20 March 2014

Thoughts On Tuning Machines

 I realized that I have a lot of tuning machines in the shop right now, so I decided to write a little review comparing and contrasting all of the brands.

The brands and models I'll talk about are:

  • Gilbert - gold base plates, snakewood buttons, black rollers
  • Gotoh - 35AR510P-BB
  • Gotoh - 35G1800H
  • Sloane - leaf bronze base plates, ebony buttons
  • Alessi - F5 ebony buttons
  • Alessi - H2 ebony buttons
  • Baljak - Mare Ebano

Instead of commenting much on the aesthetics of each brand (since you can get an idea of this yourself by checking out the pictures here), I'll just discuss any noteworthy design features and my opinions about the quality, function, and feel of each set.

For comparison, and for whatever it's worth to you, I weighed each set of tuners. I'd like to emphasize that a lower or higher mass absolutely doesn't make a better or worse set of tuners. Some would argue that tuner mass impacts a guitar's sound. I've tested this on my own instruments and found the amount of weight added or removed at the head stock to make a notable sound difference was far beyond what a set of tuners weighs. Hence, in my opinion, a 46.3 gram weight difference at the head stock (that's the difference between the lightest and heaviest tuners compared here) is definitely not going to noticeably affect an instrument's sound. Similarly, in terms of physical balance, a classical guitar can handle a fair amount of weight in the neck and head stock before feeling unbalanced. While holding a guitar in the flamenco style requires that the instrument be properly balanced, with a very light neck, for classical guitars there isn't the same concern, and 46.3 grams is basically insignificant. However, having said all that, I've talked to many guitarists who swear they can feel a difference once they switch to another set of tuners. Weather the difference is due to a change in mass, or to some other factor is impossible to say, but these opinions can be very personal and difficult to rationalize. It could conceivably be useful to know the mass when you're replacing tuners on an instrument that you're already familiar with. Confusing? Sorry. Let's continue....

String rollers are not all created equal. Gilbert rollers are made from Delrin, a super tough, low friction plastic that turns exceptionally smoothly and silently against the wood of a head stock, so bushings or bearings at the ends of the rollers are unnecessary. Alessi, Baljak, these Sloane (old style), and the low-priced Gotoh 35G1800 have more typical softer plastic rollers. But Alessi and Baljak string holes are brass lined - important for longevity. Gotoh 35AR510 use aluminum rollers, which look kind of odd, but they don't squeak and will look like new probably forever.

Gilbert 139.4 grams
In terms of quality, function, and feel, Gilbert tuners are second to none. What makes their design unique are the black worm gear retainer pieces fastened with screws onto the base plates. These pieces enable the tuners to have absolutely no backlash, an amazingly smooth response when tuning, and a perfectly uniform resistance on all of the knobs. After several years of use, if the moving parts have worn a little, the black worm retainers can be readjusted to take care of any backlash, and to equalize the resistance on all of the knobs. To avoid damaging the small screw threads or black retainer pieces, this adjustment should only be made by the manufacturer.

Gotoh 35AR510P-BB 166.6 grams
Gotoh 35G1800H 152.9 grams
Acceptable tuners for the relatively
low retail price around US$85.
But not comparable with the
other models here.
I think Gotoh's assortment of high end 510 models for classical guitar are a great value. The bearing surfaces are factory coated with a solid lubricating layer (they call it Lubri Plate) and are never supposed to require oiling. I'm particularly impressed with their 35AR510P model - the one with solid aluminum rollers, bushings, and rectangular base plates. Honestly, few of the more costly hand made tuners are built this solidly or function this smoothly.

Old Sloane 148.7 grams
I won't say much about Sloane tuners since I've only used the older version that Stewart MacDonald no longer sells. The ones with plastic, bearingless string rollers. I had real issues with the quality of Sloane before the improvements were made about a year or so ago. It really looks like they've pulled up their socks. I have yet to try the new Sloanes, but I've heard only great reviews. 

Alessi F5 120.3 grams
Alessi H2 133.8 grams
I've used many sets of Alessi tuners, and have noticed a few minor construction anomalies that could use smoothing out. Roller lengths have sometimes been inconsistent between sets, knob tension within a set hasn't always been perfectly uniform. But considering their quality-where-it-counts, unpretentious, classy look, and reasonable prices, Alessi has become my go-to and most popular high-end brand. The difference between Alessi F (flamenco) and H (Hauser) models is that the latter have a second bushing at the base plate end of each string roller. In my opinion usually unnecessary, this bushing completely eliminates potential squeaking from rollers rubbing on wood.

Baljak 155.8 grams
Baljak tuners are made very consistently and function nicely, as they should. Due to their distinctive appearance I tend to use them only on certain instruments, when they can complement the overall aesthetic.

To summarize, if you're agreeable to a non-classic, unabashed, modern look, then consider either Gilbert or Gotoh 510 tuners, both of which function wonderfully well, but Gilbert are probably the best of all available brands in that respect. The Sloane tuners that I have experience with have been replaced by a new, improved, slightly more costly product which I have yet to use, but expect would be a good option for the price. Alessi are my go-to hand made tuners since they embody a perfect balance of classy looks, lasting quality, solid, silent function, and reasonable price. Baljak do a good job too balancing this same set of factors, but they have a more distinctive, intriguing look that's perfect for some instruments, yet perhaps overly conspicuous for others.