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Standard Guitar Intonation
Introduction

As long as you have a Peterson Strobe Tuner and a set of working ears, you are fully equipped to intonate your own guitar. (For more technical modifications refer to an instrument technition.) This article will give you some helpful tips about setting up your guitar, and a basic step by step walkthrough of how to intonate your guitar.

Before getting to the actual intonation process, there are a couple of steps you should go through, and some overall guidelines to maintaing a great sounding instrument. After reviewing this introduction refer to the Intonate Your Guitar page.

INTRODUCTION

Guitars and Basses are categorized in the stringed family of instruments. The stringed family includes many different types of instruments including violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, electric bass, mandolin, ukelele, banjo, steel guitars, and any other instrument that uses strings without a keyboard and hammer action. In order for a string to produce pitch it needs to be suspended and set in motion. To produce a specific pitch the player regulates the string length by holding the string at a specific fret or position. It is because of the constant tension and vibration that strings go out of tune or even break. Other factors that effect intonation of guitars and basses are the bridge, nut, frets, neck, temperature, tuning keys, string action, string quality, and the player's technique.

Before rehearsing, performing or recording, it is essential that the action and intonation on your guitar or bass is set properly. Often there is not enough time on-stage or in the studio to make changes in the action and intonation of your instrument. Another issue that is frequently overlooked is that all tuning instruments have to be intonated with instruments that are not readily " tuneable". For instance, if there is a Hammond organ or a Vibrophone in your group, the tuner must be calibrated to these first. After the strobe tuner has been calibrated to these "immoveable objects", the other instruments can be tuned using the strobe tuner.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - lkj
REMOVING OLD STRINGS

Restringing your instrument is easy once you have done it several times. A suggestion often passed along is to change your strings one at a time. The reason for this is to avoid relieving all the stress on the neck at one time. Constant applying and relieving of the tension on a guitar or bass neck can cause it to loosen, warp or even crack.

Opinions differ on this last point, suffice it to say that removing all strings simultaneously will not be a problem for most modern guitars, it is often necessary to do this in order to clean and oil the fingerboard. Loosen the strings evenly, when all tension is removed, cut the old strings at the bridge, this avoids damage to slotted wooden bridges caused by pulling the entire string with its jagged coiled end through the holes. Les Paul and Bigsby type bridge assemblies should be taped to the body with light duty masking tape to avoid scratching the body or losing the stop bar/tailpiece. See elsewhere for advice on changing strings on guitars with Floyd Rose assemblies.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - lkj
SEATING NEW STRINGS

Make sure the end is securely fastened. For ball end strings this is easy, just look to verify that the ball is seated properly. Check for kinks or loose windings by running the string slowly through a clean dry cloth. Next, make sure that the string is placed properly on the bridge and nut. Some guitars have a notch for each string on both the nut and bridge, others have notches only on the nut. Check to see if the string is seated in the indentation. If a string is not seated properly it can affect the intonation of that string and also fall into place while you are playing, sending your instrument out of tune. When securing the string through the string post it is a good idea to leave enough slack in the string to allow for several wraps around the post.

As you wind, make sure the string wraps neatly downward on the string post. The downward wraps being in a tidy row will ensure that the string will not slip at the post and that the breaking angle of the string is steep, which provides for the best tone. Wind the string onto the machine-head capstan with one hand while keeping a little tension on the string with your other hand, this prevents the string from losing its seating at the bridge and capstan and helps pick up any remaining slack.

STRETCHING NEW STRINGS

It is important to stretch each string. New strings are elastic and have a tendency to stretch which causes them to become out of tune. By purposely stretching the strings you can eliminate some of the elasticity allowing the string to settle at a consistent tension. To stretch the strings, tune the instrument to a standard tuning using your peterson strobe tuner and pull each string, one at a time, away from the body of the guitar and up and down its length. For delicate fingers use a clean dry rag wrapped around the string. Be sure not to stretch them too far to avoid breakage. After stretching each string individually, re-tune the instrument using your strobe tuner. Continue the stretching process until the strings remain close to being in tune.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - lkj
NECK ALIGNMENT

Adjusting the neck on your instrument is subjective to each player's preference but there are some guidelines. Most guitars and basses have a truss rod adjustment at the headpiece of the neck. Others have the adjustment where the neck is fastened to the body or possibly no adjustment at all. The truss rod counteracts the natural string tension on the neck of a guitar or bass. By adjusting the truss rod you affect the straightness of the neck. The neck adjustment also partially affects the string action which, in turn, can affect the overall intonation. Neck adjustments should not be used to adjust the action even though it affects the action. (To regulate the action you need to adjust the bridge and if needs be, the nut.) Before making adjustments to the neck of your instrument, verify which direction you need to turn to loosen and tighten the truss rod nut. Some experienced guitar technicians suggest applying a small amount of hand-pressure on the neck in the direction that you intend to pull the neck with the truss rod while you are making this adjustment. This relieves undue pressure on the machined parts and body wood on which the truss rod is pulling - otherwise, these elements can loosen or break with wear over time. If you are drawing the neck back (away from the strings), it is advisable to loosen the tension on the strings also.

