Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Like most guitar players, I like gear, new products, and things that can improve the look, or the playability. Locking tuners are a terrific upgrade for most electric guitars. I put them on my Fender Mexican Stratocaster years ago, and when I bought a Gibson Les Paul, locking tuners were the second upgrade, after Strap-Locks.
If you change your own strings on your guitar, which a lot of people do, locking tuners will make the job of changing strings much easier. Im sure there might be good reasons not to replace your current tuning machines with locking, but other than a vintage guitar, or a guitar you want to keep original, I can't think any? On the positive side, there are many reasons to use locking tuners.
Locking tuners are easy to install, and I believe that there are locking replacement tuners for most guitar models. If I had had to drill anything out, or make any structural changes, I don't think I would have replaced the tuners on my Strat.
However, when I did install locking tuners, it greatly reduced time to change strings, and it almost never goes out of tune. I bought Fender brand, and I think they were about 50 dollars, but I am not sure? Putting them on was easy, I just removed the nut on the face, and popped the new tuners in. What was additionally cool about the Fender locking tuners, was that the fact that of the 6 Tuning Posts (the parts that protrude through the Headstock,) are staggered in height, making the use of string trees to hold the strings at the optimum angle, unnecessary. Also cool was that there were no additional holes to drill, they fit just like the originals, and after dropping in a bushing, and tightening the nut on the Tuning Post, you are ready to restring your guitar.
If you are not familiar with locking tuners, the concept is pretty straight forward. With your typical non locking tuners, changing strings is a process, with a few critical steps that if are not adhered to, you will many potential problems. With locking tuners, there are fewer steps involved, and the tuning is much more stable. I will explain that in more detail, after I discuss restringing with non-locking tuners.
There are many ways to restring a guitar the right way with traditional tuners. Without argument, if the guitar plays, and stays in tune, they were put on correctly. If you don't know how to change your own strings, the basic operation is to thread each string from the bridge, (making sure the ball-end is all the way to the end,) bring the free end up to the Tuning Post, insert through the hole, measure slack for the proper windings on the Tuning Post, tune to pitch, and trim the excess off the at the hole in the tuning post. (Not everyone trims the excess, and I just think it looks more tidy.)
You might think that you are done, but you are not. You still need to make sure the strings are properly seated in the bridge, and nut. You then have to "stretch" the strings, so that instead of a gradual stretch using the tuners, you get it over with. This is a bit controversial, and anyone who has definitive answers about the "stretching" issue, let me know please. With non-locking, traditional tuners, you have 3-6 or 7 wraps of the string around each of the tuning posts. Those wraps may not be seated against the tuning posts, and some say that when you stretch the strings, you are seating strings only. The argument is that the strings don't actually stretch, only the tension is changed. This is way deeper than I intended to go in regards to string tension, and stretching. Im also not a metallurgist, or an engineer, but I would like to know if strings stretch or not?
I mentioned earlier that everyone has a preference, and if it plays and stays in tune, its done correctly. I wrote that because there is an old story about BB King, and the way he used to restring Lucile. He supposedly winded the entire string onto the Tuning Post. Someone saw the huge wrappings on the posts, and asked why he did it that way. He said, "I paid for the whole string, so I use the whole string." I don't know if thats true, but when I talk about tuning stability, or simply staying in tune, I have to wonder if all the wraps would cause problems? I suspect, yes, as when you are stretching the strings, you are also taking the slack out of the wraps.
The whole process of restringing a guitar with traditional, or non-locking tuners, is a fairly delicate operation. It can be screwed up easily, Ive done it incorrectly in the past, and I had problems on account of it. I did eventually learn the proper way, and it doesn't take all that long. I do recommend that you do learn to change your own strings, as well as doing your own set up. This includes the truss rod, which a lot of people are reluctant to mess around with. Its not that difficult, and if you learn about its operation, its not that complicated. Granted, there are different types of truss rods, and I have to admit I that the Gibson truss rod is a thing of beauty to me. So, yes, learn your equipment.
If you are still with me, I commend you, as you seriously want to know all about restringing guitars, and the pros and cons of Tuning Machines. As I stated, restringing your guitar is a delicate operation on a stringed instrument, and nothing to be taken lightly. With the addition of locking tuners, the majority of the operation is the same. However, securing the strings to the tuners is only a matter threading the hole in the tuning post, turning a screw on the bottom of the pinion gear, and cutting the excess string. There are even tuners that cut the string for you. I don't know anything about those, as they seemed excessively complicated.
