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How to Intonate a Guitar (Quick, Easy Steps)

Have you ever had the experience where you just finished tuning your guitar, but somehow it still sounds just a little bit off?

You’re not alone.

The culprit could be a problem with intonation. This article will explore what intonation is, why it’s essential, and how to intonate a guitar. 

What is Intonation?

Intonation is how in-tune your guitar is along the fretboard. A string might be at the perfect pitch when played open, but it also needs to keep its pitch as you move up the fretboard.

Tuning your guitar refers to bringing each open string to the proper frequency. However, as you move up the fretboard, those strings can go slightly out of tune with themselves. When you intonate a guitar properly, each note played on the fretboard is on perfect pitch. 

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 Essentially intonation is the instrument being in tune with itself! 

Why Is Intonation Important?

Without proper intonation, a guitar that is perfectly tuned can sound off-pitch. Sometimes the pitch difference is nearly unnoticeable, and yet it can ruin the whole sound. If you find yourself wondering why your pitch just “feels off,” the problem might be intonation. 

Like all instruments, guitars are a mechanism of precision. Beginners may not notice intonation issues. The more you play and the more advanced your technique, the more obvious it will be when the intonation is off. 

Intonation is a subtle but critical element that separates good guitar playing from great.

How to Check Your Guitar’s Intonation

Checking your guitar’s intonation is very easy! You will need five tools and can check your intonation in four simple steps.

Tools Needed

You will need the following tools to check and fix intonation:

  • Accurate guitar tuner that shows the frequency of each note in Hertz (Hz)
  • Guitar cable
  • Flathead screwdriver or Allen wrench to adjust the saddles in your bridge
  • New strings (optional)
  • A quiet space to work

With these tools, you’re ready to check your intonation! 

Step 1: Tune Your Guitar

Since intonation is about your guitar being in tune with itself, you have to be sure it is in tune. “In tune” means that the open strings are hitting the exact frequency they should. When you measure intonation in the next step, you’ll be comparing against this base note, so the note needs to be perfect.

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To tune: plug your guitar into the tuner and make sure your strings sound in their natural pitch. Standard guitar tuning sets the 5th string, or “A” string, to 440 Hz.

Step 2: Test the 12th-fret Harmonic

Comparing the 12th fret note to the 12th-fret harmonic is the easiest and most reliable way to test your guitar’s intonation.

A note for beginners: Every note we sing, play, or strike contains harmonics. Vibrations create sound, and those vibrations cause a host of subtle overtones. We hear the primary note as one tone, but it’s a combination of many overtones called guitar harmonics. The main note is sometimes called the “first harmonic.”

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Guitarists can isolate the harmonics – or play the harmonic – by lightly touching the string. You can start with any string you like, but I recommend starting with the 1st or 6th so you can keep track. That’s either the low E or the high E. 

To play the harmonic, you should lightly touch the string at the 12th fret without pushing down or putting pressure on it. Strum the note with your picking hand while releasing your finger on the 12th fret simultaneously.

Check this note on your tuner. If it is not perfectly in tune, adjust the string until it is in tune.

Step 3: Test the 12th-fret Note

Now you are going to compare the 12th-fret harmonic with the 12th-fret note. Press down the string on the 12th fret and strike the string with your plucking hand. Check the note on your tuner. 

If this note is not in tune, your intonation is off! 

If the note is showing as lower than the 12th-fret harmonic, it is flat. If it’s higher than the 12th-fret harmonic, it is sharp. 

If the 12th fret note is in tune for this string, it means this string’s intonation is correct. However, you still have to check the other five strings.

Step 4: Repeat the Steps for Each String 

Perfect guitar intonation means that each string is perfectly intonated. You can begin to see what a subtle art this is and what a difference intonation can make!

Repeat steps 1-3 on each string of your guitar. Be sure to take notes on each string, so you know if they are sharp, flat, or correctly intonated. 

Guide to Intonate the Guitar

Okay, so let’s assume that one or more of your strings was not perfectly in tune with its harmonic. That means you need to intonate your guitar. I know it can sound overwhelming, but you can intonate a guitar in a few quick, easy steps. 

First, let’s define a couple of terms.

The Bridge and Saddles

Adjusting the intonation is essentially shortening or lengthening a string. You accomplish this by changing the bridge position. Different guitars may have different bridge types, so we’ll explain the mechanism for each.

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The way to adjust the bridge position is through the mechanism called the saddle. Each string runs from its start point at the bridge through what is called a “saddle.” The saddles hold the strings at one end and can slide forward and backward, effectively increasing and decreasing the string’s open length.

Rules for Intonation

The rules for intonation are:

  • If the pitch is sharp, increase the guitar string’s length. To increase the string’s length, move the saddle backward toward the bridge. A sharp pitch is higher than the harmonic, and increasing the length lowers the pitch. 
  • If the pitch is flat, decrease the guitar string’s length. To decrease the string’s length, move the saddle forward toward the neck. A flat pitch is lower than the harmonic, and reducing the length raises the pitch.

