Tuning, Setup, Tech Stuff

Strings, Capos, Tuners, Straps and Buttons, Picks, Nuts and Saddles, and all that neat stuff.  Read on....


For flatpicking, I like picks that are very stiff and that average between 40mm and 50mm thick.  The tri-cornered type, like those in the photo above, are the shape I like.  I don't like tear-drop shaped picks because they don't give me enough to grip, and I find the tri-cornered ones actually give me more leverage against my index finger.  I resisted thick picks and tri-cornered ones when I first started flatpicking because they do take some getting used to.  But when I began trying to develop better TONE and PROJECTION I found that the thicker, harder picks bring out the fat, rich tone of the guitar without producing a lot of pick noise.

I prefer synthetic tortoise shell for the tone factor mentioned above.  In the past, I made my own tortoise picks from a variety of antique items that I bought at flea markets and then cut into picks.  I DO NOT BUY JAPANESE-MADE TORTOISE SHELL PICKS! I DO NOT BUY RAW TORTOISE SHELL EITHER, neither whole nor partial shells. It is against the law to sell or buy any kind of tortoise shell.

The Red Bear synthetic tortoise is actually a man-made protein material, similar to natural tortoise, and approximates the hardness, slickness, and self-polishing attributes of tortoise shell very closely.  You can find them at: http://www.redbeartrading.com/  I can hardly tell the difference from the real thing, and I am definitely picky about this...pun intended. They cost around $20.00 online or in stores.

Another new synthetic tortoise pick by Blue Chip Picks can be purchased at http://www.bluechippick.net/.  It is endorsed by a huge number of serious and famous pickers.  I bought one just so I could decide if it is worth using.  It is very good, and has a unique feel to it.  It is some kind of plastic impregnated (I think) with something to make it slide off the strings.  It is hard like tortoise, doesn't chip, and really does sound great.  It is easy to hold and doesn't slip in your fingers.  The downside is that it costs $35.00.  Wow, that's pricey! But for serious pickers who don't lose their picks, it is a good product. And it is better than killing a rare, beautiful, endangered species of sea turtle, the Hawksbill Turtle.

Plastic has its advantages: its cheap, you don't regret losing one, and you can get them anywhere. But they don't play or sound as good as the synthetic tortoise. Plastic picks, especially those of less than "Heavy" gauge, make a lot of percussive noise, particularly on the strumming stroke.  I don't want the pick to be heard.  Some heavy gauge picks sound ok, but are a little duller sounding than real or synthetic tortoise.  However, one thing I've discovered: the listeners, ie: the audience, can't tell the difference in pick materials anyway.  The pick sound is really something only the picker hears and develops the ear to hear. The 'right sound' is what he/she perceives as right for them.  You may have heard the CD with Tony Rice and David Grisman, called Tone Poems, where they play a lot of vintage instruments. These instruments are not the ones that these two great musicians are usually heard playing in recordings, and yet you'll find that Tony sounds like Tony no matter what he plays.  So his amazing pre-war Martin D-28 and Tortoise pick aren't really what the listener hears, it's Tony's style and tone. Keep that in mind. 

There are other materials like Bull Horn, stone, metal, and other exotic plastics out there as well.  I haven't found these to sound good, wear well, feel good or be very practical.

While real Tortoise Picks can still be found costing up to $50.00 a pick, they are also illegal to buy or possess  and there's up to a $20,000 fine if you are caught selling or buying them.
  Yes, there are actually stores that will still sell them under the counter, but PLEASE, let's protect our relatives who live in the ocean!

Federal law allows the sale of "pre-ban" tortoise shell objects, but only IF you can document the age and source of the artifact.  You hardly ever find this stuff now because most antique dealers don't want to mess with it. It has gotten hard to find, and since a seller can rarely prove the age of the objects, they don't want to take the risk. Keep in mind that once an old "legal" object is cut up and made into a pick, you can't tell what kind of artifact it was made from, and there's no way to prove its age, so you are in violation of the law. PERIOD! You are busted. Even though it might make you feel better to know that no turtles were killed illegally, the cruel fact is that a Hawksbill Turtle WAS killed to get it. Ethically, it's a slippery slope. Morally, it just isn't right. The synthetic materials available now are great stuff, so take that route.

Concerning other picker's preferences:  Doc Watson used a Fender Medium teardrop shaped pick - exactly the kind I have bashed above. But I love his picking, and his recordings and live performances sound fine to me!  Norman Blake uses a heavy gauge plastic tri-cornered pick that he shapes and files to his liking.  I love his tone.  Tony Rice probably still uses Tortoise shell.  Dan Crary uses plastic too, or used to, and his recordings are great.  'Nuf said. Just choose your weapon, experiment to see what improves your accuracy, tone and speed, and find your finger's and ear's preference.  Go for Tone and Projection!

