So you just bought a new guitar, and you pull it out of the box and tune it up. Why do all the chords sound…wrong? The answer is probably your intonation, and it is easy to do at home! Today we will talk about the easiest way to intonate your guitar at home.
How Do I Set My Intonation: Wait… What Is Intonation?
Most guitars come setup and ready to play out of the box these days. But that doesn’t mean a few mistakes can’t slip by quality control. In fact, intonation is probably the #1 problem a new guitar may have.
Have you ever played an open chord and it seems like just one string is slightly out of tune? Of course, you check your tuning again with a tuner. All the strings are in tune! What in the heck is wrong?
So maybe your intonation is off. It seems devastating at first, especially with a new guitar. But it is an easy fix, with just a tuner, some patience, and a screwdriver.
So what is intonation?
Intonation is how in-tune your guitar is along the entire fretboard. A guitar with a setup intonation will be in tune everywhere on the fretboard. A guitar with bad intonation will be out of tune in some areas of the fretboard.
Intonation is the length of your strings at the bridge. Look at it as “fine tuning”. There are screws at the end of your bridge that you can tighten or loosen depending on your intonation situation.
This is why one note in a chord may sound off. That one string may be a little too sharp/flat when you fret the note.
There are many schools of thought when it comes to setting your intonation, but I have the easiest method in my opinion. We can go through it step by step.
Setting Your Intonation: Tools
- Electronic tuner
- New Strings
New strings are an optional thing. But I feel like I get the most accurate reading with freshly stretched, new strings. Check the screws on your bridge, and see if they are Philips or Flathead, and find the appropriate screwdriver. Otherwise, you’ll need a good tuner.
No matter what kind of bridge you have, the process is the same. Whether it is a Stratocaster or a Les Paul style bridge, all you are doing is adjusting the string length by tiny increments!
How Do I Set My Intonation: The 3 Step Process
There are a lot of ways to go about this, but today we are looking at the easy way. This is the easiest way to learn the process, but you may want to try a different way, later. But you will at least understand what you’re doing by learning this method, first
We can break this all down to just three easy steps. It may sound complicated at first, but it you’ll get it after a couple of tries. Not to mention, you cannot permanently ruin your guitar or anything by trying this yourself.
Step 1: Check your tuning: Tune up your guitar like you normally would. Nothing complicated here! Just tune your open strings.
Step 2: Checking the intonation: Now that your guitar is tuned, go to the 12th fret. The 12th fret will be the same note as your open string, as it is the octave note. Fret the note on the 12th fret, what does your tuner say?
If it is the low E string, it should say E and match the tuning of the open string. If it doesn’t? Your intonation is off.
This process will be the same no matter which string you are working on. So how do we fix it?
If The Note Is Flat…
If you have a flat note when you strum the string while fretting the 12th fret, your intonation is off. If the note is flat, you need to adjust the string saddle towards the neck. This will lessen the length of the string.
Step 3: Setting the intonation: Use the screwdriver to adjust the string saddle. Every few turns, check the tuning again. The process will be:
- Tune the string open
- Check the 12th fret’s tuning
- Adjust the bridge saddle
- Recheck tuning
Ideally you want the pitch to read the same open as the 12th fret. Or at least get it as close as possible.
If the note is sharp?
If you find that the note on the 12th fret is too sharp, you will reverse the process! Instead of tightening the string and moving the saddle towards the bridge, you will move the saddle backwards.
Use the same method, checking your open tuning. Then checking the 12th fret again. Do this for each string. Once each string is in pitch, you’re done!
If you have very small set screws on your bridge, be very careful not to strip them! Take it easy when making adjustments, and only do a turn or so at a time.
Factors That Affect Your Intonation
- Changing string brands
- Changing string gauges
- Old strings
Changing your string gauge will usually be the #1 culprit for wonky intonation. Thicker strings especially will offset your intonation across the whole guitar.
Extreme climate changes can also affect your intonation. Too much humidity, or little humidity can wreak havoc on a guitar, particularly the neck. If your guitar is in an unstable environment, it is a good idea to keep it in it’s case.
Old strings can also affect your intonation and tuning, if it they are old. At a certain point in a string’s life, they stretch or shrink. I like to stick to the 1 month rule, if you play pretty often.