Guitar tuners: a complete guide to tuning keys & buying guide

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

Always the latest guitar gear & tricks?

Subscribe to THE newsletter for aspiring guitarists

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

hi there I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

When you first start playing guitar, the process of tuning your instrument can seem a bit daunting.

After all, there are at least six strings that need to be in tune before you can even begin to play a note!

However, once you understand how guitar tuning keys work, the process becomes much simpler.

Guitar tuners: a complete guide to tuning keys & buying guide

A guitar, whether it’s electric or acoustic, is made up of many parts and components.

One of these essential parts is the tuning key or tuning peg. The tuning keys are what you use to tune your guitar strings. They are located on the headstock of the guitar, and each string has its own tuning key.

You might be wondering, what are guitar tuning pegs and what are they used for?

In this guide, we’ll take a look at everything you need to know about tuning keys, from how they work and how to use them to what to look for when buying new machine heads or a new guitar.

What is a guitar tuner?

Guitar tuning keys, also called tuning pegs, guitar tuners, machine heads, and tuning keys are the devices that hold the strings of a guitar in place and allow the guitarist to tune their instrument.

While there are many different names for tuning pegs, they all serve the same purpose: to keep your guitar in tune.

The tuning keys allow the player to adjust the instrument’s string tension.

Each string has its own tuning key, so when you tune your guitar, you are actually adjusting the tension of each string individually.

Depending on the guitar, machine heads or tuning pegs look like small knobs, screws, or levers and are located on the headstock.

The headstock is the part of the guitar located at the end of the neck and contains the tuning keys, nut, and strings.

Guitar strings are wrapped around the tuning keys and tightened or loosened to tune the guitar.

One tuning peg is located at the end of each string.

There’s a cylinder, and it sits in the pinion gear. There’s a worm gear that’s used to rotate the cylinder. The worm gear is turned by the handle.

Basically, when you thread the string through this cylinder you can either tighten or loosen it as you turn the knob/peg and change the pitch.

All of this is encased in housing, which is the plastic or metal casing that you see on the outside of the tuning peg.

The different parts of the tuning peg work together to keep the string tight, in tune, and secure.

There are many different types of guitar tuners, but they all function in basically the same way.

The main difference between different types of tuning keys is the number of strings they hold and how they are arranged.

For example, some tuning keys hold all six strings while others only hold two or three.

Some tuning keys are placed side-by-side while others are placed on top of each other.

The most important thing to remember about guitar tuning keys is that they keep your guitar in tune.

Without tuning keys, your guitar would quickly fall out of tune and would be difficult to play.

It’s also important to know that all guitars, whether electric, acoustic, or bass, have tuning keys.

Knowing how to use tuning keys is an essential part of playing the guitar.

Buying guide: what to know about tuning pegs?

A good tuning key or tuning peg should be easy to use, durable, and accurate.

It should be easy to use so that you can quickly and easily tune your guitar.

It should be durable so that it can withstand the wear and tear of tuning your guitar. And it should be accurate so that your guitar stays in tune.

When it comes to guitar tuning pegs, sealed machine locking tuners are generally preferred by many guitarists.

It’s because they prevent the string from slipping and protect the gears by keeping them enclosed.

Vintage tuners from brands like Waverly are also amazing and work well but can be pricy.

There are several features and factors to consider when buying tuners. I’ll go over them right now.

Because after all, it’s about more than just design and material.

Luckily, modern die-cast tuners are generally well made so you should have no problems with them for a few years or even decades if you spend more on some really high-quality ones!

Tuner ratio

When you buy tuners, the manufacturer will specify the ratio which is written as two numbers with a semicolon : in the middle (for example 6:1).

The two-digit number indicates how many times the tuning peg’s button must be turned so the string post makes a full revolution.

In other words, this amount is the number of times you need to turn the tuning peg’s button in order to completely tighten or loosen the string.

The second number, which is always one higher than the first, tells you how many times the tuning peg’s shaft will turn in one complete button turn.

For example, a 6:1 ratio tuning peg will make the shaft turn six times for every 1 time you turn the button.

A lower gear ratio number means that you have to turn the button fewer times for a full revolution while a higher gear ratio number means you have to turn the button more times for a full revolution.

But a higher gear ratio is actually better. Expensive guitar tuners often boast a ratio of 18:1 while cheaper ones have a ratio as low as 6:1.

