Last Updated on April 28, 2023 by Teemu Suomala
Author: Tyler Connaghan
Tyler Connaghan is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Tyler has been playing the guitar since 2007. In between writing for guitar publications, he produces music for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.
Expertise: music industry, producing, acoustic & electric guitars, songwriting
Bachelor of Science in Music Industry Studies, Music IndustryHide The Rambling▲
Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala
I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.
I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.
I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).Hide The Rambling▲
Intonation — the secret code that very few guitarists know how to decipher.
However, guitar intonation is a crucial aspect of the setup, necessary for getting the best tone possible. If you have intonation that is out of whack, you might believe that you’re playing in tune, though as you move up a few frets, you get closer to a sound that’s nothing short of disastrous.
It’s incredibly frustrating, though we’re here to help.
This guide will help you navigate the dark art of intonating a guitar.
What Is Intonation? – Guitar Intonation Explained
If you’ve ever played an open chord on your guitar that sounded perfect, only to have that same chord sound like a hot mess when you revoiced the chord a few frets up, you’ve most likely dealt with an intonation issue.
So, what exactly is intonation?
Essentially, intonation is your guitar’s ability to stay in tune as you move up and down the fretboard. A guitar that has good intonation will play the correct pitch as you move from fret to fret. On the other hand, a guitar with poor intonation will sound like your best friend singing karaoke after a few tequila shots.
Unfortunately, even the best tuners can’t fix poor intonation, so knowing how to adjust it is crucial.
Is Guitar Intonation Important?
Not only is guitar intonation important, it’s essential if you want your guitar to sound its best. Having a properly intonated guitar can make the difference between sounding like you’re in a middle school garage band and sounding like a professional.
How to Intonate Your Electric Guitar?
Tune Your Guitar to Standard
Using a reliable tuner, tune your guitar to standard tuning EADGBE. This is crucial for getting a good intonation reference point. While you can use one of the many tuner apps or clip-on tuners available on the market, I highly recommend getting yourself a line-in tuner.
Check the 12th-Fret Harmonic
Starting on the low E string, play the 12th-fret harmonic and compare it to the actual fretted note on the 12th fret. If the fretted note is sharp or flat compared to the harmonic, you’ll need to make some saddle position adjustments for that string.
This video reveals how to play a harmonic:
Adjust the Saddle Accordingly
Most electric guitar saddles will come with screws, which you can turn to adjust the length of the string from the saddle to the pegs.
- If the note is sharp, this means that your string is too short and you must lengthen the string. You can do so by adjusting the saddle toward the bottom of the body. With the majority of saddle types where you approach the intonation screw from the end of the guitar’s body, this means turning the screw to the right.
- On the other hand, if your intonation is flat, this means that your strings are too long and you need to adjust the saddle so that it sits closer to the headstock. This will decrease the string length and bring it into correct intonation. With the majority of saddle types where you approach the intonation screw from the end of the guitar’s body, turn the intonation screw to the left.
It’s important to make these adjustments in very small increments, checking in-between. I often like to do this in quartern turns with the screws.
Of course, with so many different types of bridges, the way in which we intonate can change depending on the bridge you’re dealing with. Let’s take a look at a few different bridge types and how to intonate each.
This video by Sweetwater does a great job explaining how to adjust the intonation of a guitar:
Various Bridge Types and How to Intonate Them
The bridge is just one part of the anatomy of electric guitars, though it’s an incredibly important component when it comes to intonating your guitar.
Fender Stratocaster Bridge
If you’re a proud owner of a Stratocaster, you’re lucky, as the bridge type on these guitars are wildly easy to adjust. You can manipulate each of the six saddles independently using the base screws.
- You’ll turn the screw clockwise (right) to elongate the string, which is the move if your intonation is sharp.
- On the other hand, if you have flat intonation, you’ll shorten the length of the string by turning the screw counterclockwise (left).
Again, it only takes very small turns to make big differences.
Fender Telecaster Bridge
More and more guitarists are getting back into vintage guitars, which brings us to the old-school Telecaster bridge. This three-saddle brass barrel bridge can be somewhat of a nightmare when it comes to making intonation adjustments, as it has two strings on each saddle. This means that each time you try to intonate one string, you will also impact its saddle mate, whether or not its saddle mate needs adjustments.
The process of intonating the guitar is essentially the same as the Strat, though because of the vintage bridge design, you’ll pretty much never get flawless intonation.
- If your note is sharp, turn the screw to the right.
- If your note is flat, turn the screw to the left.
Gibson Tune-O-Matic Bridge
Gibson may not be the inventor of rock and roll, though the company has certainly done its part to revolutionize the guitar world. One of the major contributions that the manufacturer made was the Tune-O-Matic bridge. This unique bridge can be found on many Gibson and Gibson-style guitars, such as the ES, SG, and Les Paul models.
Tune-O-Matic bridges are unique to Fender-style bridges, as they have screws on top, making the intonation process a bit different.
- If your intonation is sharp, you can lengthen the string by turning the screw counterclockwise (left).
- If you have flat intonation, on the other hand, you can shorten the length of the string by turning the screw clockwise (right).
