming much more complex and carefully designed pieces of technology.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of guitar tuners and the various guitar tuning machine types that have been developed over the years. From slotted headstocks and friction pegs to electronic auto-tuners, get ready to take a deep dive into a part of the guitar you probably haven’t thought much about.
Prior to the 1800s, guitars typically had tuners that are known as friction pegs. These are the most basic style of tuner, and the design is simple but effective. Friction pegs consist of a tapered peg with a hole in the top that is put into the headstock of an instrument. The string is then fed through the hole at the top, and the peg is twisted until the string is in tune. Because the pegs are tapered and create friction, they stay securely in the guitar and keep the strings in tune.
These tuners were widespread and used on most instruments prior to the 1800s. Geared tuners had yet to be invented, and friction pegs could be crafted entirely by a luthier without anything other than wood. While most of the guitar world has moved on from friction pegs, they are still common on other instruments such as violins or traditional style banjos.
Though friction pegs served their purpose as an early tuning mechanism, they fell out of favor as more advanced and better tuning machines became available—most notably, geared tuning machines and slotted headstocks.
The most important invention when it comes to tuning machines is likely the geared tuning machine. Early gear tuners are very similar to the ones still used today, though less complex. Geared tuners use a gear for each tuning peg to turn them and keep them in place. These tuners were more reliable and consistent than friction pegs, so it’s no surprise they quickly became the standard.
However, the early implementations of geared tuning machines look a bit different than what you’d see on most modern guitars. Instead of the modern Gibson or Fender style tuning set-up, these guitars typically used the slotted headstock design still seen on many classical guitars.
The slotted headstock design was incredibly popular in the 1800s, as well as the early 1900s before the vintage style tuning machines became the standard for most guitars. Though they look very different from a standard headstock, they actually function in a very similar way. Instead of the peg coming up out of the headstock vertically, two large strips are cut out of the headstock so the pegs can be inserted horizontally. From there, it’s the same concept as a modern guitar—the string goes through the hole, and the geared tuner keeps them in tune.
Just like friction tuners, the slotted headstock design has largely fallen to the wayside in favor of the more modern tuning set up. Though they are common in classical music and can still be found on some steel string acoustics, most guitars now feature the modern design. Functionality wise, slotted headstocks work about just as well as modern tuning set-ups. One of the main reasons they were abandoned by many manufacturers and players is fragility, as they tend to break or crack more easily than solid headstocks.
Vintage and Modern Style Tuning Machines
It may seem odd to lump vintage and modern style tuning machines into one category, but they are almost the same thing with a few slight differences. As geared tuners became more popular alongside slotted headstocks, people started to come up with other ways to implement them on guitars—most notably, without slotting the headstock. Companies like Martin began putting geared tuners through the headstock in the iconic modern style, and it quickly became the standard for guitars.
Functionally, these style tuning machines are the same as the tuners on a slotted headstock; a peg is attached to gears, the string is fed through a hole in the peg, and the gears are used to keep the string in tune. The only real difference is that they are put upright through six holes in the headstock of being put horizontally via a slotted headstock.
So what’s the difference between vintage and modern style? As expected, vintage style tuning machines are a bit more primitive. Prior to the end of World War Two, nearly all tuners were open back, meaning the gear(s) in the back were open and exposed. When the war ended and materials and manufacturing capability were more accessible, closed back tuners became more popular. That said, there are both closed and open back vintage tuners.
More importantly though, vintage tuners (closed or open) typically have a lower gear ratio than modern style tuners. Put simply, the ratio is how many times you have to turn the tuner to get one full rotation of the peg. Modern tuners have much higher ratios than vintage ones, giving you more precise control over tuning.
One last note is that there are also vintage style tuners, such as Fender’s, which use a slightly different mechanism for securing the string. Instead of feeding the string through a hole in the side of the post, they are fed through a hole in the top of the post. From there, they function just like other modern or vintage tuners. Many players prefer these style tuners to this day due to the look and ease of re-stringing, as well as stability.
Locking Tuning Machines
The next big invention in the world of tuners was locking tuning machines. Chances are you’ve heard of and probably used these style tuners at some point. Locking tuners were invented by Sperzel in 1983, and they allowed for even more tuning stability than the modern style tuners.
Locking tuners look nearly identical to modern style tuners, and they function nearly the same way too. The big difference however is that locking tuners feature a post that comes up from inside the tuning peg, allowing you to clamp down and lock the string in place by twisting a knob on the back of the tuning machine. This solves the decades long issue of strings going out of tune due to the wraps on the tuning post slipping. These tuners provide unmatched tuning stability, which is why they’ve become so popular.
Even though locking tuners seem to have settled all the issues with guitar tuning, they aren’t the last innovation in the world of guitar tuning machines. There are two inventions in the tuning world that, despite not becoming widespread, may indicate what the future holds for guitar tuning.
Gibson introduced a roboting self-tuning system that automatically tunes your guitar for you. You can set what tuning you like, and the system will immediately get your entire guitar in tune on its own. While Gibson’s launch wasn’t exactly successful, they are still an interesting piece of technology that may give us a glimpse into a future where our guitars tune themselves.
Another interesting invention is the Evertune bridge. Though the Evertune isn’t an actual set of tuning machines, it still has a remarkable impact on how guitar tuning works. The Evertune uses a complicated mechanism based on springs to keep your guitar permanently in tune. Once your guitar is tuned how you want it, it will stay in tune until you need to change strings. The Evertune has been more successful than Gibson’s robot tuners but still hasn’t become a widespread thing. Still, it is another interesting glimpse into what the future of guitar tuning may hold.
Tuners may just be a means to an end, but they are an important part of our guitars. Much like guitars themselves, tuning machines have evolved from simple and primitive designs to incredibly complex and involved pieces of modern technology. These improvements in the world of tuning machines have given guitarists more options and the ability to better keep our guitars in tune. As the future brings more new technology to the world of guitar tuning machines, it will be interesting to see how it impacts the world of guitar.