Mr. Hawksbill says: "Actually, I'd rather swim than be a guitar pick."  If you ever get to swim with a Hawksbill Turtle in the wild as I have off of Maui, HI, you won't ever want to buy a Tortoise pick.


I've tried every kind made at one time or another.  Here is my very subjective and sometimes critical view on a few of them:

Golden Gate - These are gold ones that look similar to the stainless steel ones in the photo at the top of this page. They are OK, but are not made as solidly as a McKinney, and are bigger and bulkier. I give them a C+. They can be left on the guitar, at the nut, and that is a great feature of any capo of this style.  You don't lose track of them.

Shubb - I think these are pretty good overall, and are quick and easy to put on and adjust.  Shubbs have a thick, rather soft rubber covering on the bar that tends to deaden strings and can also take your guitar out of tune, so I dislike that aspect.The other down side is that this style of capo has to go back in your pocket when you are not using it, and that is a problem for me...I'm always laying it down, misplacing it, looking for it.   I give them a C+ also.

Paige Capos - similar to Golden Gate, mass produced and stamped out, black enameled metal, and a little stiff to operate...but they work pretty well. I like their lighter, cleaner design better than the Golden Gate, so I give them a B minus.

McKinney (Phil Elliott-McKinney Hybrids) - A++ These are the best capo made in my opinion.  They hold the strings well without stretching the strings out of tune, are made of stainless steel, are finished to perfection, are durable, and you can leave them on the guitar above the nut where they are always ready to use. In general, they are the same type as the Golden Gate and Paige, but very finely made, very clean operating, very sturdy stainless steel, and don't stretch your strings out-of-tune. These are the best made in all ways, in my opinion, but they are expensive, starting at around $140.00. I have no connection to this company and only endorse these because I like them.  On the web at:  


The BMF High Precision Capo, crafted by Ron Brown of North Carolina, is similar to the Elliott, but not nearly as beautiful or finely finished. I own one, and bought it because it was less expensive than the Elliott, at around $100.00. However, they have gone up in price in the last two years, and now start at $145.00 at Elderly.com. They are stainless steel with a quick-release push-button lock system. The thumbscrew is large and nicely knurled. The action of both screw and lock are quite smooth. It can be stored behind the nut when not in use. They 'feel' more springy, not as rigid, yet they do a good job. But at that price, I would buy an Elliott.

Baldy Brothers Custom Capos - John Holman from Texas made these back in the 80's and early 90's in both stainless steel and brass.  They are not available anymore but you might run across someone who still has one.  They are nicely made, strong, and employ an unusual custom fitted bar that doesn't stretch strings if you have one that matches your fingerboard's profile. The thin one in the picture above is one of the stainless steel ones...very lightweight, and it works perfectly on my Gibson L-00. An A++ product. And now they would be considered as collectible.

Planet Waves makes an interesting, innovative, and different design. It is open-sided like a Shubb, but uses a large, knurled thumbscrew to tighten it. It is really compact and light, but it doesn't reside on your guitar, so I have to give it a B minus for that.

Kyser - Giant, spring loaded, clamps. I really dislike these.  I really do.  They don't hold the strings well and yet they clamp down hard enough to dent the neck (allegedly), and boy do they look stupid.  Oh, I suppose you could use them to hang your hat on, or perhaps they improve the reception on your cell phone. Nevertheless, they seem to be popular with many Bluegrass pickers I've seen at jam sessions. Some folks like them because you can store them clamped on the headstock, where they are obvious, large and stupid looking, and will mark up your finish. Yeah, I have an opinion on this, so maybe I'm just out of style. I give them an F.

There are elastic capos for classical guitars, but they don't work well on steel strings and wear out pretty easily.

There are a lot of really weird designs like "The Bird" and other inventions like that.  They don't hold well, and again, don't reside on your guitar for easy access. The ones I've listed are what you will see most commonly.

If you have a particular brand, or even a custom-made one you especially like, let me know. I'm always interested in learning about new gadgets.

You will enjoy this site. It has every capo you can imagine!     


   Electronic Tuners

I don't have one brand that I think is best, but just be sure to use one!  There is no quicker way to get in tune and jump into a jam than to use a tuner.  Yes, having a good ear to fine tune your guitar is a skill worth developing. But the tuner is the greatest technology that has come our way in recent years.  And they are cheap now.

