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Setting intonation is not hard to do with the electronic tuners we have now. It can however have a huge impact on how the guitar sounds.
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Setting Intonation

It makes your guitar play with itself nicely – honest

Text, photos and video by Tom Hintz

Posted – 8-29-2012

Just tuning the strings on your guitar might not be enough for it to play correctly, particularly in open chords and often those involving the three treble-side strings. I had this problem with my new Fender Telecaster and no matter how many strings I put on or how carefully I tuned them, my Telecaster sounded very wrong when I played things like an open D or C chords. I was beginning to think that it was just me but then came across the procedure discussed here and my Telecaster has never sounded sweeter.

The Basics

Tuning Intonation is really adjusting the working length of the strings between the nut and their saddle at the bridge. In most cases the bridge is located exactly twice the distance from the nut to the center of the 12th fret. I know some folks add a little more to allow for string variations. And the bridge is often angled away from the nut at the top (bass side) to accommodate the intonation of the heavier wound strings.

When the intonation of the strings is not set they can sound OK individually but when you start playing chords they can clash with each other. When intonation is set correctly on each string, they sound nice together when forming chords as well as when played individually. In effect, they play better with others.

Checking/Fixing Intonation

If you are lucky you can just adjust the saddle (left) to correct intonation. I was not so lucky and had to turn a couple of the saddles around (right) to get enough movement to make the needed corrections.
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Just how anybody set intonation correctly before electronic tuners came along is a mystery to me. But, with a decent electronic tuner setting intonation is a fairly simple task. You still have to pay attention and take your time but the results can be very rewarding and essentially free in most cases.

First, tune the individual strings as closely as you can. Then start at one side or the other (doesn’t matter as far as I know) pluck the open string and make sure it is in tune. Pluck a harmonic at the 12th fret and make sure that is in tune, then fret that string at the 12th and pluck it again. If the intonation is right the string will show in tune. Chances are if this is the first time intonation has been checked on that guitar the tuner is showing something other than perfect so adjustments are needed.

I have to stress that you want to make small adjustments or you can be chasing intonation back and forth all afternoon. If the string shows sharp when fretted at the 12th the saddle for that string in the bridge must be moved away from the nut, in effect making the string longer. After dialing in an adjustment, retune the open string, then check the harmonic, tweak that if need be and then check the string when fretted at the 12th again. When the intonation is correct the tuner will hold steady on that note in both the harmonic and when fretting it at the 12th. Repeat the process on the remaining strings to complete the task and you just might sound better the next time you play.

The Future

I have not had my guitars go out of intonation on their own but I do check them once in a while just to be sure. So far I have found that putting new strings on a guitar doesn’t seem to have an effect on intonation. Because checking intonation is so easy I try to remember to check it when installing every fourth set of strings or so. I do play the new strings a little while to get the stretch out of them first. Checking is quick and once you set intonation a time or two, making the adjustments is fast as well.

Video Tutor

If you are like me, the change in your guitar between before and after setting intonation will be remarkable. I would have never thought my new Telecaster could be that far out of adjustment from the factory but it was. The good news is that with my electronic tuner I was able to fix that easily and get my Tele making nice sounds. Either that or I suddenly got way better forming those cords…..Nah, it was adjusting the intonation.

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