It can be really frustrating when you carefully tune your guitar and your electronic tuner says it is spot on – but your guitar still sounds crappy when you play open chords.
Trust me, I know what this feels like since I’ve been through this myself.
If you are new to playing electric guitar, then it’s very likely you will encounter this problem simply because you are holding the strings down too hard (have you got a sore hand?).
There are more things that can cause this issue, and rather than stay frustrated you can find out the common reasons here, and work out how to get your guitar sounding good again.
Why Are the First Few Frets Out Of Tune On My Guitar?
There are a number of reasons why your guitar can be in tune, but still sound bad at lower frets when you start playing.
I’m going to break this into separate sections so you can follow along and work out which problem is most likely causing your tuning problem.
First I will discuss the problems you may have, and further down I’ll show you how to fix them.
Keep in mind that especially with older guitars you may be experiencing more than one of these issues. If that is the case, then solve one problem first before moving to the next, or otherwise take your guitar to a repair shop to fix these problems for you.
If your guitar is in tune but sounds bad, the first thing to look at is how hard you press the strings down when you play. Yes – shock, horror, the problem could actually be you!
This is a common problem for new guitar players as they tend to hold too much pressure on the strings with their fretting hand. This is especially the case with electric guitars, as the strings are thinner with less tension than steel string acoustic guitars.
The good thing is that this is easy to fix.
If your strings are old and worn you will find your guitar sounds out of tune when playing.
The giveaway for this is that your guitar will probably sound out of tune in many places on the neck, as well as having a dull bassy sound with no clarity.
Action on a guitar refers to how high the strings are above the fretboard. Many cheaper guitars (and some more expensive ones too) have the action set too high from the factory.
If your guitar sounds out of tune on the low frets (around the 1st to 3rd fret), but sounds ok further up the neck, then the nut may be holding the strings too high near the first fret.
When you hold the strings at lower frets, this means you have to push the strings down a long way to touch the frets, and will cause the notes to sound sharp.
Intonation – Nut Issues
Another problem that can be caused by the nut is when the slots that hold the strings are at the wrong angle, or have become rounded over time.
This causes the strings to sit at the wrong place in the nut, making the string just a little longer from the bridge to the nut than it should be (the playing part of the string).
If a string is a little longer, then the intonation will be off a little compared to other strings, and can give you sharp or flat sounding notes when playing.
Intonation – Fret Issues
This problem happens slowly as you play your guitar more and more, and the top (crown) of the frets starts to wear down from a nice rounded shape to a flat shape.
Especially for newer guitar players, they use the first few frets much more than the others, making the frets wear faster there.
When the top of the frets get flattened, the string will sit in a different spot on the fret to when it was new.
When you play a chord, some of the 6 strings will sound in tune, and the ones with worn frets under them will sound out of tune – making the whole chord sound bad.
Just take a look at your frets, and you will quickly see if there are some flat spots on some of them (especially under the 3 highest strings).
How To Fix Poor Tuning Issues for Lower Frets
When you play a note or chord, experiment for a little while to see how softly you can press the strings down with your fretting hand to get a good sound.
Too little pressure and you will get buzzing and muted notes, too much pressure and you will hear the notes sound sharp.
This takes some practice, and when you get better at using less pressure you will also find playing is easier, without your hand getting tired so quickly.
When strings are too old you will start to see marks on them where they touch the frets, and they will also have a dull appearance to them. If you have stored your guitar in a damp place you could even see rust on the strings.
If your strings look like this, then it’s time to fit a new set. They are quite cheap, and every guitarist should learn how to change the strings. Here’s a tutorial on YouTube:
If you hold down each string at the 3rd fret, you should only see a small gap between the string and the 1st fret (enough to slide a piece of thick paper through). If this gap looks too large, then the action could be too high at the nut.
Unless you have some experience, you can easily make a mess of trying to adjust the action at the nut by yourself.
The options are to file down the bottom of the nut (if all strings are the same height above the fretboard), or file the nut slots individually to change the height of each string.
This is an entire tutorial on its own, and I recommend taking your guitar to a repair shop if you don’t have experience doing this yourself.
Intonation – Nut Issues
This can be hard to spot unless you have experience. If your guitar is a few years old and you suspect this problem, it’s best to have a professional adjust the nut for you.
The nut slots need to all be filed at the same angle sloping back from the front of the nut to ensure the strings sit on the front edge (this makes them the correct length).
An experienced guitar tech with the right tools can do this job very quickly, and it doesn’t cost much to get it done right.
Intonation – Fret Issues
Spotting word frets is easy to do, just look for flattened areas on frets under the higher strings.
If the frets are worn down too far you can get intonation issues at those spots, and the only way to fix this is by re-crowning the frets to a nice rounded shape.
The problem is that the frets would now be too low compared to higher frets, so if your guitar is at this stage you will need the entire fretboard leveled and re-dressed.
For a more expensive guitar this is worth the expense, and will make your guitar sound it’s best again.
For a cheap guitar $200 or less, I would suggest it is not worth the expense of paying a repair tech to do this.
This repair is more advanced than most guitar players are comfortable to do on their own, and you need some specialized tools to do the job.
If worn frets are the cause of your tuning problems on lower frets, it’s best to take your guitar to a repair shop to get their expert opinion.