The tuning pegs, also known as machine heads, are one of the most important parts of a guitar. They allow players to adjust the tension of each string and fine-tune the instrument to achieve the desired sound.
However, not all tuning pegs are created equal. In fact, there are several types of tuning pegs, each with its own unique features and benefits.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the different types of guitar tuning pegs, explore their pros and cons, and provide you with everything you need to know to make an informed decision when choosing the right tuning pegs for your guitar.
What are the tuning pegs?
Tuning pegs are mechanical devices found on the headstock of stringed instruments used to tighten or loosen the strings to achieve the desired pitch.
They consist of a shaft with a circular head that passes through a hole in the headstock and has a gear mechanism for adjustment. The head of the peg is usually textured for better grip.
By adjusting the tension with the tuning peg, the player can ensure that the instrument is in tune and ready to be played.
Open-gear vs. Enclosed-gear machines
When it comes to installing tuning pegs on your guitar, there are various types of geared tuning machines to choose from. Two popular options are open-gear and enclosed-gear machines.
Open-gear machines are the more traditional choice, with exposed gears that rotate as you turn the tuning key. These machines are often less expensive than enclosed-gear options and are generally easier to maintain, as it is easier to access the moving parts.
However, open-gear machines are more vulnerable to dust and debris, which can impact their performance over time.
Enclosed-gear machines are newer and typically more expensive. These machines are fully enclosed, which helps to protect the internal workings from dirt and dust. They also tend to be more precise and stable, as the gears are less exposed to wear and tear.
Yet, if something goes wrong with an enclosed-gear machine, it may be more difficult to diagnose and repair.
Types of the guitar tuning pegs
Now that you know what tuning pegs are, let’s take a closer look at the various types of guitar tuning pegs, their characteristics, and their pros and cons.
Sealed machine heads
Sealed machine heads, also known as enclosed machine heads or sealed tuners, are a type of tuning mechanism that is completely enclosed in a protective housing. This design prevents dirt, dust, and other debris from entering the internal mechanism of the tuner, ensuring that the machine heads function smoothly and last longer.
One important advantage of sealed machine heads is that they are pre-lubricated during assembly, and the lubricant is sealed in by the protective housing. This means that the machine heads will continue to function smoothly for many years without the need for additional lubrication.
Sealed machine heads are commonly used on guitars in performance settings, where reliable tuning is essential. They are the most common type of machine head used on guitars and are available in various quality levels, depending on the brand that made them.
Sealed guitar machine heads can be Inline or Left and right.
Types of Sealed machine heads
- Inline tuners
Inline tuners are a type of guitar tuning mechanism in which all the tuning pegs face the same direction and stick out on one side of the headstock.
This makes it easy to identify them because they are all the same.
If your guitar has all of its machine heads on the same side of the headstock, then it likely has inline tuners.
These tuners are commonly used on electric guitars and are often found in sets of six, although they can also be used in sets of four or even seven, depending on the guitar model. Overall, inline tuners are a popular and practical option for guitarists who value simplicity and ease of use.
- Left and right tuners
Left and right tuners, also known as 3+3 tuners, are a type of guitar tuning mechanism in which three tuners are mounted on one side of the headstock, and the other three are mounted on the opposite side. These tuning pegs are designed to be mounted on one side only and cannot be easily turned over to fit on the other side.
Left and right tuners are commonly found on acoustic guitars and some electric guitars. They are often used in sets of six, although they can also be used in four or even seven, depending on the guitar model. While they may be a bit more challenging to install than inline tuners, left and right tuners offer several advantages, including a sleeker appearance and a more balanced weight distribution across the headstock.
How to install Sealed machine heads
Steps to install sealed guitar tuning pegs:
- Pass the tuning peg shaft through the hole in the headstock, which is typically 3/8″ but may vary up to 10 mm.
- Insert a threaded bushing and washer through the same hole in the headstock.
- Fasten the tuner base to the bushing to secure it in place.
- Use a screw or indexing pin to prevent the tuning peg from rotating in the hole. A screw is more common on the back of the tuner, but some manufacturers use pins.
- Tighten the bushing to hold the sealed tuning peg securely in place.
- Alternatively, use a nut and washer instead of a bushing, and measure the hole in the headstock to ensure the correct type is used.
Sealed machine heads pros
Sealed machine heads offer several advantages, including:
- Protection: The sealed design of the tuners prevents dirt, dust, and other debris from entering the internal mechanism. This protects the internal components from damage and extends the lifespan of the tuners.
- Lubrication: Sealed tuners are lubricated during assembly and are permanently lubricated. This means that they will function smoothly for a longer period of time without the need for additional lubrication.
