What is Intonation?

What is intonation on a guitar, and is it important? Well, yes, it could be very. If your guitar is poorly intonated it could play horribly out of tune! It may sound fine down low playing open chords, but suddenly, when the solo starts, up at the fifteenth fret… aaaahhhhgg!

electric guitar intonation

Figure 1 – Strings passing over the saddles of  a Fender Jaguar guitar.

I’ve known young guitarists change out tuning keys, and even buy new guitars because their old guitar would never stay in tune. In many instances it was just a matter of a poor setup, with nothing wrong with the guitar or any of it’s components.

But don’t worry, adjusting intonation is really very easy. All you need is a guitar tuner and a screwdriver. This article tells you how.

How to set the intonation on an electric guitar?

Plug your guitar into an electric guitar tuner, and tune the first string. Once it is perfectly in tune, play the same string at the octave (12th fret). What does the tuner say? Sharp? Flat? If it is not in tune, your guitar needs an intonation adjustment.

This is done by moving the relevant saddle by a very small amount. If the note was sharp, it needs to travel away from the bridge; if flat, towards the bridge. This is usually accomplished by turning a bridge screw.

This process of tuning the open string, testing at the twelfth fret, and adjusting where necessary should be repeated until each string is perfectly in tune up and down the fretboard.

In some instances, no matter how hard you try to intonate a string, it will never keep tune adequately. Old or damaged strings can cause such problems, as can incorrect strings, and silk windings extending too far onto the string, and onto the saddle.

Many older electric guitars from the 1950s and early 1960s have no means of intonation adjustment. Some have a one-piece bridge that  is not attached to the guitar top, and must be moved in entirety to make adjustments.

In short: learn how to intonate your guitar, it’s incredibly easy. Spend 10 minutes, and make sure you sound at your very best!

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One thought on “What is Intonation?”

  1. Good article, and I agree people always blame tuning problems on the machine heads, when it’s often a bad set up. It might take more than 10 mins to learn this – especially if you don’t do it too often. If in doubt, visit your local guitar tech.

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