Why Is Guitar Intonation So Important?
The best way to get started with the guitar or to showcase your musical talent is to practice and perform on a properly tuned and intonated one. Here’s everything you need to know about proper guitar intonation.
The Importance of Proper Guitar Intonation
Intonation is simply the proper collective tuning of your guitar strings, even as you scale up or down your fretboard. How accurately your instrument can produce any fretted note is the most important aspect that goes with what you use it for – hobby, performance, or career.
If your guitar is not properly intonated, you will notice how off or flat a chord sounds when you play it up a notch on another fret. If your strings are in tune when plucked separately but sound unharmonious when you strum them all together, then your guitar is still poorly intonated.
Electric guitar intonation requires the length adjustment of the strings done usually by saddling them north and south. Even if you start out with a proper tune, chances your improperly intonated guitar will either produce too high notes (sharp) or too low notes (flat).
So, what will poor intonation do to your sound? Other than bad performances due your way, it can also hinder how you progress through complicated techniques even when you’re only practicing.
How to Check Your Guitar’s Intonation
The easiest way to check whether your intonation is sharp or flat is first done by playing an open string. You can get the string in tune by ear or by using a tuning meter/gadget. Compare the sound from the open string to its twelfth fret note – if the note is too high, you will need to move the saddle back to lengthen the string. If the pitch is too low, then the saddle needs to be adjusted and moved inwards. Remember that the notes from both ends should always match an octave apart.
Saddles are connected to screws placed on the backside of the bridge. Using a screwdriver, moving the saddle towards the back end can lengthen the string; doing the opposite can shorten it.
But since there are different electric guitar types, there are also other type-specific ways of intonating. We’ll be using Fender and Gibson as type guides for the first method since they are the most commonly sold ones. If your guitar is from another brand, don’t worry – the design won’t be too drastically different.
Adjusting Intonation from the Nut – Fender vs Gibson
Compensating the nut is trickier than adjusting intonation from the bridge. Since this can still work as an alternative, we’re guiding you through it.
In terms of style and material, Fenders often have inlaied nuts while Gibsons have the standard one. For a Fender, removing the nut from its slot is required. This part can be tricky especially when you’ve never done it before, so make sure you’re all brushed up on proper nut removal. Once you’ve removed it, file one side of the nut slot to either lengthen or shorten the fretboard. You can choose to fit in a new, bigger nut to fill the slot, or glue a thin piece of material to the side if you want to use the old one. A snug one is always better. After that, file the vertical edges to lengthen the fretboard.
Gibson-styled nuts are far easier to remove and refit than a Fender one. The nut will come off by simply using a piece of wood and placing it against the nut, and then hitting it gently with a hammer. After it’s removed, the same process applies. Take very good precaution though, as there’s no guarantee it will go as smoothly as described for you. Always make sure nut placement is snug and is right for your fretboard – doing so can help you experience its tonal advantages.
Adjusting Intonation Using the Bridge
By the bridge is, again, easier for most users to follow. For this part, we’ve included two more bridge types for you.
Fender is known for its wide range of bridge styles. However, their basic bridge design is still the same. Saddles can be moved towards and away from the neck by tightening or loosening up the screws, just as previously stated. Note this down: move the screws clockwise if the fretted note is sharp and counterclockwise if it’s flat. Do this slowly and by small increments; you don’t need to move the saddles too much. Follow this quick list so it’ll be easier for you:
1. Always start by tuning your guitar.
2. If the neck isn’t straightened, adjust the truss rod. (A straightened one has a slight forward bow. You can learn how to do this via several online tutorials).
3. Tune your guitar again.
4. Don’t place the guitar on its back. Instead, hold it like how you normally would when you play.
5. Check any open string and its matching 12th fret note.
6. Use your screwdriver to make your saddle adjustments. Repeat the steps until you get the perfect pitches.
The difference between Gibson and Fender bridge sets is the presence of a stop-tailpiece. Stop-tailpieces are part of the bridge where the strings go through. The same steps apply to Gibson bridges, though you would have to consider how the saddles move. The screws are usually threaded through the bridge and they move up and down when they loosened or tightened. For screwing and unscrewing, use an allen wrench or screwdriver (depending on your bridge). If you have a problem accessing the screws to adjust intonation, you might want to take the piece out, flip it so it faces the other way, and then reinstall it, doing this may require flipping your saddles as well (again, depending on your bridge).
Setting up the bridge is crucial to getting the right intonation for Floyd Rose. Among the bridge types, this one is more complicated and is more time-consuming. A traditional Floyd Rose design features the strings contained inside saddles, secured by setscrews that lock them down. To get the saddle moving towards or away from the fretboard, you will need to loosen up string tension. This is the only way you can move saddle pieces back and forth. Once you’ve made the proper adjustments, just tighten the screw and string, tune the guitar again, and check the intonation. Apply the same steps prior and after to adjusting.
PRS Wrap-Around Bridge
The PRS wrap-around bridge is a combination of Gibson’s bridge and stop-tailpiece. Rather than going through the stop-tailpiece, the strings go through the bridge, wrap around its backside, and then end on top of the bridge-anchored saddles. The great thing about this bridge type is that it’s adjustable, although not all the bridges allow adjustable intonation. The intonation process for this one is the same as Gibson’s. Just make sure the saddle pieces on your PRS can move.
How to Prevent Poor Intonation
Intonating can be tedious for first-timers, or even for people who just don’t have the time for it. Luckily for you, the most effective way to keep your guitar in perfect pitch quality is by arming yourself against the common causes.
- High action – This happens when the strings need to be pushed down too far on the fretboard, causing intonation. It’s easy to feel a high action guitar; if it’s too hard on the fingers, the strings are at a height that forces them to bend down farther. This action usually sharpens the pitch.
- Extreme neck relief – One thing that causes high action is extreme neck relief. This is when the neck bow creates a large gap between the fretboard and strings. Always make sure you go through a truss rod adjustment before intonating.
- Poor quality/faulty strings – The older your strings get, the more prone they are to poor intonation. This is why you often hear experts telling you to regularly change strings to keep up the good sound. Intonation is impossible when you’re still sticking to your old strings.
- Changes to tuning or regularly changing string gauges – If you’re a musician, then you could be changing your string gauge a lot. Higher gauge strings are often chosen by musicians to compensate for the lack of tension in pitch changes, which is normal and isn’t outright harmful. A proper guitar setup after a switch from light to heavy should be okay. Going back and forth at such a pace is also going to injure the neck, which in turn can cause intonation.
- Worn/damaged nuts or frets – A damaged or degraded nut can affect string length. Frets that gain grooves over time can cause strings to rattle and prevents smooth string-bending. If you know how to replace nuts and frets according to how severe the damage or wear is, then you won’t have any problem getting your guitar back in tune.
Other causes known are considered as manufacturing errors. Take for example incorrectly positioned intonation pieces, wrong fret placement, and scale length errors. While it’s quite a long shot for you to experience this – especially when you purchase ones from high-end brands – it can still happen. The upside is that you can actually do the necessary adjustments yourself.
If you follow all of these through – guided by other homework you ought to do – then you’re well on your way to playing a properly intonated guitar and a lot of well-deserved jamming sessions