When speaking with guitarists about “Intonation” you will always be speaking about how your guitar is set up. A guitar set up is the configuration of all the components on a guitar (such as strings, action, saddle, pickups, nut, machine heads). Just to m make things, slightly more confusing Intonation is also quite often mistaken for “guitar action”, even though they are completely different. Intonation will likely be at the core of any guitars conversation and quite rightly so! Before I go into all the little details, let us first clarify guitar intonation.
What is Guitar Intonation? Intonation is the accuracy of the pitch along your guitars fretboard. This is because as you play frets down the fretboard the pitch can go out the further you play. The good news is that this can be easily fixed knowing a simple technique.
In this article, I will discuss everything you need to know, and what actions you must take to ensure your guitars action is in tune along the fret board.
1. What is Guitar Intonation?
As discussed, Intonation is the terminology we use to describe the accuracy of the pitch as we fret notes across the fretboard. Once you tune your guitar the pitch accuracy can go flat or sharp as you play down to the 12th fret. This happens because the tension of the string is not accurately balanced and the pitch will get worse the further you go down the fretboard. For examples, when you tune your guitar you pluck the open (unfretted) strings which will hold the accurate pitch. However, when you fret on the 12th fret, the tension of the string increases slightly, which bends the pitch of the note slightly upward.
Overall, if the tension is not set right then it can affect the whole tuning of your guitar. Furthermore, the adjustments of the tension are very subtle, but the consequence of this happening can severely influence the accuracy of the notes and dissonant chords.
Getting your intonation right is essential for any guitar. The frightening thing is that any guitar (cheap and expensive) may have problems with this, as time passes this can become a problem for any guitar so frequent setups maybe required.
2. Why is Intonation Important?
Intonation is important as it controls the accurate of pitch across the fretboard. It is so to ensure that all the notes on the fretboard are in tune. There is nothing more frustrating than playing to an audience and your guitar will not stay in tune. Whereby, Intonation is the biggest culprit behind tuning problems. Overall, this will require a good setup to put right.
Further, if your guitar requires intonating then the best practice to do this is by doing it yourself. This is because having another person intonates the guitar for you; you are calibrating the intonation based on their playing style. For example, as the pressure you apply on the strings can also affect ever so slightly whether the intonation is shape or flat. Whereby, this becomes a problem when the owner of the guitar and the person calibrating it presses on the frets with different amounts of pressure.
3. Intonation and Action
Intonations and action do somewhat relate to one another for a good guitar setup. If your guitar has ‘low action’ (this is when the strings are closer to the fretboard) will result in more accurate intonation. This is because when the action is lower than the less the strings need to stretch.
4. How To Check Whether Your Guitars Intonation Is Accurate
If you are looking to check you guitars intonation then the idea is that th open string and the octave on the 12th fret are both playing the right notes.
So the first thing you want to do is tune your guitars as you would normally (hitting the open strings).
Play the harmonic on the 12th fret and tune all strings
Then fret it at the 12th fret and it should be exactly the same according to the tuner
If it is Sharpe, then it means the distance between the 12th fret and the bridge is short so you need to move the bridge peg back until the reading is the same for both when the harmonic is plays and the string is fretted.
If it is flat, then it means the distance between the 12th fret and the bridge is too far apart so you need to move the bridge peg forward until the reading is the same for both when the harmonic is plays and the string is fretted.
The ‘flat forward’ is the way to remember it.
Repeat this process for each string and the intonations will be perfect for each string afterwards. But, it is also important to note that this must only be done with new strings, as old strings have been stretch out and don’t intonate very well.
In this article, we discussed about intonation and what to look out for the ensure you guitar is playing accurately across the fretboard. We also discussed, that it is better for the guitar owner to intonate, rather than a luthier / guitar tech as they will not know how hard you press the notes when playing. Only the guitar owner can do this.
Furthermore, we also learnt that intonations issues can be subtle, whereby blow action that is lower even by a few millimetres will intonates more accurately. This is especially important to understand if you recording, or playing live as bad intonation can ruin your music and really sound horrific.