As I said, I put Fender locking tuners on my Strat, and when I got my 2000 Gibson Les Paul Gothic Morte this year, again, I put locking tuners on after strap locks. The Gibson Headstock is designed completely different than the Fender, and looking at the pictures, you probably noticed most of the differences. Tuning stability depends upon two points of contact between the bridge, and the nut. The way the string attaches at the bridge and tuners effects the tonal quality of the string between to nut and bridge. The goal is to reduce any potential binding, snagging, or slack in the strings. Of the two headstocks below, which design adds to tuning stability, and which one detracts?
If I was to geek out any more than I already have, I would describe in detail all the way down to the different metals used. I won't do that, yet! The obvious difference is that Fender Strats have 6 inline tuners, and Gibson has a 3+3 design, side by side. In my opinion, the fender design is superior, as the inline tuners create a straight line from the bridge, to the nut, to the tuning posts. The Gibson headstock has some design problems, and I feel dirty admitting it. I feel even dirtier and disloyal by describing each of them in detail.
If you look at the headstock of a Gibson, you will see that it is tilted back, or raked back. The Gibson headstock is raked back to 17 degrees, and the Epiphone headstock is 14 degrees.
This is done so that the string can lie across an uninterrupted path from the Bridge to the Nut. The bridge and the nut are intended to be the only 2 points in which a tone is generated. The string also has to be secured at the tailpiece and the tuner, without interfering with the two contact points that create the sound. Those two points are elevated slightly, and they create a downward angle to the tuning machines.
This created unique problems with tuning stability, as well as structural problems, especially Gibson, (I'll get to that later.) Both companies employed different methods of solving these problems. Fender's design was superior, as the strings go in an almost straight line to the individual tuners. As you can see, the Fender neck is made from one piece of Maple, and after the nut, they created a step down to the tuning posts. The break angle is barely discernible, especially the 6th string, (or the big E string, which looks like the first string to me.) If you look closely at the height of the Fender tuning posts, you see that 3 of the tuning posts are higher than the other 3. Remember, these are the Fender locking tuners, and they are staggered, as opposed to the original tuners that were all the same height. I just realized that I might have installed the tuners incorrectly? I used the taller tuning pegs for the E, A and D strings, and the shorter ones for the G, B and E string. Looking at the break angles from the nut, especially the larger E string. Im not sure if they should not have been done the other way around. If someone knows, please get back to me.
As the break angle of Fender's headstock is so slight, tuning stability was effected. To increase the break angle, Fender used what are called, "string trees," to increase the break angle from the nut to the tuner.
Ive seen some Stratocasters with no String Trees, I've seen them with 2, and with one. As you can see, my Mexican Strat has one String Tree that pulls the first and second (eB,) strings toward the headstock, creating a greater break angle away from the nut. Additionally, the tuners on the Strat are in a straight line to each individual tuner. This is a good design, and for the most part, Fender got it right. The point I am trying to make in regards to tuning stability is that when you are designing a guitar that you want to stay in tune, the least amount of potential snagging, or tightening up, (as in many unnecessary wraps around the tuning posts,) the better. Looking at the locking tuners here, you can see that there are no wraps around the tuning posts. This eliminates any potential slack in the wraps from traditional tuners. The need to wrap the string around the tuning posts is eliminated by a thumbscrew on the back of the tuner.
The tuning post is not a solid piece of metal, it is hollow, and inside is a pin that extends from the thumbscrew to the top of the post. The string is passed through hole in the tuning post, pulling the slack out of the string, and tightening the thumbscrew on the bottom. You can either trim the excess string or not. Then tune to pitch. I have watched videos where it is recommended that keeping some slack in the string, allowing for one wrap around the tuning post. I can see where this can be an advantage, as the one negative aspect I have experienced is that you really need to make sure the thumbscrew is tightened all the way!
What I mean by 'all the way' is something that is unclear, and when I first started using these things, I found a some loose ones a couple times, when I thought I had tightened it well enough. What I have done since is to wrap a cloth around the thumbscrew, and really put some pressure. Ignore the temptation to use a pair of pliers, because you are sure to break it. But overall, these are amazing, and changing strings is a snap. The difference in tuning stability is night and day, where with traditional tuners, getting a stable tone took stretching and retuning 4 or 5 times during the first session. Im sure 4 or 5 times to retune is excessive, and im sure I could stretch it a lot better before playing, but why? Im playing for myself, and little adjustments are no big deal, as opposed to sitting there stretching the strings, or whatever is technically being accomplished. Im amazed by guitar techs who have to restring and get a stable tone the first time!
