An article that explains how and why to intonate your guitar.



01. Why Intonate? 02. The Theory 03. The Practice 04. When do I need to intonate my guitar? 05. Floyd Roses and other floating systems 06. Tips, Tricks and other Abnormalities

01. Why Intonate?

Simply put, intonation is the ability of a guitar to play in tune at every fret, not just on an open string. The reason that this job needs doing is that your guitar may be in tune on an open string, but due to poor intonation will not play in tune on the upper frets so that amazing solo you're learning will never sound quite right. Although it can be a tricky thing to learn, once you've got the hang of it, it will stand you in good stead. Also unlike say truss rods it is not something that will damage your guitar if you do it wrong so you can practice as much as you want. Whilst I am on the subject of practice allow me to stress this point: the only way you will get the hang of this is through practice. You will be terrible at first but you will get better. It is very rare to find an acoustic where the intonation is adjustable; they usually have what is known as a compensated bridge.

02. The Theory

Every single instrument with strings including guitars, basses, cellos, mandolins, etc. is made to a particular scale length. In the case of many guitars this is 25.5 inches, the standard Strat length; however this is not the only one. Other companies use different ones but that is the most common. Each string has an ideal length. This is dependant on scale, length, pitch, action and gauge of string. Change anyone of these factors and the string will need to be "compensated" and therefore the "ideal length" will change. Also this differs from string to string. For example the ideal length for the G is shorter than that of the E, so to achieve this ideal length we must adjust the intonation by means of the saddles. Having the string too short then the note will pitch sharp, this therefore means we must increase the length, and conversely if the string is too long the note will pitch flat. So guess what? You shorten the length, simple eh? For those guitarists and beginners among you who know absolutely no theory or jargon, sharp (for our purposes anyway) is when the note is too high and flat is when the note is too low.

03. The Practice

Now you need to know how to actually do it, however unless you have as good an ear as a professional piano tuner (I know I sure as hell don't) you're going to need an electronic tuner. The Gospel according to power freak (GB&C forum mod) on tuners states that: The boss tuner only has an accuracy of 1 or 2 cents (I forget which!) So each adjacent string could be out by as much as 4 cents, I don't have perfect pitch but I can hear this difference! Also "chromatic" tuners aren't necessary; a regular EADGBe tuner will work. I use a "needle" type tuner because it is more sensitive to fluctuations in pitch, meaning you can get quite close to perfect intonation. A Peterson strobe would be best as it has an accuracy of 1/100th of a cent (few people can hear the difference between 1/50th of a cent! Even if they can it won't apply to the guitar because the way you pick the string and how you fret it changes the intonation ever so slightly.) However you may want to get the hang of intonating before buying an expensive tuner. Anyway, on with how to do it. Step 1. Plug your guitar into the tuner, and starting with the low E tune it perfectly. Don't bother with the rest of the strings; we will come to them in a little while. Step 2. Next play a harmonic at the 12th fret on that string, on your tuner it should appear as a perfect low E if you did step one right, after this play the same note but fretted. If your guitar is correctly intonated there should be absolutely no change in the pitch and the tuner will stay the same, if not well it needs adjusting. Step 3. If it is not intonated properly and needs adjustment, take the correct size of screw driver and adjust your bridge depending on what type it is (listed in part 5). To remember which way you need to go to go in the correct direction, remember that tightening the screw will increase the length of the string (flatten the note) and loosening it will decrease (sharpen the note) the length of the string. To remember which direction to loosen/tighten the screw this little rhyme (which may sound a bit stupid) will help you: Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey. Step 4. Retune the string to a perfect E. Step 5. Repeat all the above on each string (obviously at the correct pitch for each string). Step 6. Repeat to be sure.

04. When Do I Need To Intonate My Guitar?

It's surprisingly often as it can be knocked out fairly easily. The main time is when you change your strings, as the new strings do not exert as much pull as the old set and this creates a subtle difference in the length of the neck, which needs correction. When you adjust the truss, again there will be a subtle difference that will need correcting. Other than these times you just need to check it every few weeks to be sure it hasn't gone out as your strings stretch.