PRS Wraparound Stoptail Bridge
While PRS guitars are top-notch in terms of quality and design, but trying to intonate their guitars with the fixed saddle wraparound stoptail bridges can be a bit tricky.
The fixed saddle version, similar to the Telecaster bridge, is nearly impossible to achieve perfect intonation with, as you have to shift the entire bridge to make any adjustments. You have to use the dual adjustment screws on each side of the bridge to angle it up, down, or horizontally.
- You can increase the string length by turning either the screws clockwise.
- You can decrease the length by turning either of the screws counterclockwise.
It should be noted that nowadays there are versions of PRS Wraparound Stoptail Bridge with separate intonation adjustment screws available .
How to Intonate Your Acoustic Guitar?
As you probably know, the anatomy of an acoustic guitar is much different than an electric guitar.
The unfortunate truth about most acoustic guitar bridges is that they are not adjustable. The set saddles found on acoustic guitars are made out of bone, plastic, or other synthetic substitutes, meaning you can’t adjust the string length without making serious modifications to the entire guitar.
Some guitarists will try and fill the areas in the saddle where the strings are sitting, though this only lengthens the string very slightly.
However, there are some acoustic guitar manufacturers that are starting to come out with compensated saddles. These saddles use small notches for the higher G, B, and E strings, allowing players to make intonation adjustments with ease.
It is worth noting that even compensated saddles have limitations, so, in the meantime, embrace the imperfections some acoustic guitars and chalk it up to “character.”
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Most Common Things Causing Intonation Problems
Don’t fret (pun very much intended), as there are ways to avoid issues with intonation issues without making difficult adjustments.
Here’s a list of things that are likely causing you to have intonation issues.
- Incorrect Bridge Placement – If your bridge isn’t placed correctly, it can throw off your guitar’s intonation. We recommend taking it to a guitar tech to have it inspected.
- Worn-Out Saddle – On an acoustic guitar, the saddle is there to hold your strings in place and set their length. If your saddle is worn, it could be causing intonation issues.
- Poorly Cut Nut – Your nut is responsible for setting string height near the top of the neck, and an incorrectly cut nut can cause major intonation issues. Check out our guide to different nut material options if you’re considering an upgrade!
- Improperly Wound Strings – Learn how to wind your string correctly!
- Old or Worn Strings – If your strings are looking crusty and rusty, they’re likely not holding tuning properly. Change them ASAP!
- Incorrect String Gauges – If you’re using a different string gauge than your guitar was setup for, it could be causing intonation problems.
- Playing Technique – Pressing too hard on your strings? Unfortunately, this often-overlooked technique issue could be the root of your tuning problems! This can happen really easily with extra jumbo and jumbo-sized frets.
Things That Can Provide Better Intonation
If you want to elevate your intonation game, there are many modifications that can better your guitar. Let’s look at a few of the most popular:
- High-Quality Hardware – The better the tuning machines on your guitar, the more precise your tuning will be, which can improve your guitar’s overall intonation.
- Higher-Quality Saddle, Nuts, and Bridges – I highly recommend using bone or synthetic nuts and saddles, as they can provide better intonation than plastic. You should also explore the various bridge types to see if you can procure a higher-quality component.
- Compensation Frets – Having compensation frets installed on a guitar can help intonation, as these frets are slightly angled to compensate for string tension differences between open and fretted notes.
- Truss Rod Adjustments – To maintain proper neck relief and get better intonation across the fretboard, you might need to adjust the truss rod.
- Bracing – On acoustic guitars, V-class bracing is best for improving sustain and intonation compared to X-bracing.
Should Guitar Intonation Be Perfect?
Due to the nature of the guitar, it will never be perfectly intonated, though that doesn’t stop guitarists from striving to achieve the best possible intonation. And it is wise to try to get the best possible intonation for your guitar.
How to Check Guitar Intonation?
To check your guitar’s intonation, you can:
- Tune the guitar to pitch
- Play the 12th fret harmonic and the 12th fret for each string
- Compare the pitch of the harmonic and fretted note with a tuner
You’ll then have to adjust the saddle position depending on whether the note is sharp or flat compared to the harmonic.
What if Guitar Intonation Is Always Sharp?
If your guitar intonation is always sharp, you could be dealing with one of several issues:
- Your strings might be old and worn, or you might be using improper gauges for the setup
- The bridge saddle might be too close to the nut
- The saddle might be positioned improperly, meaning you’ll have to either adjust the truss rod or move the bridge to alter the scale length
- You are pressing the strings too hard
Are There Specific Guitar Intonation Tools?
There are many guitar intonation tools you might consider getting:
- Electronic Tuners – The more accurate, the better
- Feeler Gauges – These are used to measure the distance between the fret and the string to determine saddle height
- Nut Files – These are used to adjust the shape of the nut slots or the height of the nut altogether
- Fret Leveling File – These are used to ensure the frets are perfectly level
Having these tools on hand is essential if you want to go the more affordable DIY route when intonating your guitar.
Conclusion on Guitar Intonation
As you can see, achieving the best intonation possible will ensure your guitar’s sound and playability are the best they can be. Through regular adjustments and maintenance, you’ll be able to keep your guitar in tip-top shape and unlock its full potential!
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