You can remember this by memorizing the two F’s: “Flat equals Forward.” 

Okay, so how do you do it?

Step 1: Protect Your Guitar

You will be using the flathead screwdriver or Allen wrench to adjust the guitar’s bridge saddles. Any time you are bringing sharp tools near your guitar, you want to take precautions to ensure you don’t slip up and ruin the finish. 

Use a soft rag or cloth to place over the guitar’s body, flush with the bridge’s edges. Now you’re protected from accidents.

Step 2: If Your Fretted Note is Sharp

If your string was sharp, you need to lower the pitch. To do this, you need to increase the string’s length by moving the saddle back towards the bridge. 

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Using the following guide for different bridge types, adjust the saddles by turning the screw ¼ turn at a time until you get a sense of how much it needs to be adjusted.

  • Fender-Style Bridge: Use your flathead screwdriver to turn the screw clockwise.
  • Gibson-Style/Tune-o-Matic Bridge: Use your flathead screwdriver to turn the screw counter-clockwise.
  • PRS Wraparound or Stop-Tail Bridge: You will have to angle the screw underneath the strings and turn counter-clockwise.

Tip: When you are increasing your string’s length, be sure to loosen the string’s tension. Increasing the length also increases tension and could cause the string to break. De-tune the string first to protect it. Check with the manufacturer (read some documentation) on the type of bridge it is in order to adjust accordingly.

Step 3: If Your Fretted Note is Flat

If your string was flat, you need to raise the pitch. To do this, you need to decrease the string’s length by moving the saddle forward towards the neck. Remember, “Flat equals Forward.”

Using the following guide for different bridge types, adjust the saddles by turning the screw ¼ turn at a time until you get a sense of how much it needs to be adjusted.

  • Fender-Style Bridge: Use your flathead screwdriver to turn the screw counter-clockwise.
  • Gibson-Style/Tune-o-Matic Bridge: Use your flathead screwdriver to turn the screw clockwise.
  • PRS Wraparound or Stop-Tail Bridge: You will have to angle the screw underneath the strings and turn clockwise.

Step 4: Repeat for Each String 

You will need to repeat this process for each string that was not in tune with itself. 

After intonating each string, retune the guitar to pitch and check everything against the tuner. If any string is still off, you need to run it through the steps again.

The process might seem tedious, but the payoff is enormous in precision and sound.

Challenges With Intonation

While adjusting the strings’ length should fix intonation, a few other factors may be at play. You also might hit a few unexpected snags along the way. Here’s how to handle a few common challenges.

The Saddle is Adjusted All the Way

You may find in rare cases that you’ve adjusted the saddle in one direction, and your intonation is still off. 

When this happens, you could be facing two different issues. 

  • The neck of the guitar is bowed. Guitar strings are very tight and can sometimes cause the neck to bend in on itself slightly. A bowed neck means that your truss rod – the steel rod that runs inside the neck – probably needs adjusting or replacing.
  • Your strings need replacing. If you have checked the truss rod and are confident the neck is straight, you may just have bad strings.

The Guitar’s Action is Too High

Action describes how high the strings are above the fretboard. The bridge controls action height. 

Action height is generally up to the guitarist’s personal preference. The higher it is, the more difficult to press down the strings. The lower it is, the more likely you are to get a little buzz from the fret. 

However, if you set your action too high, it may affect the strings’ length and change the intonation. 

Your Finger Pressure is Affecting Intonation

Every musician has a different natural grip and finger pressure. Depending on how hard you press down on the string, you will affect the pitch slightly either way. 

A firm touch may push the strings out of tune. If you have tried everything else, consider adjusting the pressure of your touch. Or simply be sure you use the same amount of pressure when you test intonation as you do when you play.

How Often Should You Intonate Your Guitar?

Put simply: any time the intonation is off!

Intonation can fluctuate for many reasons. Like any other machine, guitars need regular maintenance (such as cleaning). They are precision instruments, and even a slight disturbance can affect their intonation.

Climate is one of the most common threats to proper intonation. If you travel with your guitar or experience extreme temperature changes or humidity, test out the intonation.

You should also go through all the steps of checking and setting intonation whenever you change your guitar strings.

How Much Does it Cost to Intonate a Guitar?

We all have to weigh the costs and benefits of time spent on our instruments. If you ultimately decide that you would rather have your guitar set up professionally, the price typically won’t break the bank.

A full guitar setup can cost anywhere from around $50-$100, depending on how much work your guitar needs.

Intonation alone should cost closer to $30, but while a professional has it, you probably want to have them check the whole guitar. 

Final Thoughts 

Guitars are beautiful, precise instruments. Intonation is one of the most subtle elements of a correctly set up guitar. Some people may not even notice when it’s off, but a slight issue with intonation can make the whole guitar sound out of tune. 

Fortunately, it’s reasonably easy to fix intonation at home. Use these quick, easy steps to get your guitar right back in tuned-up shape.

Read Next:

Properly clean your guitar strings

Try playing fingerstyle guitar

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Last Updated on May 2, 2021 by Liam F. Admin