Oh man, I really do love guitar setup…
The amount of times that I’ve fiddled with something on my guitar, ended messing something up, got vigorously annoyed because I couldn’t put it back to how it was, hung my guitar from the ceiling because I’m mad, punched it a few times like Rocky, and then gone and cried in a corner…
Yeah, I’ve just stopped counting at this point.
So today I’ll be going over the best way to set & fix guitar intonation, some common problems & issues and how to deal with them, and how to make the adjustment correctly so that you don’t have to go through all that.
Make Sure You’ve Set Up Your Action First!
The last thing you want is going through the effort of intonating, realizing you wanna lower your action, and then having to do the whole god-damn thing again.
That’s because intonation is the LAST part to setting up your guitar after everything else.
But if you’ve already done this or are 100% happy with your action, then you can skip this.
If not, then setting up your truss rod right will allow you to get lower action. It might seem as scary to a first timer as a hippopotamus running at you in speedos, but it ain’t that bad in reality and it’s a quick job.
And what’s the worst that could happen… truss rods don’t (normally) bite!
So here’s a great video on how to easily adjust your truss rod if you’re interested:
And to change your action, they’ll be a couple of smaller screws on top of each string saddle at the bridge on most guitars.
But if you’ve got a Gibson/Tune-o-matic style bridge then these will be the two screws either side of the bridge. NOT the two massive screws either side of where the strings go in! Floyd Rose bridges tend to have a couple of extra steps so click here for a useful video on that.
Turn these screws clockwise/right to lower the action, and left/anticlockwise to raise it.
That’s “counterclockwise” for all you people from the US&A out there. *Little Borat reference for y’all…
If you do decide to lower it then make sure that you test every note on the string you’ve altered to make sure you don’t get any buzzy/dead notes.
And after you’re happy with how everything sounds and feels, you’ll be (almost) ready to intonate…
Things to Do Before Intonating
The reason that we set & fix intonation on our guitar is because we want all the notes, all the way up the neck to be as in tune as possible.
And to ensure we set this up accurately, there’s a few things that we need to do first to obliterate & tear to shreds some of the variables that will scupper our ability to judge that.
The first one is to make sure that your strings are stretched out and played in.
Basically, if you’ve changed your strings recently, then make sure you’ve done as follows:
- Tuned the strings to pitch.
- Pulled each new string once you’ve put it on the guitar, tugging all the way along stretch it.
- This should cause a fresh string to go out of tune. So tune back up and stretch the string again.
- Each time you do this, the string will go out of tune less and less.
- Finally, you’ll get to a point where you stretch the string, and it doesn’t go out of tune any more. Bingo! That’s where you want to be.
You’ll also want to make sure you have the neck pickup on your guitar selected (if you have one).
It’ll give you a purer signal than the bridge pickup, and so’ll increase intonation accuracy down the line. And yes, that will actually make a difference…
Another seemingly odd way to increase intonation accuracy is to set & fix intonation with your guitar stood up on it’s side.
Intonate just like you would if you were playing it. This is because gravity pulls the guitar neck & strings down differently than if it was lying down. Hey – you wanted accuracy!
And my final tip is to keep every string you aren’t currently tampering with muted.
There’s something called sympathetic vibration on guitar, where if you play an E note, the E strings will also very quietly start vibrating too.
Kinda mad, right? So to combat this, use your hand to mute the other strings.
You can even take things to the next level by throwing an elastic band around the strings past the nut and the springs in your tremolo if you have one.
Yes it looks stupid. And no! You should definitely not go out in public like that. But for now, let the elastic band become your best buddy.
And after you’ve got that delicious mutage down, you’ll be ready to actually intonate!
How to Intonate Your Guitar
Alright, welcome to the fun part. As I mentioned earlier, intonation is all about making sure we set & fix the strings so that notes all over the neck are as in tune as possible.
And to do this, we need to make sure the strings are the right length.
So Step 1 is to get yourself the best tuner you can find and tune up the low E string.