- Stability: Sealed machine heads are less likely to slip or go out of tune, as the internal mechanism is protected and lubricated.
- Aesthetics: The sealed design of the tuners can provide a cleaner look to the guitar’s headstock, as there are no exposed gears or screws.
- Performance: Sealed machine heads are often of higher quality than other types of tuners, which can result in better overall performance and tuning stability.
Sealed machine heads cons
Here are some potential cons of using sealed machine heads on a guitar:
- Limited customization: Sealed machine heads typically come in a specific size and style, which may limit your ability to customize your guitar’s appearance.
- Cost: They can be more expensive than other types of tuners, which may not be ideal for guitarists on a budget.
- Maintenance: While sealed machine heads are designed to be low maintenance, they are also difficult to repair or replace if they do become damaged.
- Weight: Sealed machine heads can be heavier than other types of tuners, which can affect the balance and overall feel of the guitar.
Vintage open-back machine heads
Vintage open-back machine heads are a type of tuning peg commonly found on older guitars or those designed with a vintage look. They are sometimes called “vintage-style” or “vintage-look” machine heads.
As the name suggests, these tuners have an open back design, which exposes the gears and internal mechanism to the elements. Unlike sealed machine heads, they do not have a protective housing, making them more susceptible to dirt, dust, and debris entering and affecting the tuning stability.
However, the vintage open-back design is desirable for some guitarists as it adds to the instrument’s aesthetic. They can also be easier to repair or replace than sealed machine heads, as they do not require disassembling a housing.
Additionally, some players argue that the exposed gears provide a smoother and more tactile tuning experience.
Types of Vintage open-back machine heads
A few styles of vintage open-back tuners are still available on the market, although they are not as commonly used as before. These include:
- Inline tuners
These were popular in the 1950s and 1960s and were commonly used on guitars such as the Fender Telecaster. However, sealed machine heads have now become the more common choice.
- Left and right tuners
These are the most commonly used tuners, especially on acoustic guitars.
- Gear ratio tuners
These are a specialty item produced by Graph Tech. They have been designed to allow for fine-tuning based on the thickness of the strings. The higher the gear ratio number, the more precise the tuning can be. These tuners are great for replacing vintage tuners on guitars like the Fender Stratocaster.
How to install Vintage open-back machine heads
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to install vintage open-back tuners on a guitar:
- Place the tuner onto the headstock so that the holes for the screws align with the pre-drilled holes in the headstock.
- Use a screwdriver to screw the tuner down to the back of the headstock using the provided screws.
- Push the alignment bushing into the hole in the headstock, ensuring it is straight.
- Repeat steps 1-3 for the remaining tuners.
- Once all tuners are installed, attach the strings and tune the guitar.
Vintage open-back machine heads pros
Here are some pros of vintage open-back machine heads:
- Classic look: Vintage open-back machine heads can add a classic and retro look to a guitar, especially when used on older models or replicas of vintage guitars.
- Lightweight: Open-back machine heads tend to be lighter than their sealed counterparts, which can help reduce the overall weight of the guitar.
- Easy to repair: Open-back machine heads are simpler in design than sealed ones, making them easier to repair and replace if needed.
- More affordable: In general, vintage open-back machine heads tend to be more affordable than sealed ones, making them a good choice for those on a budget or looking to save money on a guitar build or repair.
Vintage open-back machine heads cons
The cons of vintage open-back machine heads are:
- Lack of precision: Compared to modern sealed machine heads, vintage open-back tuners may not be as precise in tuning, which can be a challenge for players who require very accurate tuning.
- Higher maintenance: Due to their exposed design, vintage open-back machine heads may require more frequent maintenance and cleaning to prevent corrosion and wear and tear.
- String slippage: The lack of a locking mechanism on vintage open-back tuners can result in string slippage, which can be frustrating for players trying to keep their guitars in tune.
- Limited options: Since vintage open-back tuners are no longer commonly used, there may be limited options for replacement or upgrade parts.
Vintage closed-back machine heads
The vintage closed-back machine heads are similar to the open-back type, but they feature a casing that covers the worm screw gears. They are mounted using the same method, which involves a bushing pressed into the headstock hole to support the post.
Types of Vintage closed-back machine heads
There are three types of closed-back tuners available:
- Left and right tuners
The inline and 3-per-side options function similarly to vintage open-back tuners, with the addition of protective housing over the gears to shield them from damage.
On the other hand, the plate-mounted style combines all three machine heads per side onto a single, long plate. This design prevents twisting and provides additional support.
