A Simple Guide To Intonation

Hey there fellow gear heads. In the last few installments we have pondered the quest for the ever illusive “Tone” and how to achieve the sound we have been so long searching for. From picking instruments to amplification and effects, we covered the gamut and broke down the most critical points. Now that we have the basics down, it’s time to start dealing with the details.

We have all had that more than confounding moment when we have just strung up new strings on our electric guitar or bass, wound them up to tune, went to play a chord and something just was not right…especially when you begin to move up the fret board. Suddenly your perfectly tuned old friend sounds janky as can be. “Why God, why when it used to sound so great does it now sound like hammered…well you know!”

Don’t worry this is a much more common situation than you may think. Believe it or not in my more than 15 years as an engineer I have only met a handful of musicians who intonate regularly. The perfectionists do it almost as regularly as tuning, especially if the instrument has been moved frequently from one location to another. The easiest way to tell if your guitar is intonated properly is with a tuner.

Turn your tuner on and pluck an open sixth string, now place your finger on the twelfth fret of the sixth string and pluck it again. The tuner should read EXACTLY the same, or at least as close as possible for proper intonation. Follow this simple step for all strings on the instrument and you will soon find the culprit that is not intonated. “Well how did my previously intonated instrument get suddenly dis-intonated in the first friggin’ place?” you may ask. Well here’s the perfectly simple answer.

Let’s say you move the instrument a lot and bump it around, like in the trunk of a car perhaps, change a string or in this case all of the strings the saddles spring loose tension and set the saddles to a different position. A different position, even slightly, can change the intonation of a string. Let’s break down the operating principles here, first the parts.

bridge parts identified

The groovy plate that holds your strings in place on the body of your guitar is called a “Bridge”. The super neat little blocks that the strings sit on are called the “Saddles” and the long screws with springs around them are called the “Saddle Adjustment Screws”, these determine the distance of each string saddle from the edge of the bridge. Now that we know the parts let see how this happens. Remember, a guitar is a tension instrument. This means that the tone is created by the vibration of a string held under tension. The bridge holds the string ball or tied end to the guitar body to provide the resonance and on the opposite end of the guitar is the nut and tuning machines which provide, well the amount of tension. “Hey what about those nifty saddles you were talking about?”

Well my friend whereas the bridge provides the resonance and the tuning machines and nut provide the tension, the saddles provide the height of the string from the neck and the saddle adjustment screw allow you to change subtleties of string tuning by allowing you to adjust the bridge tension on the string, less tension at the bridge makes the note of the string to flat and more tension brings the note to sharp.

adjusting the screws

A quick review of the old mnemonic device “lefty loosey, righty tighty” and I think you can figure out that a turn to the right on the saddle adjustment crew yields a sharper note than the turn to the left which renders a flatter note. With your tuner on go from open note to twelfth fret on each string slowly and slightly turning the saddle adjustment screw appropriately until the desired intonation on each string is reached.

Viola! One perfectly tuned and intonated instrument. Now I know all you repair techs are like “Hey man, you just told them all.” Yes, I did. If a car owner should know that his tires need to be rotated regularly then guitarists need to know they sound funny when not properly intonated…there I said it. And there you have it, the Austin Hot Mods simple guide to intonation, what it is, why you need it and how to attain it. Until next time, may your fingers be nimble and your notes sustained to perfection.

~ as published in ROCKSTAR Magazine ~



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