Worth Upgrading To Locking Tuners? My Experience

Earlier today, the fine folks at Andertons posed this question over on Twitter:

I don’t think I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so here’s my take on it.

What Are Locking Tuners?

Normal (or non-locking tuners) rely on simple friction to grip the string. As we wind the string round the post, the friction of the string’s contact with itself overcomes the pull of the string.

Locking tuners include a built-in way of clamping the string. This might be:

  • a thumb wheel that you turn on the back of the tuner (for example, how Fender does it),
  • or it might be a slot on the top of the tuning post (for example, how PRS does it)

You can also get locking nuts (commonly found on guitars with Floyd Rose trems), where the string is clamped under a metal plate at the nut itself. A locking nut also changes the tone of your open strings compared to a plastic or bone nut. That’s a topic for another day.

Do Locking Tuners Improve Tuning Stability?

In my personal experience: no, not at all.

My PRS McCarty 594 with PRS’s excellent locking tuners does not stay in tune more than my Gibson Les Paul does. My Fender American Elite Stratocaster with Fender’s excellent locking tuners does not stay in tune more than my Fender American Performer does.

I’ve owned these guitars for many years, and I simply haven’t noticed any sort of tuning stability difference between them.

Locking nuts (as found on my old Charvel and Jackson guitars) definitely did improve tuning stability, if I was using the whammy bar. With the trems blocked off, I preferred to leave the locking nuts undone.

Can Locking Tuners Improve Tuning Stability?

When I put a new set of strings on a guitar, it takes a bit of time before the guitar will stay in tune. There are two reasons why:

  • the string needs to stretch out and become stable under tension;
  • and the string needs to stop slipping around the tuning post. It needs to find the touchpoint where there’s enough contact for the friction to overcome the pull.

Locking tuners totally eliminate the second point. There’s no need to wrap the string around the post at all: the tuner itself is applying a mechanical force to the string.

That then leads us on to the important question: which takes longer, the string stretching out, or the string friction stabilising?

I have no way of measuring either factor.

My guess is that it takes longer for the string to stretch out and settle than it does for the string’s friction around the post to become stable. It would explain my personal experience that locking tuners do not improve tuning stability. But it is just a guess.

So Why Fit Locking Tuners To Guitars?

Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve fitted locking tuners to most of my Fender & Squier guitars during the pandemic. What’s the benefit of doing that, if I don’t believe that they improve tuning stability? And why haven’t I done that to my Gibson Les Pauls?

With my Fenders, I did it to make it quicker and easier to change strings.

Some of the guitars used Fender’s vintage-style tuners. Those are the ones where you stuff the end of the string down the middle of the tuning post, instead of threading the string through a hole that goes through the tuning post. I find it so difficult to change strings with these vintage-style tuners. The top two strings (the B and E strings) just lack the friction to grip the tuning post. I’ve wasted so much time trying to work with these tuners, and I’ve wasted strings too. They had to go.

Secondly, all my Fenders use Ernie Ball strings, while my Gibsons use NYXL strings. (I love the snap of Ernie Ball strings with single coils, and how the worn-in tone of NYXLs stop humbuckers from being overly harsh.) The Ernie Ball strings need changing more frequently. I find it a little quicker to change strings on guitars that have locking tuners.

So, for me, it’s just a convenience thing.

I haven’t done it to the Gibsons partly because I don’t change the strings that often (I probably should!), and partly because I don’t have the same motivation. With the Fenders, I started doing it because I found it frustrating to use the stock tuners. That simply hasn’t been the case with the stock Gibson tuners.

Final Thoughts

To answer the question: are they a must-have? For me: no, but they’re not an unnecessary addition either.

When I’m buying a guitar, I don’t care whether the guitar or not has locking tuners. If I’m upgrading the tuners (e.g. getting rid of the Fender vintage-style ones), then I’ll definitely take advantage of that to switch over to locking tuners. It makes changing strings easier.

If you’re specifically after better tuning stability though, I don’t think that locking tuners helps you there.

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