Additionally, the plate-mounted style only requires four screws to secure the assembly to the headstock. Each gear is protected by its own casing, guarding against the accumulation of dirt and debris.
How to install Vintage closed-back machine heads
Step-by-step guide on mounting closed-back tuners to the headstock:
For inline and 3-per-side vintage closed-back tuners:
- Place the tuner onto the headstock in the desired position.
- Insert the alignment bushing into the hole on the back of the headstock.
- Insert the screws through the holes on the tuner and into the alignment bushing.
- Tighten the screws securely to fasten the tuner in place.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for each tuner.
- Note that the only difference between these closed-back tuners and the open-back style is the protective cover over the gears.
For plate-mounted closed-back tuners:
- Place the plate onto the headstock in the desired position.
- Insert screws through the holes on the plate and into the headstock.
- Tighten the screws securely to fasten the plate in place.
- Attach the tuning pegs to the plate, ensuring that each gear is encased to protect against dirt and debris.
- Note that the plate-mounted style combines all three machine heads per side onto a long, single plate, which adds support and prevents twisting.
Vintage closed-back machine heads pros
- Improved tuning stability: Closed-back machine heads offer improved tuning stability compared to open-back machine heads. The protective housing over the gears helps to keep them in place, reducing the chance of slipping or losing tension.
- Enhanced durability: The protective housing over the gears also provides additional durability, protecting them from damage due to impacts, dirt, and debris.
- Vintage look: Closed-back machine heads are commonly associated with vintage guitars, and many guitar players appreciate the vintage aesthetic they provide.
- More precise tuning: The enclosed gears in closed-back machine heads offer more precise tuning than open-back machine heads, as they are less likely to slip or shift.
Vintage closed-back machine heads cons
While vintage closed-back machine heads offer several benefits, they also have some potential downsides, including:
- Heavier weight: Closed-back machine heads tend to be heavier than open-back machine heads due to the additional material required for the protective housing over the gears. This extra weight can affect the overall balance of the guitar and may not be preferred by some guitar players.
- More difficult to replace: If a closed-back machine head needs to be replaced, finding an exact replacement can be more challenging due to the various styles and options available.
- Higher cost: Closed-back machine heads are often more expensive than open-back machine heads, which may not be ideal for guitar players on a tight budget.
- More complex design: The enclosed gears in closed-back machine heads can make them more complex to manufacture and repair, requiring additional skill and expertise to maintain and service.
- Limited customization: Closed-back machine heads may not offer as many customization options as open-back machine heads, which can limit a guitar player’s ability to modify their guitar to their desired specifications.
Side-mounted machine heads
Side mounted machine heads use a plate to support each tuner and are typically only used in classical or flamenco guitars. Unlike closed-back machine heads, they are open, which exposes the gears to dust and dirt.
This design is exclusively 3 in line, with the knobs pointing toward the back of the headstock. The side-mounted machine heads are attached to the side of the headstock, and the tuner posts sit in two grooves to allow them access to the strings.
Side-mounted machine heads have a vintage aesthetic and are recognizable by their plastic knobs. These machine heads are made specifically for nylon strings, and the posts are primarily plastic.
How to install Side mounted machine heads
Follow these steps to install side-mounted machine heads:
- Obtain a plate with three machine heads in line.
- Insert each machine head into the corresponding hole on the classical guitar headstock.
- Fasten the machine heads to the headstock with screws.
- The classical guitar headstock typically features three wide grooves to hold the tuner posts, with one side of each post supported by wood, simplifying the installation process.
Side mounted machine heads pros
Here are some potential pros of side-mounted machine heads:
- Classic look: They have a traditional, vintage aesthetic that complements classical or flamenco guitars.
- Easy installation: Side-mounted machine heads typically come on plates of three in line, simplifying the installation process.
- Cost-effective: Side-mounted options are often more affordable compared to other machine heads.
- Lightweight: Since side-mounted tuning pegs are designed for nylon strings, they are typically lightweight, which can help keep the guitar’s overall weight down.
Side mounted machine heads cons
Here are some cons of side-mounted machine heads:
- Limited options: Side-mounted machine heads are primarily designed for classical or flamenco guitars that use nylon strings, so they may not be suitable for other types of guitars or string materials.
- Vulnerable to damage: The exposed gears on side-mounted machine heads can be more susceptible to damage from dust, dirt, or impact.
- Reduced tuning stability: Side-mounted machine heads may not offer the same level of tuning stability as other types of machine heads due to their design.
- Limited tuning range: Depending on the placement of the machine heads, side-mounted options may have a more limited tuning range than other types of machine heads.