There are a bunch that work well.  The one I'm using right now cost $28.00, made by Korg, and I also had another one that cost $19.00 that lasted 10 years. I like the ones that clip onto the headstock, Cheap is good since they get lost easily. 

I have a great article on the science of tuning a guitar that is posted on my web page titled TUNING 101.

Norman Blake has an instructional video that explains in detail how he fine tunes his guitar.  Keep in mind that even after using an electric tuner, you may still have to adjust your instrument to be in tune with itself, and all guitars have some idiosyncrasies that require attention, usually with the B string.  Norman's method is very similar to how I learned to tune. Make it a point to learn how!


I have tried lots of strings, and most work OK, some I don't like the feel of, and some cost too much.  I don't particularly like Martin Strings because for me they die too quickly, and I simply don't think they sound that good.  HOWEVER I MUST WARN YOU: I am one of those pickers that DOES like brightness and sustain.  I have friends who like old, dead, thumpy strings. (Even Norman Blake likes a guitar that doesn't ring a lot.) So if you like strings that don't ring or are not so bright, you may not agree with my string choices.

Playability and action: keep in mind that heavier strings have more tension, thus they are a little harder on the fingers and hands.  I prefer the sound of Medium/Light sets. I find the tension difference between these and Light Gauge is negligible. and it doesn't take long to get used to the slightly heavier gauge. I think you'll find they sound better and play better, especially for flatpicking. Be sure you guitar is solid enough to handle this gauge as they do have more tension on the top, bridge, and neck.

TREATED STRINGS: Elixers seem quite expensive and have been the rage for several years. I find that they do last longer than non- coated/treated strings. I have tested them and I'm blown away at how long they last and how good they sound after six weeks or more! I admit, I didn't believe all this several years ago. The original Elixirs were PolyWeb strings.  I don't know what this means, but I still don't like them.  However, the later version, the NanoWeb strings, are awesome. They are smooth,have a soft feel, and provide plenty of rich bass and clean treble tones. They last a long time, and even when they get old will still tune well and sound pretty good. I'm a convert. I'm a believer.

NON-TREATED STRINGS: the D'Addario Phosphor Bronze strings that I prefer will last at least two to three weeks if I don't let other people touch my guitar. Often they last 3-4 weeks if circumstances are right.  D'Addarrio EJ-19 Bluegrass Gauge or EJ-16s Light Gauge, cost between $5.50 and $6.50 per set online, with free shipping at some online stores when you buy a certain number of sets. I have bought from Maury's Music, Amazon and others. Maury's gave me great service, and I got my strings in 5 days or less.  After shipping I think it came out to around $6.50 per set. Prices seem to be rising these days and vary from one source to the other every time I shop, so I check a few places each time and buy at the best price I can find.  Keep in mind that D'Addarrio packages the EJ16s in 3 packs and 10 packs for a better price.

BREAKING NEWS: Nickel Strings. You may have heard of the Tony Rice endorsed Martin strings that are the "throw-back" type strings from the 60's (or even before that). Well, they remind me of the Black Diamond strings that were the only kind available when I was a kid. The Tony Rice set is Medium gauge, but Martin also sells the same kind of Retro Nickel Set that they call Monels. They come in Light Gauge. So at $7.00 or so per set, I figure buying a set of Tony's Mediums and a set of the Light Gauge Monels and making my own "Light-Medium" set is about the same price as buying Elixirs. And I really like them. The bass is great, and they last a long time: as long as Elixirs in my experience. They feel a little rougher on the wound strings, not as smooth as Elixirs. But that doesn't bother me. They flat-pick and finger-pick great. I really like the sound. I use the light gauge on my Gibsons, and the mix of Medium/Lights on my Martin.


I use the "Bluegrass Gauge" or Light/Medium sets on my Martin 00-21 because I like the medium gauge bass E, A, and D strings for tone, and the light gauge G, B and E reduces string tension on the guitar neck.  This guitar responds to the heavier bass strings, and after using them for over 20 years I have had no neck or top problems. Average Tension: 179.2 lbs

I use Light Gauge sets on my Gibson L-00s.  These Gibson guitars are more fragile, with lighter construction and bracing, and mine have had some top and neck issues as well, so the 163.2 lbs tension is just right. If in doubt you should use Light Gauge.

I never use mediums on any of my double-0 guitars, they really don't improve the sound on small body guitars. Also, as I mentioned, my guitars are old and have lighter construction. But on a Dreadnought size guitar in good condition, and for Bluegrass type music, they are usually the gauge of choice.  Average Tension:  188.8 lbs.