The better-quality guitars can be finetuned and are better for professional musicians to use.

What does this mean for you?

A higher gear ratio is better because it’s more precise.

It’s easier to get an accurate tuning with a higher gear ratio because the smaller increments of turning make it easier to fine-tune your guitar.

If you have a lower gear ratio, it’s going to be harder to get an accurate tuning because the larger increments of turning make it more difficult to fine-tune your guitar.

Tuning peg design

Not all tuning keys look the same. Some look cooler than others and while appearance isn’t automatically correlated with better functionality or quality, in this instance, it usually is.

There are three primary ways that tuning keys are designed and each one has its own advantages and disadvantages.

First, let’s look at the shapes of tuning keys:

Tuning keys come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all serve the same purpose.

The most common shape is the knob, which is a small, round piece that you turn to loosen or tighten the string.

The second most common shape is the screw, which is a small, cylindrical piece that you turn to loosen or tighten the string.

The third most common shape is the lever, which is a small, rectangular piece that you push to loosen or tighten the string.

Tuner models


The Roto-grip is a type of tuning key that has a knob on one end and a screw on the other.

The advantage of this design is that it is easy to use and very versatile.

The disadvantage of this design is that it can be difficult to grip, especially if your hands are sweaty.


The Sperzel is a type of tuning key that has two screws side-by-side.

The advantage of this design is that it is very sturdy and will not slip.

Sperzel tuners are also very popular with guitarists who play a lot of fast, aggressive music.

The disadvantage of this design is that it can be difficult to use if you have large hands.


The Goto is a type of tuning key that has a knob on one end and a lever on the other.

The advantage of this design is that it is easy to use and very versatile because the lever is easily twistable.


The thumbscrew is a type of tuning key that has a small screw on one end and a larger screw on the other.

The disadvantage of this design is that the screws can be difficult to tighten or loosen if you have large hands.


The Butterbean is a type of tuning key that has a knob on one end and a screw on the other. This design is common on slotted pegheads.

The slotted peghead is the most common type of peghead and can be found on both acoustic and electric guitars.

3-on-a-plank tuners

3-on-a-plank tuners are exactly what they sound like: three tuning keys on a single strip of wood. This design is common on acoustic guitars.

Types of tuners

When we talk about guitar tuning pegs or keys, there isn’t just one type.

In fact, there are many styles of tuners and some are better suited for certain types of guitars than others.

Let’s take a look at the different types:

Standard tuner

A standard (non-locking) tuner is the most common type of tuner. It does not have a clamping mechanism, so the string is not locked into place.

The standard tuner configuration has the strings spaced evenly across the headstock.

Standard tuners use a friction fit to hold the string in place. They are easy to use and are found on most entry-level guitars.

You can also call them non-staggered machine heads or tuners.

The standard tuner configuration works well for most guitars and is used on electric, acoustic, and classical guitars.

When it comes to buying tuners, the classic ones are the best option because there are so many brands, styles, and finishes to choose from for all budgets.

These tuners are very simple: you put the guitar string through the hole and then wind it around the tuning post until it is tight.

To loosen the string, you simply unscrew the tuning post.

In many cases, changing strings with traditional tuners is an enjoyable ritual for a guitarist because it’s not that hard.

In addition, you may not want to alter the appearance of your guitar in any way, let alone drill new holes in the delicate headstock of your instrument.

When you use direct replacements (the same model of tuning peg), the holes all line up, there are no holes left showing, and you can keep on restringing and optimization like you always have, making it much easier to put on the tuners.

The weight of traditional tuners is another reason to choose them.

Even if you don’t add any additional components to the headstock itself, it will shift the guitar’s center of gravity.

In a traditional tuner, there is the post, gear, bushing, and knob and it’s pretty lightweight.

When multiplied by six, the addition of an additional knob and locking post can result in unsteady operation.

The main benefit of this type of tuner is that it is less expensive than a locking tuner.

But traditional tuners are not designed for cheap guitars by any means. In fact, most Stratocasters and Les Paul guitars are still equipped with non-locking tuners.

However, because the string is not locked in place, there is more potential for slippage, which can cause tuning issues.

That’s the main disadvantage of standard tuners: they are not as stable as locking tuners and can come loose over time.

This can cause string slippage so your guitar can actually go out of tune.

Locking tuners

Traditionally the string is wound around the classic tuner which can cause some string slippage while playing.