Step 2 is to play the 12th fret of the E string, and compare this note with the open E string note.
If the 12th fret note doesn’t move in pitch compared to the open string, even after you’ve tested it a couple of times, then you’re good to go.
It probably won’t be though, so notice whether the note is sharp (higher than) or flat (lower than) the pitch of the string played open. We’ll fix that next.
EPIC TIP: Make sure you hit both notes with consistent power, otherwise you’ll end up knocking one out of tune.
Step 3 is to tighten or loosen the screw behind the bridge saddle.
If the string is flat, then turn anticlockwise to push the saddle forwards. This shortens the string, and increases the pitch.
And if the string is sharp, then turn clockwise to pull the string back and lengthen it. This decreases the pitch.
As Jesus once said, “Righty tighty, lefty loosey”.
And once you’ve made this adjustment, pat the saddle down with the head of your screwdriver to put all its gears back into place.
Some bridges like the Tune-o-matic bridge will have the intonation screws pointing towards the bottom of the guitar instead. In this case, the direction you turn the screw to pull the saddle forwards and backwards is inverted.
E.g. If the string is flat, turn clockwise to pull the saddle forwards instead. We are still shortening the string and increasing the pitch, we just have to turn the screw the other way.
Step 4 is to retune the string after adjustment and test the 12th fret note again.
If you’re lucky, then you might see that the pitch doesn’t waver between the open string and 12 fret anymore.
But that literally happens once in a turquoise moon… which is annoying because turquoise moons don’t actually exist.
So you’ll probably see that the 12th fret note just doesn’t go off pitch as much as it did.
In that case, keep adjusting the saddle forwards or backwards until you no longer see a shift in pitch between the open string and 12th fret.
Step 5 is to repeat this process for each of the other strings.
Once you’ve adjusted the saddles on all the other strings so that the open string and 12th fret line up for each one, then that’s it! Ladies and gentlemen, that is how you set & fix guitar intonation.
You’ll now be ready to shred and riff up high without sounding terrible.
If Your Guitar Sounds Out of Tune, Even After Intonating…
Man, I wish intonating was actually that easy. Sometimes guitar just wants to annoy us, and so throws a bunch of annoying stuff our way.
And one of the problems that you may be having when intonating, is that you’ll intonate and stuff will still sound out of tune.
If this happens, then try lowering the pickup you’re intonating with.
This’ll help get rid of the overtones that may alter the tuner reading a little.
You can lower your pickup by turning the screws either side of the pickup anticlockwise. Make sure you measure how high the pickup is before you do this. That way, you can put it back correctly afterwards.
And if you intonate your guitar again and still have a problem when you play, then it’s probably a tuner problem.
Your tuner may be quite old, be struggling to pick up the signal, or it may at the wrong frequency.
If there is an option to change pitch frequency, then make sure that it’s still on 440Hz as it should already be.
If Your Guitar Won’t Even Intonate…
Another problem that you may run into is that you turn the screws, and the intonation doesn’t change at all.
Your intonation screw could be poking halfway out the back of the guitar and it still won’t frickin’ intonate!
This happened to me when I was intonating for the first time and MAN I had so many
mental breakdowns cries of despair that night…
To fix it, I just turned the screw back and tried again and somehow it worked.
But that’s why it’s vital to wack the saddle on the head with the end of your screwdriver each time you adjust it.
This should put the saddle back into position and stop these kinds of oddities from occurring.
My final thing to note is that if you intonate, change string gauge and all the intonation goes off again, then… well… that’s just what happens.
You’ll just have to set & fix guitar intonation again if you do decide to change the string gauge.
Wrapping It Up
Whoop! Whoop! Congratulations on intonating your guitar.
It’s pretty simple at the end of the day, and now know what those screws in the bridge actually do!
Plus, you’ll be able to shred here, there and everywhere without stuff sounding bad for no reason.
Your neighbours will thank you for it, I will thank you for it and most importantly, you will thank you for it. Heart-warming, right? I’m even tearing up a bit here…
Anyway, I’ve been Sam Olverson,