05. Different Types Of Bridges

The screws to adjust intonation on each bridge are in different places. These are the most common:
  • Tuno-Matic (Gibson style)
  • Strat style Trem
  • Newer Telecasters (older Telecasters are similar but with 3 screws not 6)

    05. Floyd Roses

    As with just about every thing else to do with these intonating it is a bit of an art, mainly because of the fact that if you move one string then it will have an effect on the others knocking them out, this means that you will have to keep having to reintonate until you get them all right good luck, it's going to take you ages. Here is a site that tells you how to do it far better than I ever could.

    06. Tips, Tricks And Other Abnormalities

  • 24 Fret Necks (submitted by Power Freak) I have found that the intonation is more accurate (to my ear) by comparing the open string to the fretted note at the 24th fret. I don't know why this works better but it just does to me (I guess because it is an extra octave above the open string.) I found this out one day with my Steinberger, I adjusted the intonation perfectly but a few chords where just out of tune! I checked again and everything was in tune at the 12th but out of curiosity I tried the 24th frets, these were out of tune! I adjusted it to suit the 24ths and it sounded better to me! However this did move the 12th frets "out" by a cent or two but it wasn't audible to me and it made the intervals of chords more defined.
  • Can't Get It And Run Out Of Room For Adjustment? The intonation is still sharp/flat and you have adjusted the saddles as far as they will go, then there is no option left but to make an adjustment by removing the saddle and moving it in the correct direction a couple of millimetres or so. If you need advice on this procedure ask in the GB&C forum we will be happy to help. However this problem is very rare and usually occurs either on very low end guitars or kit guitars. Thankfully however this is only used in the most extreme of cases usually all that is needed is a small amount of lateral thinking. In the case of Strat style bridges there is a spring on the screw that if necessary can be cut shorter or if it not long enough go out and buy a longer one you cheap git! Tune-O-Matic bridges on the other hand are a little harder but still can be saved. If you look at each individual saddle you will notice that it is vertical on one side and sloped on the other. If say the vertical side is facing the neck and you need a longer string you can turn the saddle round this will effectively give you an extra half centimetre or so. However if you have already done this and still cannot intonate it then I'm afraid your going to have to use the first method.
  • XII String Guitars This does not apply to electric XII's but the acoustic ones are often plagued by bad intonation. Usually it is sharp and the string needs lengthening. What can be done is to take a cylindrical object (such as a piece of wood but bone is best) and place it behind the saddle so that the strings clear the action. Now what you can do to adjust the intonation is to take of a little bit of dowel and recheck each time eventually it should be right, the only problem with this is it raises your action. But then again you play an acoustic XII you're going to have a good grip anyway. There that's your lot! Sillybuuger12
  • 70 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      Great article man, it really points out something a self-taught guitarist probably would't know.
      thank you for explaining well the operation of intonation, i thought it was explained well for all levels of guitarists
      awesome article man...verrrrry useful...i sort of did this with my other guitar...but now that i read this i realize that i was totally doing it wrong...
      Very useful, man! Thanks for posting this awesome column! I have an old Silvertone and you can't really intonate it, cause the bridge is like... well... ok, actually i'd rather not talk about it, but I'm planning on buying a Tele or a Les Paul, and this is something that you really have to know. Great work!
      Great column. My guitar is almost sorted now. Only problem I had is that this crap guitar is so old that two of the screws are worn out and so I couldn't turn them any more
      It should also be noted that if someone were to want to do this completely by the numbers. they should measure to the end of the 12th Fret from the nut (the devide at the end of the neck that holds the strings in place), and double that measure to find out roughly where the first strings intonation is. After that, if you really want to get down to it, "Fender" says that you should measure each saddle back from the first to the degree of your string gaging. So if you were using your second string as an .11, then you would measure the saddle back .11 inches from the first. This only works up to the third saddle. After that you have to do it all over again. Although, ideally, if your instrument is in PERFECT condition. The first and fourth string saddles can completely match and you will be perfect. Along with your second and fifth and third and sixth. But, since most musicians don't have a perfect instrument, it is understood that these measures can be slighly off. That's the time when you whip out the tuner and fix it manually.
      yes, thank you for helping out those who are too cheap to pay for lessons that would teach such things
      that's awesome, now i can start saving $$. Extremely helpful. i see what you mean about the chromatics, i prefer needles myself