The locking tuner essentially locks the string into place on the post because it has a retaining mechanism.

This prevents the string from slipping as you don’t have to wind the string more than just once.

A locking tuner is one that has a clamping mechanism to keep the string in place while you play.

Basically, locking tuners are a type of tuning key that is used to keep the string from slipping out of tune.

But the reason why some players prefer locking tuners is that it takes less time to change strings, and this is convenient no doubt.

Locking tuners are more expensive but you’re paying for that extra convenience because you can change strings faster.

There are two benefits to this: to begin with, fewer string windings are required to maintain tuning stability because the string is locked against the tuner.

Re-stringing is generally faster and easier when there are fewer windings.

However, something people don’t realize is that using a locking tuner can cause tuning instability because as you wind the string, around the post, you can have some issues when you use the tremolo (for electric guitars).

As soon as you unbend the string or move the tremolo to zero again, the post may be slightly moved which causes a slight pitch change.

Grover is well-known for making the locking tuning peg popular but it is a bit pricier so you have to consider if it’s worth it.

So, you have to be careful when using locking tuners and it’s really just a matter of personal preference.

Open gear

Most tuners have an exposed gear, which means that the teeth on the gears are visible. These are called open-gear tuners.

Open-gear tuners are less expensive to manufacture, which is why they are often used on lower-end guitars.

They can also be more susceptible to dust and dirt, which can build up on the gears and cause them to slip.

Sealed tuners

Sealed tuners have a cover over the gears, which protects them from dust and dirt.

They are more expensive to manufacture, but they stay cleaner and are less likely to slip.

If you have a guitar with open-gear tuners, you can buy aftermarket sealed tuners to replace them.

Vintage closed-back

Vintage closed-back tuners are a type of sealed tuner that was commonly used on older guitars.

They have a round metal casing that covers the gears, with a small hole in the back for the string to pass through.

The advantage of these tuners is that they are very durable and less likely to come loose over time.

The disadvantage is that it can be more difficult to change strings because the string has to be fed through the small hole in the back of the tuner.

Vintage open-back

Vintage open-back tuners are the opposite of vintage closed-back tuners.

They have an exposed gear, with a small hole in the front for the string to pass through.

The advantage of these tuners is that they are easier to change strings because the string does not have to be fed through a small hole in the back of the tuner.

The disadvantage is that they are not as durable as vintage closed-back tuners and are more likely to come loose over time.

Side-mounted machine pegs – for classical acoustics

Side-mounted machine pegs are a type of tuner that is used on acoustic guitars.

You’ll find them mounted on classical acoustic guitars and flamenco guitars because these use nylon strings so the tuning post is not under as much tension and these guitars have tuning posts that are attached a bit differently.

They are mounted on the side of the headstock, with the string passing through a hole in the side of the peg.

Side-mounted machine pegs are similar to vintage open-back ones and have the same advantage of being easy to change strings.

3 tuners are mounted in-line (3 tuners per plate) on the headstock’s side.

The advantage of these tuners is that they are less likely to come loose over time than other types of tuners.

The disadvantage is that they can be more difficult to use because the tuning keys are not all in a straight line.

Tuning key configurations

Tuning key configurations can be either side-mounted or top-mounted.

Side-mounted tuning keys are more common on acoustic guitars, while top-mounted tuning keys are more common on electric guitars.

There are also some guitars that have a mix of both side-mounted and top-mounted tuning keys.
The type of tuning key that you use is a matter of personal preference.

Some guitarists prefer side-mounted tuning keys because they are easier to reach when you are changing strings.

Other guitarists prefer top-mounted tuning keys because they stay out of the way when you are playing.


You might wonder, what material is a good tuning key made of?

The vast majority of tuning keys are made of metal, either steel or zinc. The best material is zinc-alloy because it is strong and not susceptible to corrosion.

There are some tuning keys that are made of plastic, but these are not as common and are flimsy and cheap – I would not recommend using them.

The reason that most good tuning keys are made of metal is that metal is strong and durable.

Now, tuning keys can have different finishes and a chrome finish is the most popular.

A chrome finish is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also protects the metal from corrosion.

There are also some tuning keys that have a black finish or gold finish, and these can look very nice too.

Good vs bad tuning keys

Good tuning pegs can make a huge difference. The cheaper tuning pegs just aren’t good quality.

They are flimsy compared to the tuning pegs you get with a high-quality guitar like a Fender.

