How to Intonate Your Guitar

(photo: Me and Robby of the Doors, Tommy from KISS)


Okey, dokey. We’re going to learn how to intonate our guitar. Sounds imposing, right? You’re probably saying : “Gee, Daryl…that sounds so important and difficult that I should probably take my $149 Ventura to a qualified repairman and spend $35 to $50 to have it done right”—right? Well, if you have that kind of economic sense, I have an invisible tie-clip that I’m selling for $1 apiece (hint: it’s a paper clip). What is intonation and why is it important? Well Sparky, intonation is the adjustment to make our guitar play in tune up the neck, and playing in tune is important because we’re not going to be playing death metal all our lives. (Editor’s note: Mr. Buckner has a lousy sense of humor).

In to each life a little rain must fall: Acoustic players are stuck with a fixed bridge, and outside of repositioning the bridge (chisel, glue, sweat), there’s nothing that can be done. So, these following words are for primarily electric players.

The tools you will need are a screwdriver or Allen wrench, depending on which type of guitar you have, an electronic tuner, and a guitar cord to plug your guitar into the tuner. There are some mutants in this world that have a finely-tuned ear and don’t need a tuner to perform these small adjustments, but we’re not them.

Let’s begin. Your strings pass over the bridge, each string running through that little channel in each of the six bridge pieces. Each bridge piece has a screw running through it horizontally. On some guitars this screw is faced with a normal screwdriver head, some a “Phillips”, and some hot-rod metal guitars have an Allen wrench. Look at your guitar, determine which it is, and get one. New guitars usually come from the factory with the right one (see? They really DO care about you!). We are going to be moving the screw, which moves the bridge piece, to adjust the length of the string. The string runs from the tailpiece, over the bridge and on up to the nut and finally the tuners. All we care about is the vibrating length, which is the distance from each string’s contact point at the bridge and the nut, that piece of plastic at the head of your guitar. (Note: guitars with a locking tremelo/bridge assembly are different animals altogether—which I’ll address in future postings).

Plug in your tuner. Tune all six strings to their correct pitches (low-to-high: E,A,D,G,B,E).

AND NOW THE THEORY: For each of the six strings, their octave equivalent exists at the 12th fret (the double dot). Theoretically, on your big “E”, the “E” that exists at the double dot should match perfectly your open “E” on the same string. If it doesn’t, we move the bridge piece until it does. These are very fine increments—but they count. Tune your open big “E”, with the tuner, until it reads as close to perfect as possible (all tuners are finicky). Now fret the same string at the 12th. Does it read flat? Sharp? Either one—we’re going to fix that by turning that screw on the bridge piece. As your hand inserts the screwdriver/Allen wrench into the slot, your hand is a clock. If your octave “E” reads flat, we’re going to rotate our hand counter-clockwise. If it reads sharp—we’re going clockwise. Do a little bit, a turn or two, re-tune the open “E” and then check the 12th fret “E”. Better? Better but not perfect? Do it until it is. Now do it for the remaining five.

It’s always best to “intonate your guitar” with fresh strings. The new shiny ones will give you the most accurate reading. How often should you intonate your guitar? Ideally—every time you change strings. Sounds like a lot of hassle but it’s worth it. After all, your guitar is your Masseratti, and you wouldn’t hesitate to adjust the carburetor all the time to get the best performance, would you? If you change strings once a month, at $35 a pop for a “professional” tune-up, you just saved a couple-a-hundred bucks a year. Now you can trade that $149 Ventura in for a Tele. Keep in mind that pro players (who have string endorsements and $1,000 a-week guitar techs) change strings and intonate each one of their guitars every performance. I once watched Clint Black’s band’s guitar tech restring and re-intonate all their guitars (about 18) and we were there all afternoon and two beers.

For those of you who read “The right way to string your guitar”, an important thing to keep in mind is to put on fresh strings and then intonate. Actually, check your bow on your neck, put on fresh strings, and then intonate, Bow? That’s the next post.

Until then, happy strumming.


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