- Limited customization: Since side-mounted machine heads typically come on plates of three in line, there may be fewer options for customizing the tuning configuration of the guitar.
What are Staggered machine heads?
Staggered machine heads are tuning pegs that come in different lengths, and they’re helpful for guitars with straight headstocks.
Straight headstocks can make it hard to get the right amount of pressure on the strings, which can cause buzzing and affect the sound.
The height of each tuning peg is different, with the shortest one for the highest-pitched string and the tallest one for the lowest-pitched string. This ensures that each string has the right amount of pressure to sound good. Staggered tuners are especially useful for Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars.
What are Locking tuners?
Locking tuners function similarly to regular tuning machines but are specifically designed to enhance tuning stability and simplify string changes. They utilize a retention mechanism or pin that clamps the strings in place, preventing slippage while playing. Locking the strings in place eliminates the need to wrap them around the tuner posts, which allows for faster and more convenient string changes, particularly useful in live performances.
Tremolo-equipped guitars, like the Fender Stratocaster or PRS Custom 24, benefit greatly from locking tuners. When using the tremolo arm or bending strings, the winding around the posts may loosen due to tension fluctuations, causing the guitar to be slightly out of tune. Locking tuners provide superior and more consistent tuning stability by eliminating the need to wrap the strings around the posts.
What is the tuning pegs gear ratio?
The tuning pegs gear ratio refers to the ratio of the number of turns of the tuning peg to the corresponding change in pitch of the guitar string. In other words, it measures how much the pitch of the string changes with each turn of the tuning peg.
Most guitar tuning pegs have a gear ratio of around 14:1 or 18:1. A gear ratio of 14:1 means that it takes 14 turns of the tuning peg to change the pitch of the string by one full step (from E to F#). A gear ratio of 18:1 means that it takes 18 turns of the tuning peg to change the string’s pitch by one full step.
Higher gear ratios, such as 18:1, can allow for more precise tuning adjustments and finer control over the pitch of the string. However, lower gear ratios, such as 14:1, can make it easier to make larger tuning adjustments more quickly.
The gear ratio of tuning pegs can vary between different brands and models of guitars, and some guitar players may prefer a particular gear ratio based on their playing style or personal preference.
Different types of machine heads for every guitar
Different types of guitars use different types of tuning pegs.
Tuning pegs for acoustic guitars
Acoustic guitars are typically strung with steel strings and require machine heads that are capable of handling the high tension of those strings. Some recommended machine heads for acoustic guitars include:
- Grover 406C6 Mini Locking Rotomatics: These machine heads have an 18:1 gear ratio, which makes it easier to make small adjustments to the tuning. They also have a locking mechanism that keeps the guitar in tune.
- Schaller GrandTune: These machine heads have an 18:1 gear ratio, a solid brass housing, and a special lubricant that makes tuning smoother.
Tuning pegs for electric guitars
Electric guitars are often strung with lighter strings than acoustic guitars and require machine heads that are responsive to subtle adjustments. Some recommended machine heads for electric guitars include:
- Hipshot Grip-Lock Open Gear: These machine heads have an 18:1 gear ratio and a locking mechanism that keeps the guitar in tune.
- Gotoh SG381: These machine heads have a 16:1 gear ratio and a specially designed lubricant that ensures smooth tuning.
Tuning pegs for classical guitars
Classical guitars are typically strung with nylon strings and require machine heads that are specifically designed to work with those strings. Some recommended machine heads for classical guitars include:
- Rubner Classical Guitar Tuners: These machine heads are made of aged ebony and offer a smooth and precise tuning experience.
- Gotoh 35G1800 Classical Guitar Tuners: These machine heads have a 1:18 gear ratio and are made of high-quality materials that ensure a long-lasting and precise tuning experience.
How to choose the right machine heads for your guitar
Choosing the right machine heads for your guitar is important as it can impact your playing experience. Here are some factors to consider when selecting machine heads:
The machine heads you choose should be compatible with your string gauge. Using heavier gauge strings may require machine heads with a higher gear ratio to provide more tension.
Machine heads with a locking mechanism provide better tuning stability compared to non-locking ones. If you use a tremolo system, locking machine heads are a better choice to keep your guitar in tune.
Personal playing style
Your personal playing style can also influence the type of machine heads you choose. If you play a lot of bends and vibratos, machine heads with a higher gear ratio can help you achieve better pitch accuracy.
Choosing the perfect guitar tuning pegs is critical for maintaining accurate tuning. Understanding the differences between different types can help you make an informed decision for your guitar and playing style. By selecting the right tuning pegs, you’ll be able to achieve optimal tuning accuracy and improve your overall playing experience.