Two important issues to remember when adjusting the neck of your instrument are not to over tighten the truss rod nut and not to leave it too loose. Improper adjustment to the truss rod can cause the neck or truss rod to loosen, warp or even crack. If the truss rod adjustment is too tight, the neck will have a convex, outward curve [in relationship to the player] causing the first several frets to produce false pitches or buzzing pitches. A truss rod adjusted too loose will cause the neck to have a concave, inward curve which will cause the middle frets to produce a false pitch or buzzing pitch. A bowed neck can cause the distance between the strings and the fretboard to be too large. If the action is too high it takes more effort for the player to hold those frets and can actually increase the pitch due to the added tension.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - lkj
TRUSS ROD ADJUSTMENT

To access the truss rod nut you might have to remove a cover plate on the headstock or loosen the 3rd and 4th strings. In the case of some guitars the access is at the body end of the neck or inside the soundbox of the instrument. Once you have identified where the adjustment nut is, sight down the neck from the top to see if the neck needs adjustment. Use the strings as a comparison to judge the straightness of the neck. The string action should be relatively small near the nut and increase down the neck. If the neck is bowed up toward the strings, the truss rod nut is too tight. If the neck is bowed away from the strings or it appears that the strings are close near the nut but too far at the twelfth fret then the truss rod nut is too loose. To adjust the truss rod nut you will need the proper size Allen wrench which is usually included with new guitars, older guitars will sometimes require a large screwdriver. Be sure that the wrench/screwdriver you are using is the proper size to avoid damaging the truss rod nut. When you are adjusting the truss rod it is strongly recommended that you adjust it in 1/4 turn increments and sight the neck after each adjustment to avoid damaging the neck.

If there is resistance or you feel unsure about putting too much "muscle" behind the wrench/screwdriver, STOP! Many truss rods have been damaged or broken because of over tensioning. Be sure to re-tune your instrument in the playing position using your peterson strobe tuner after making each adjustment. Also, it is a good idea to sight the neck a day or two after making any adjustments in case any settling has occurred.

THE BRIDGE IN 3D

Adjusting the bridge on your instrument is easy once you understand that there are two adjustments that can be made. Bridges on guitars and basses affect intonation and action. To adjust the action you simply lower or raise the height of the bridge or bridge saddles. To adjust the intonation of your instrument move the bridge or bridge saddles to be closer or farther from the head of the instrument. Adjusting the intonation on the bridge affects the string length. Be sure to re-tune your instrument using your peterson strobe tuner after making any adjustments. The two most common styles of bridges are one-piece bridges, and individual string saddle bridges. There are many variations on bridges such as saddles that support two strings or tremolo bridges [tremolo bridges are sometimes and more appropriately called hand vibratos]. Acoustic instruments often have fixed bridges and adjustments can only be made by qualified instrument repair professionals.

SADDLE HEIGHT

The height of the bridge can be affected by the two adjusting screws on a one-piece bridge or individual string saddle. By adjusting the height of the bridge you can increase or decrease the distance of the strings from the fretboard. When adjusting the bridge to affect the action it is important the find the medium between low string action and notes that do not produce a buzzing sound. Using your peterson strobe tuner, be sure to re-tune your instrument after making an adjustment.

BENCH VERSUS PLAYING POSITION

It is often recommended that you lay the instrument on a table or workbench when you are adjusting the bridge intonation on your guitar or bass. Another recommendation is to actually hold the instrument as if you were playing it. Holding the instrument while you are intonating is difficult; however, it is the best simulation of actual playing conditions. Rule of thumb would be, make the adjustment on the bench and observe the change while holding the guitar in the playing position. Strings are so sensitive that intonation can vary when a guitar is vertical or horizontal.




For more information on intonation check out the Peterson Tuning and Intonation Guide. The guide features the step by step intonation process for various electric guitars, bass guitars, and acoustics. The DVD also features setups for guitars equipped with Floyd Rose, Buzz Feiten, and Ervana types of modifications.

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