This next section is difficult to even think about, let alone write, as I am fairly new to Gibson, and specifically the Les Paul. Ive played a Strat since I was a kid, and I got serious about 15 years ago, with a Strat. I really didn't pay too much attention to the Les Paul, and I really don't know why? That all changed last year when I got the opportunity to spend some time with an R9 (1959 replica,) Custom Shop Les Paul Black Beauty. I had it From January 2020, until June, when I gave it as a gift to a friend of mine.I played it a lot, and although at first it was heavy, bulky, (didn't stay in tune like my Strat,) and generally hard to play. After a time, with all it can do tonally, I was hooked. Im looking for my first R8 (which means replica 1958,) but in the meantime, I bought a 2000 Gibson Les Paul Gothic Morte. All I can say is that I will probably never get rid of it. Likewise my Strat.
Take a look at that Headstock, to me its gorgeous, but in reality, it is probably the worst designed headstock of any commercially made guitar. In my opinion anyway. I have to preface any statement I make when I am claiming the worst, or better of anything guitar related. Of all my groups in which I express my opinion, and I can be pretty opinionated, guitar players are the quickest bunch of people to jump on a definitive statement. Its fine, I like to debate, but there are very few absolutes in life, and if you make a specific claim around this group, you better be able to back your shit up, or you will get demolished in print.
I don't think it is too controversial to say that the headstock, although beautiful, is a weak spot on the guitar. If you drop a Les Paul, if something breaks, it will probably be the headstock. Les Paul headstock breaks are so common that it is said if you buy a guitar with a repaired headstock break, you are getting the inevitabile out of the way. At least you didn't do it. Les Paul headstock repairs are really well done, for the most part, (as it has been done so many times,) and a well repaired break is stronger than it was before it broke. If you are looking for a reasonably priced Gibson Les Paul, broken and repaired headstocks reduce the price of the guitar in most cases. There is at least one exception, the "Greenie-Moore" Les Paul, owned previously by first, Peter Green, and then Gary Moore. While it was Gary's possession, his car was rear ended, and the guitar was in the trunk. The headstock snapped off, and was repaired. I think it was sold to Kirk Hammett, and as far as I know is still the owner. I don't know what he paid for it, but the repaired headstock didn't reduce the price. Its in the possession of a British player, who performs with it as its caretaker.
The reason Gibson headstocks break so easily, is on account of the raked back headstock, as well as the fact that at the nut, (where the headstock connects to the neck,) the wood is extremely thin. There have been many attempts by Gibson to strengthen the wood at this spot, including "volutes," and "scarf joints." I don't know much about this, other than what I have read and seen. Its been said that the best way to strengthen the headstock is to break it and have it repaired. Luthiers, as I mentioned, have a lot of experience with these repairs, and I have seen some amazing repairs, strengthening the headstock significantly. Big D guitars on YouTube do the best repairs that I have seen.
Wait, there's more! Look again at the above picture, and notice how the strings go over the nut, and are forced to bend to attach at the tuning posts.This isn't an optimum design, and tuning stability is compromised by those bends. Strings can get stuck in the grooves in the nut, and throw off the tuning. Im not an expert in this areas either, but every now and then I hear a pinging sound as the string catches. Nut material is a major factor as well as nut lubrication. There is also a device called a "String Butler," that you lay on your headstock, and it changes the angles, and supposedly helps with tuning stability.
There are other issues and factors that effect tuning stability, a big issue in the past were poor quality tuning machines. As I mentioned previously, it is common to see holes in headstocks where old tuners were taken off and others put on. I don't know all that much about this other than the added holes in the headstock look bad, and they usually reduce the value.
When I bought my Les Paul, I already knew the brand of locking tuners I was going to get. They are Grover 502BC 3+3, and they were identical to the non locking Grovers already on the guitar, except for the thumbscrew on the bottom. I bought them at Arkansas Musicworks, and the tuners are made by Allparts.
They took 10 minutes to install, nothing was damaged, and they look basically the same. Of course, the restringing was easier, and the tuning stability was noticeably better, and I didn't even stretch the strings. This makes me think a lot of the stretching is seating on the tuners? One additional feature, was that the bottom of the thumbscrew had a stronger holding power for my SVPicks. The thumbscrews must have more Ferromagnetic metals, as my SVPicks didn't hold as well to the non locking tuners.