   Strap Buttons

First, the big, controversial issue: should you have a strap button screwed into the heel of your nice, expensive, guitar? My answer is yes, but I point out that this is just my opinion.  I've had all my guitars set up this way, and that makes at least a dozen guitars over the years, and all without any problems.  Some people say on old, collectible guitars it will affect value....ask your collectible guitar guru if you have doubts.

There are two locations for installing a pin: 1) into the heel through the triangular heel cap.  I don't like this because the strap can pull off too easily and the guitar tends to lean away from you; 2) from the side of the heel, in the curve on the "bottom side facing the floor". The strap holds, the guitar is perfectly balanced when wearing it, but it is harder to install.

Playing a guitar with the strap attached to the heel is, without a doubt, the most comfortable, ergonomic, and logical way to hang a guitar around your neck. I have installed some buttons myself, and have had some installed by a qualified luthier.  Warning: Not all guitar repair guys in a music store are qualified!  And some repair guys are not really classified as luthiers.  I trust myself to do the installation more than many of these repair guys, and I'm no luthier.  So be sure you make good choices about this.  You are screwing something into the thinnest part of the neck, so you gotta do it right!

On the strap buttons I have installed myself, I used drill bit that was almost exactly the size of the screw including the threads.  Don't make the hole too small as you don't want to force the screw into the wood in the heel.  The threads need to grip, but it doesn't need to be an extremely tight fit. It just needs to be tight enough for the threads to really bite into the wood.  I put some masking tape over the area where I drilled to prevent the finish from cracking around the hole.  I visualized what I was going to do and I thought about it a lot, several times, while looking at the heel and making sure I had the drilling angle and depth right, the location right, and had control of the drill.  Then I took a deep breath and did it. I test screwed it into the hole, GENTLY, to see if it would screw in effortlessly all the way.  If it feels tight and like you have to really use effort, back the screw out and carefully run the drill bit into the hole one more time, cleaning out any saw dust. Once it screwed in smoothly all the way, I backed the screw out and added a tiny drop of wood glue to the threads and screwed it in snugly...DO NOT TRY TO CINCH IT DOWN TOO TIGHT. This job may not be for you, so don't do it if you have ANY doubts about your ability to drill a hole in your fine guitar. But if you have good woodworking skills or are confident in your abilities, it is not a difficult job.

If you don't use a strap button in the heel, you can attach your strap to the head stock with a cord, string, etc. When a strap is attached this way, keep in mind that when you rest your right arm on the upper bout of the guitar while picking you are applying several pounds of pressure, ie: the weight of your whole arm, on the guitar neck - and that pressure is pulling the neck from a side angle.  I don't like the strap attached this way as I find the strap gets in the way of my left hand unless it is attached way out near the end of the headstock.  It also positions the guitar in an unnatural location for comfort in my opinion.

   Nuts, Saddles and Pins

I think this is overlooked by many when getting a guitar set up for maximum volume, sustain and tone.  As I've mentioned, I like sustain, tone, and the maximum range of my guitar's natural attributes.  There are two materials for nuts and saddles that will do this in my opinion.  Bone and Ivory.

Bone is the least expensive, but is very hard and gives nice tone to any guitar.  It is readily available at any "real" guitar store.  I don't think it provides as bright a tone, but is a very good material.

Ivory is even better than bone for sustain and tone.  However, elephant ivory is not the choice you should make.  It is softer, and is also illegal since Elephants are endangered.  Look for fossilized ivory, usually Walrus, sometimes whale.  It is the hardest material, costs more, but makes beautiful nuts, saddles and pins.  It mostly comes from islands off Alaska where only Native Americans can collect and sell it. It does not involve killing Walruses, but is found on beaches where they have lived, bred, and died for thousands of years.

Get your saddle intonated.  That means it is filed so each string is perfectly in-tune with the neck, frets, and nut.  I won't go into detail here, just ask a real luthier to do it.

Above: This is where I like the strap button installed.  In the thick part of the heel. As you can see, it is high in the thick part of the heel where the wood can easily handle the small 1/16" screw. This button was made of bull horn by John Holman back in 1995.


I like wide leather ones, ones that can slide over my shoulder easily as I adjust my guitar while playing. If find that the ones that have a non-slip or suede backing tend to get stuck in one position on my shoulder, and I don't like this.  I wear my guitar about "medium-high".  I can't play it like Elvis, down at waist height.  Pay attention to comfort and posture...you'll develop neck and shoulder problems if you don't.  Really, you will.  I know about this.

*Warning: cheap nylon straps will melt the lacquer finish if left in contact with your guitar. Don't leave them in the case for any length of time. Best to use only a leather or cloth strap.

Go check out the page titled: "How to Change Strings
Make a Free Website with Yola.