Better tunings pegs are generally smoother than cheaper ones and they hold the tension very well – there’s less “give” when you’re tuning your guitar.

All in all, better tuning keys just make the whole tuning process a lot easier and more accurate.

Grover tuning keys are a good middle ground between durability and accuracy. These have a reputation for being very easy to use while still maintaining a high degree of accuracy.

The original Grover tuners are locking tuners, which is why they’re often used on guitars with tremolo bridges or vibrato arms.

Tuning peg red flags to look out for:

  • Flimsy bits
  • Chrome, gold, of black finish looks like it’s chipping
  • Tuning pegs don’t turn smoothly and make odd noises
  • There is backlash and the peg turns the other direction than it’s supposed to

History of tuning keys

Luthiers have various names for tuning keys like tuners, tuning pegs, or machine heads.

But this is a fairly recent development because, in the past, only a select number of companies manufactured “geared keys” as they were called at the time.

Before guitars, people played the lute, and this instrument didn’t have proper tuning pegs like the ones today.

Instead, lutes had friction pegs that were inserted into a hole in the top of the headstock. This is the same mechanism that violins have.

With time, these friction pegs became more and more elaborate until they eventually became the geared tuning keys that we know today.

The first guitars were made in the 15th century, and they didn’t have tuning keys either. These early guitars had gut strings that were attached to the bridge with a knot.

To tune these early guitars, the player would simply pull on the string to tighten it or loosen it.

The first guitars with tuning keys appeared in the 18th century and they used a similar mechanism to the one that lutes used.

John Frederick Hintz was the first person to develop and make a geared tuning key in 1766.

This new type of tuning key allowed the player to tighten or loosen the string with a simple turn of a knob.

However, this system had a problem: the string would slip out of tune easily.

So, this system didn’t last too long because, in the 1800s, John Preston created a better design.

Preston’s design used a worm and gear system that is very similar to the one used in today’s tuning keys.

This design was quickly adopted by guitar makers and became the standard for tuning keys.

How to troubleshoot tuning pegs

If your guitar keeps going out of tune, it probably has something to do with the tuning pegs/tuners.

There are a few things you can do to troubleshoot this problem.

First, make sure that the tuning pegs/tuners are tight. If they are loose, they will need to be tightened.

Second, make sure that the strings are properly wound around the tuning pegs/tuners.

If the strings are not properly wound, they will slip and your guitar will go out of tune. If strings are not wound tight then you’ll notice that your string goes flat while playing.

Third, make sure that the strings are the correct size for your tuning pegs/tuners.

If the strings are too small, they will slip and your guitar will go out of tune.

Fourth, you need to check the gears located inside the tuners. Gears tend to wear down after some time because of the constant string tension.

Also, the gears might skip teeth or strip and if the gears are stripped, they will need to be replaced.

You can usually tell if the gears are stripped if you hear a grinding noise when you turn the tuning peg/tuner.

This issue is called a backlash of the gear alignment and is caused by progressive wear and tear of the gears.

Fifth, check the machine head. The peg that secures the string to the headstock wobbles when the machine posts do.

High tension on the strings is required to get the strings to tune. There is a limit to how long a machine head can withstand the strain before it begins to break.

Another issue if broken buttons. The button where you grip the machine head can break as you twist it. This is common with cheaper flimsy plastic buttons.

Finally, you can check if the tuning pegs are properly anchored to the guitar.

If the tuning pegs are not properly anchored to the headstock it affects the stability of your instrument’s tuning.

At the end of the day, the tuning keys should not be overlooked. Proper maintenance to this rather innocuous part of the guitar will keep you sounding your best.

Best guitar tuning pegs on the market: popular brands

While this is not a review of all the tuning pegs out there, I’m sharing a list of some of the top machine heads that guitarists prefer to use.

There are many different brands of tuning keys, but some of the most popular brands are Fender, Gibson, and Grover.

Fender tuning keys are known for their durability and accuracy, while Gibson tuning keys are known for their ease of use.

If you’re looking for an affordable option, there are many great budget-friendly machine tuning keys that will do the job just fine.

Some of these brands include Wilkinson, Schaller, and Hipshot.

It’s a short list just so you get familiar with some of the popular tuner brands out there!

