Guitar Setup and Intonation

Guitar Setup and Intonation
Guitar Setup and Intonation
By: Gary Allen
I thought I might take a break from the effects articles this week and talk about
guitar intonation. Lets face it. Most players either don’t know what intonation is or
they are to afraid to try to do it themselves. If you are a player that is going to try
adjusting your intonation for the first time I suggest that you use a guitar that you
do not play on a regular basis until you get the hang of it. If you use your regular
playing guitar and do not get the intonation right you will have a guitar that will
not play in tune no matter how many times you tune it. If this happens, do not
worry. You have not damaged the guitar and you can take it into a professional
to reset the intonation. Intonation setting gives you no chance of doing any
permanent damage to your guitar unless you try to do it blindfolded sitting in the
middle lane of a busy interstate. Of course this will probably void your warranty
Now lets define intonation. Intonation is the ability of the guitar to stay in tune for
the entire length of the scale. This basically means that any note that you fret
from the first fret to the last fret will be perfectly in tune. Intonation has to do with
the total length of the string from its contact points at the nut and the bridge. If
the string is to long or short it will cause you to be out of tune when you fret notes
of chords. This is because the string stretches as you fret notes. If the guitar is
not set up to compensate for this stretching you will pull the strings pitch either
flat or sharp. There are a few ways to check this, but I will get into that later.
There are other adjustments that need to be made before you can adjust your
First off, lets look at what can cause your intonation to be off. Here are a few
examples of things that can cause intonation problems.
String Height: If the action on your strings is set to high then you have to push
them further to make contact with the fingerboard or frets. This will cause to
much stretching of the string resulting in the pitch of the fretted note being too
A Loose Saddle: The saddle is the part of the bridge that the string makes
contact with. Saddles are the adjustable part of the bridge that you use in setting
the intonation. If any saddle is loose the string will change length every time the
saddle moves. This will cause notes to be to sharp or flat depending on the
movement of the saddle. Once the intonation is set the saddles should be
A Change of String Gauge: If you change the gauge of strings that you use this
can have an adverse effect on your intonation. A heavier gauge of string will put
more pressure on the neck of the guitar while a lighter gauge will put less stress
on the neck. This can change the natural bow of the neck causing a change in
string length. The adjustment for this lies with the truss rod, which leads us to the
adjustments that must be made before to adjust the intonation.
Guitar Setup Before Intonation Adjustment
This section will deal with the setup of the guitar you will need to do before you
adjust the intonation. If you do any of these steps after the intonation is adjusted
it will ruin all the work you did to the intonation and you will have to do it all over
again. Adjusting your intonation takes quit a bit of time so you will probably only
want to do it once and be done with it.
Change Your Strings: The first thing you want to do is to change your strings.
Put on a fresh set of strings in the gauge you will use on a regular basis.
Set Your String Height: The first adjustment you will want to make is your string
height. On most guitar you can set each string height separately using the height
adjustment screws on each individual saddle. You will need a six inch ruler with
1/32” and 1/64” increment and a small phillips screw driver.
First tune the guitar. Now measure the distance between the bottom of the string
and the top of the 17th fret. Check with your guitar manufacture for the
specifications for your particular guitar. Use the saddle height adjustment screws
to adjust each string. If your saddles are pre set you may have to adjust the
whole bridge to the closest spec.
Left Picture: Tunomatic
Style Bridge. (On Most Les
Paul Style Guitars) Use a
flat head screwdriver.
Right Picture: Strat Style
Tremolo. (Most Strat & Tele
Style Guitars) Use a very
small allen wrench for height
Here are some basic specifications that will work with most electric guitars.
Neck Radius:
9.5” to 12”
15” to 17”
17th Fret String Height
5/64” - 4/64”
4/64” - 3/64”
Adjust The Truss Rod: The second adjustment you will want to make is to the
“truss rod”. The truss rod is a metal rod that goes down the length the neck. The
purpose of this rod is to counteract the pressure put on the neck by the strings.
Without a truss rod the wood from the neck would snap in half from the pressure
of the strings. This adjustment unlike intonation setting can cause serious and
often unrepairable damage to the guitar if done improperly. If the truss rod is
tightened to much it can cause the fretboard to separate from the neck of the
guitar. It is advisable to do small adjustments at a time.
To adjust the truss rod you will need a capo and an automotive feeler gauge set.
Tune the guitar and then put the capo on the first fret. With the capo on the first
fret depress the string at the last fret. Using the automotive feeler gauge set
check the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the eighth fret.
The distance should be approximately .010”. The truss rod adjustment is found
at the top of the neck usually just above the nut.
Put Capo on the
First Fret
Use Feeler Gauge to
measure the gap between
the string and eighth fret
while fretting the string at
last fret. Gap should be
approximately .010”.
Adjust Truss Rod
Make the adjustment by looking up the neck of the guitar toward the tuning
Neck too concave - Adjust truss rod nut counter-clockwise
Neck too convex- Adjust truss rod nut clockwise
Note: Do not turn the truss rod more than a ¼ turn at a time. After you make an
adjustment, take the capo off and re tune the guitar. Put the capo back on the
first fret and go through the same steps until you reach the goal of .010”
between the bottom of the low E string and the top of the eight fret. Do not forget
to retune the guitar between each adjustment.