      When you intonate a Floyd System you should intonate the D & G strings first. This evens out the pull of the strings on the bridge. Then go to your A-B-Low E-High E. The trick to a Floyd is keeping it parallel with the guitar. It's not really that hard.
      Bubonic Chronic
      An added note: some guitars with an older bridge will have odd open string tunings. For example, the intonation between 2 and 14 on my floyd rose is intonated, but the open and 12th are not, so this is not always the way to go. With that guitar, I normally avoid open strings where possible, opting instead for barre chords. For rhythm tracks I usually lay down my acoustic anyway, so no bother with open chords. Just lay the rhythm on the acoustic, play leads on my old floyd. But the open to 12th will not always do it for you. I chased this problem endlessly until I finally realized my nut is not in the best shape. Now I do 2 - 14.
      Wikad Guitarist
      nice article and it does take f*cking forever to tune a flyode rose, i have one on my jackson, and i find it you start with the low E and go to the high e and then to A and alternate like that it tunes faster then going straight down or straight up
      Just an observation....using the 12th fret harmonic is not the "preferred" method of adjusting intonation. The most accurate way to intonate your guitar is to compare the "open string" note and the "fretted" octave note at the 12th fret. This will allow you to compensate for the deflection of the string, which changes it's length, when depressed. The higher your strings are from the fingerboard, the more compensation wil be required to correct for this effect. Also note that the guitar is an even tempered scale instrument and cannot be perfectly intonated without compensation at the nut as well. (See Buzz Feiten or Yamaha for these solutions)
      yeh, nice, but i would like to ay that a chromatic tuner althouigh costing a hell of a lot more, does make a big diffenc,e the process is easier, i managed to intonate my whole guitar within a fraction of acent in less than 10mins, and that was witha chormatic tuner, its more acurate, although the regular ones u get now work well enogh if u cant afford a good chormatic, a good regular is better than a crappy chromatic!
      very helpful, i did not exactly understand this before, but now im gonna get right to it
      The 12th frets were off after you intonated at the 24th frets because the guitar is a even tempered instrument, not a true tempered instrument.
      Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey. Haha, helps me! Thank you for this article. I really needed this!
      Hey, can someone explain me the physics behind the tightening/loosening the strings? I mean, as far as i recall, by tightening the string we usually make the notes sharper. How come, that with intonation things go the other way around?
      Correct link is: ow_to_intonate_a_guitar.aspx
      max v
      If you stick with the same brand of guitar...then all this stuff is easy. I been playing Fender Strats and copy strats for many years....and I can pick one up and know by just playing it if I have to set intonation ...or make adjustments. If your action is high it's best to set intonation on open pitch and 12 fret. If it's low...then the higher one works better for low action. Example ...with low action hit deep E out check intonation passed 12th fret on A string's high e....
      Wow, you were right until the part about actually setting intonation. 2 stars.
      This is great, thank you so much, I'm self-taught and have often been frustrated by that fact that when i tune all my strings to eachother using the fifth fret, they aren't in tune when i play them open. This should really help me out.
      Planet Wave S.O.S (Strobe on string) tuners are excellent and remove some intonation problems without any physical adjustments other than tuning as they use LED's that pulsate at the same frequency (eg 440Hz) as the in tune string has
      I'm new to the guitar but have followed your instructions and it sounds better so I take it you have it right thanx m8
      what a coincedence i was just intonating my guitar when reading this article good job son
      Don't just try it, you want to learn it because it is one of the basic skills you should have down. Sorta like knowing how to change your strings correctly.
      thank you so much! the intonation on my guitar has been off for so long but now i can finally fix that!
      Thanx man! i have this 9 or 10 year old Les Paul that i bought used and the intonation was crap now i can fix that!! (no wonder it was only 125$
      Very timely for me. I had read a thread about intonation that didn't fully explain the 12th fret noted situation. I get consistency with the open note and the 12th fret harmonic, but my 12th fret notes are all sharp. I have a strat knockoff, so I need my bridge pieces adjusted. I haven't had my guitar professionally set up so I'm going to wait have a tech check my truss rod and the bridge. But, now I know what to tell him about the intonation of my guitar. Thank you. 5 stars.
      Nice article but about the pro piano tuners, most of those guys don't have perfect pitch, they listen for the beats (frequency stuff, the physics behind notes) between the string and a tuning fork.
      Wait, so you use the harmonic at the twelfth AND the note fretted at 12?...Nooo.., now I must intonate again to make sure it's perfect.
      good lesson man.....:p had no idea about this thing....thought a perfectly tuned open strring was consistantly tuned ^ cheers