  • Grover – their self-locking tuners are appreciated by electric guitar players and they have a chrome finish.
  • Gotoh – their locking tuners are also very popular among electric guitarists. These have a vintage style to them and they’re available in different finishes like chrome, black, and gold.
  • Waverly – these are vintage-inspired standard tuners that have a 3+3 headstock configuration. They’re available in different finishes like black, nickel, and gold.
  • Fender – their standard tuners are used by many acoustic and electric guitarists. They also make great gold tuners for vintage Strats and Telecasters.
  • Gibson – their tuning keys are used by many acoustic and electric guitarists. They have a self-locking feature that’s appreciated by many players. Their nickel pegs are quite popular.
  • Golden Gate – they make excellent tuners for acoustic and classical guitars.
  • Schaller – these German locking machine heads are a good value for the money.
  • Kluson – this brand is often the top choice for vintage guitars because their tuning keys look amazing.
  • Wilkinson – this is a great budget-friendly option that’s known for its durability and accuracy.
  • Hipshot – they make a variety of locking tuners but they’re well known for their bass tuning pegs.


Are tuning keys universal?

No, not all guitar tuning keys will fit all guitars.

Guitar tuning keys come in different sizes, so you need to make sure that you get the right size for your guitar.

The most common size for guitar tuning keys is 3/8″. This size will fit most acoustic and electric guitars.

If you are just changing your tuning keys for new ones which are the exact same model, you don’t need to make changes.

But, if you’re installing different tuning keys (maybe you’re upgrading from non-locking to locking ones), you will need to make sure that the new tuning keys will fit on your guitar.

Thus, you’ll need to make some modifications.

You may need to drill new holes or file down the old ones to make them bigger.

Check out this video to see how to do it:

Where are the machine heads located?

Electric guitar tuning keys

The electric guitar’s tuning heads are usually located and secured on the back of the headstock.

To tune your electric guitar, you will need to use a tuning key to loosen or tighten the string.

When you loosen the string, it will lower in pitch.

When you tighten the string, it will raise in pitch.

It is important to tune your guitar slowly and carefully so that you do not break the string.

Acoustic guitar tuning pegs

The tuning keys for an acoustic guitar are usually located on the side of the headstock.

To tune your acoustic guitar, you will also need to use a tuning key to loosen or tighten the string.

As with electric guitars, when you loosen the string, it will lower in pitch and when you tighten the string it will raise in pitch.

Again, it is important to tune your guitar slowly and carefully so that you do not break the string.

Bass guitar tuning keys

The tuning keys for a bass guitar are also located on the side of the headstock.

To tune your bass guitar, you will use the same tuning keys as you would for an acoustic guitar.

The only difference is that the bass guitar has lower-pitched strings, so you will need to tune it to a lower pitch.

The shape of bass guitar tuning keys can vary, but they all serve the same purpose: to keep your bass guitar in tune.

Learn more about the differences between lead guitar vs rhythm guitar vs bass guitar

​What are staggered tuners?

The staggered height tuner is one that is designed to increase the string break angle.

A common problem with some guitars is that they have shallow string angles over the nut.

Not only can this cause string buzzing, but it can affect the tone, focus and even sustain.

These innovative staggered tuners get shorter as you move along the headstock.

Thus, the string break angle gets increased which is supposed to be beneficial for the string that are farther away.

You can see these staggered tuners on some Fender electric guitars.

In fact, Fender has staggered locking tuners for the Strats and Telecasters. If you want you can buy such tuners for your guitar.

Some players claim this type of tuner reduces string buzzing. However, one thing to keep in mind is that you just don’t get an angle that’s as steep as you’d need.

The standard tuner is fine for most guitars, but if you have a guitar with a tremolo bar, you may want to consider using staggered tuners.

Staggered tuners, like the Fender locking tuner, were designed with the needs of electric guitar players in mind.

They are not as common as standard tuners though.


Guitar tuning keys, or machine heads as they are also called, play an important role in the overall sound of your guitar.

They may seem like a small and unimportant part, but they actually have a big impact on the tuning and intonation of your instrument.

If you’re a beginner, it’s important to understand how they work and what they do.

Intermediate and advanced guitarists also need to know how to use them properly in order to keep their guitars in tune.

Non-locking and locking tuners are the two types of machine heads you’ll find on most guitars.

Each type has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to choose the right ones for your needs.

Read next: What guitar tuning does Metallica use? (& how it changed over the years)

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

Microphone gain vs volume Subscribe