If you feel uncomfortable adjusting the truss rod you should take your guitar to
an authorized service technician. I actually recommend this because of the
damage you can cause to your guitar if you do this wrong.
Setting the Intonation
Now that the string height is adjusted and the neck is straight we can start
adjusting the intonation. Remember that intonation is the ability of the guitar to
stay in tune down the entire length of the scale. You can tune your guitar with an
electric tuner and get all the open notes in tune, but that does not mean that any
note that you fret at any other fret location will be in tune.
Special Note: If you play in an alternate tuning you will want to set the intonation
in this tuning. For instance if you regularly play in a “Drop D” tuning you will want
to tune the guitar to “Drop D” before you set the intonation. Have you ever been
to a concert where the guitar player changed guitars during the show. This more
often than not is because that guitar player plays some songs in alternate
tunings. He has different guitars with the intonation set at different tunings for
this. If you set a guitars intonation for standard tuning it will note be completely in
tune for a “Drop D” tuning because of the reduced stress on the neck in “Drop
If you only have one guitar and play in multiple tunings, tune to the tuning you
use the most then intonate the guitar. The other tunings will not be perfect, but
they will be close. Ultimately you should have different guitars intoned to the
different tunings, but many people can not afford this, or they do not use an
alternate tuning enough to justify the cost of another guitar.
Now lets set the intonation. You will need a tuner, and a guitar cable. You will
also want a small screwdriver. For a Fender style bridge you will need a small
Phillips screwdriver. For a Gibson style bridge you will need a small flat head
screwdriver. If you have a different style bridge you will want to check and see
what kind of adjustment screws you have. I have even encountered allen wrench
style adjustment screws a few times, but mostly on Floyd Rose style tremolo
Left picture: Tunomatic
style bridge. Use a small
flat head screwdriver to
make saddle adjustment.
Right Picture: Vintage
tremolo system bridge.
Use a phillips screwdriver
to make saddle
The first thing you are going to want to do is to tune the guitar with the electric
tuner. Make sure and get it as close to perfect as possible. Remember to tune to
the tuning you use the most predominately.
Now that you are in tune you will want to fret the first string at the 12th fret. While
fretting this note pick the string and check the pitch on the electronic tuner. It
should be identical to the open string tuning of that same string.
If the pitch is “sharp” you will need to move the saddle away from the neck by
using the saddle adjustment screws at the bottom of the bridge. Turn the screw
clock-wise. This will pull the saddle away from the neck and lengthen the string.
Only turn the screw a quarter turn at a time. Retune the guitar to the open tuning
and go through these steps again until you have a perfect octave. Once you
achieve the intonation on this string you will move on to the next string and
repeat this procedure all over again until all strings are intonated.
If the pitch is “flat” you will need to move the saddle toward the neck using the
saddle adjustment screw on the bottom of the bridge. Turn the screw counter
clock-wise. This will push the saddle toward the neck and shorten the string.
Once again only turn the screw a quarter turn at a time. Retune the guitar to the
open note and go through these steps again until you have a perfect octave on
the open string and twelfth fret. Now repeat this procedure with each string until
finished. Once you have finished each string you have completed a basic
intonation of your guitar.
Note: Always remember to retune the guitar to the open tuning every time you
adjust a saddle in either direction. Anytime you shorten or lengthen a string by
moving the saddle it will ruin the tuning of that string. Trying to set the intonation
while the string is out of tune in the open position will get you nowhere fast.
Some players and guitar techs will even go a step further and check the pitch of
every fretted note in the entire guitar scale length. The scale length is the entire
distance of the string from the point of contact on the nut to the point of contact
on the bridge saddles. While this is a truer intonation it is very time consuming
and can be very frustrating. I suggest just intonating at the twelfth fret until you
get the hang of it. If you feel the need to have your guitar intonated at every fret I
suggest having it done by a professional luthier, or your favorite local guitar tech.
I believe that the average cost of a standard intonation is about $65.00 USD.
This cost may vary depending on your location.
So how often and when should you set your intonation? If your guitar has not
been intonated in over a year I would suggest doing it. After you have it set up
you can quickly do it every time you change your strings. If you do this you
should only need to make a few very minor adjustments that can probably be
done in just a few moments.
If you change the string gauge you are using you will need to reset the
intonation. Heavier gauge strings put more stress on the neck while lighter
strings cause a reduced stress on the neck.
Any time you adjust your truss rod you will need to adjust your intonation. Any
changes in the neck will cause a shortening or lengthening of the string causing
the intonation to go crazy on you.
There is always the chance that your guitar is left out and your 5 year old child
sees these shiny things that this really cool looking screwdriver thingy fits into
and turns really neat like. You will need to reset your intonation!!!!
I hope you have found this article to be informative. Please feel free to E-mail
any questions or comments.
Gary Allen
[email protected]
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