Guitar Intonation

Adjusting Your Instrument's Intonation: Playing and Staying in Tune

July 01, 2016 14 Comments

Guitar Intonation

Knowing how to intonate your instrument is an essential part of setting it up to play optimally. Intonation is basically how well your guitar stays in tune with itself across the length of the fretboard. If all your strings are tuned correctly, but notes or chords played higher up on the fretboard sound off pitch, then you definitely need to adjust your intonation. Fret not- it’s a fairly simple process that this guide will walk you through step by step!

The Basics Behind Intonation

The process of setting intonation involves adjusting the length of the string by moving the bridge saddles forward or back. To move the saddle forward, you will loosen the screw. To move it back, you will tighten the screw.

What You’ll Need to Set Intonation

Aside from your guitar, the materials you will need to check intonation are: an instrument cable, an electronic tuner, and a small Phillips head screwdriver. Some guitar models will need a flat head screwdriver. Simply check the bridge saddle screws and you will know which type of screwdriver to use.

It also helps to work in a well-lit area and to have a large, stable surface to place your guitar on. Much of the intonation process requires both hands, so it’s best to not have your guitar sitting on your lap!

Intonating Your Guitar

Now it’s time to get down to business! Plug your guitar into the tuner. For each string you will want to do the following:

  1. Lightly play the string open and tune it to pitch with your tuner.
  2. Fret the string at the twelfth fret, making sure that you are pressing it straight down and not bending it. Using the same light touch, strike the string.
  3. Check your tuner. If the note that you fretted at the twelfth fret is sharp, move the saddle backwards by tightening the screw. If the note is flat, move the saddle forward by loosening the screw.

While setting intonation, take your time and don’t worry if it’s not perfect- it just has to be close enough! Fretted instruments by nature do not intonate perfectly. Also, if you are making any other changes to your guitar’s setup, like the string height or truss rod, it’s best to do it before setting the intonation. If you adjust the string height after setting intonation, the string length will change and you will have to set your intonation all over again! Setting intonation is a crucial part of the guitar set up process and will probably have to be done every time you change strings, especially if you switch to a different make of strings.



14 Responses

Paul Fowler
Paul Fowler

July 28, 2016

About 1956, I ordered a Carvin guitar from Covina Calif. Saw the ad in a magazine. In March 1958 I got drafted into the Army (along with Elvis) took it to Ft Smith, Ark then to Ft Hood, Tex. Elvis went to Germany and I went to Ft Carson, Colo where I played with a band there until my discharge in 1960. I used the Carvin for several years after, before giving it to a friend’s son who played it for years. Lost track of and wonder sometime if it’s still laying around somewhere. Thought you might be interested in hearing this. Have a few pictures of it.

Adam
Adam

July 06, 2016

Great breakdown, a def need to know for anyone still trying to grasp the instrument. Loved how short and simple it was as well, and only a minor pun in the intro, hah!

David Vetack
David Vetack

July 05, 2016

The guitar should be held in the playing position when setting the intonation and tuning. The weight of the neck will change it if you set it up laying down. Also it won’t be in tune when when you pick it up and hold it in the playing position.

John Senn
John Senn

July 05, 2016

Nice article and very helpful

mike shelby
mike shelby

July 02, 2016

Also, usually if the strings do not intonate, it means it is time to change them !
I set mine regularly. It`s fun and I set up my friend`s kids guitars for them and teach them at the same time.

Jeff Krueger
Jeff Krueger

July 02, 2016

Great tip and instruction! I really enjoy your site. Thanks

Eric Ginsburg
Eric Ginsburg

July 01, 2016

While this is a good approach, I find that you get a more precise optimisation if you compare the 12th fret note to the 12th fret harmonic. But yes, make all the other adjustments before setting the intonation, and that includes choice of string guages!

marco
marco

July 01, 2016

This is good stuff to know. Thank you for sharing the process.

Mark Woodward
Mark Woodward

July 01, 2016

How about adding a discussion on ‘Sweetened Tuning’ and add some of the ’how’s and why’s’ it is used. This will help a player to adjust their guitar to a more overall ‘in-tune’ across the fretboard.
I use a Peterson Strobo-Rack tuner which has good sensitivity and allows the user to save these settings. Of course, a disclaimer of the frets condition. And would also advise that strings should be new to properly address intonation.
Thanks, Mark

Mikhael
Mikhael

July 01, 2016

You will probably get some comments from those that are sticklers about tuning on this; many consider this method to be insufficient. For me it works, but only because I use a compensated nut.

Ross V
Ross V

July 01, 2016

Similar to the encouragement, above, the article is close, but not perfect. There are few easy ways to get even better results: adjust intonation when your strings are already broken in or after playing a new set for a few days; make any adjustments to the action first; if the guitar has a tremolo, block it (especially if it’s a Floyd or lower-cost Edge-Zero); use a high-quality tuner because few if any clip-ons are accurate enough for intonation; and hold the guitar in its natural playing position, not flat on a padded table or work bench (see the Petersen DVD).

Jeff
Jeff

July 01, 2016

Thanks for the quick and important lesson. I would like to see more articles of this nature ie; the whole process of ‘setting up’ my guitar… quicker action, truss rod do’s and don’ts… and etc..

Ron Harkins
Ron Harkins

July 01, 2016

Good article. It did not mention how to intonate on a Floyd Rose bridge. The theory is the same. The tools are slightly different, and it takes a long time. You’ll have to loosen the string at the nut to allow you to move the saddle backward or forward. Then it’s trial and error for each string, as you tighten the saddle and retune using the headstock tuners. Best to access a video on YouTube to learn how to intonate a Floyd Rose bridge. Don’t forget to apply a lot of patience!

Doug Dickeson
Doug Dickeson

July 01, 2016

Also make sure that your strings are new!

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