Now for those of you that haven’t heard the term intonation on guitar before, you won’t only have no knowledge of what the process is, but also you won’t know why you need to perform this process on your guitar. Allow me explain in very simple terms what intonation is and why you should check it on your guitar.
The clue is in the word intonation, ‘in’-‘tone’-ation. When you play one note on one string while your guitar is perfectly in tune, then play the same note on another string, you should hear pretty much exactly the same sound ringing out of both strings. This is when a guitar is perfectly intonated. If a guitar’s intonation is not correct, then even when you have tuned your guitar perfectly, if you play the same two notes on two different strings, one note will sound higher or lower than the other.
The reason this happens is because of the length of the strings. Depending on what kind of strings you have fitted, whether they are heavier or lighter strings, whether they are more stretchy than other types of strings or simply if they have been on your guitar for a while, your guitar’s intonation may become out of synch. The reason is because the string needs to be a certain length so that the frets, which shorten the length of the string that is vibrating when you put the string against them, hit the string in a certain place. If the intonation is out of synch, these positions will be wrong, resulting in the notes you play being either higher or lower than what you intend, and this cannot be solved simply by re-tuning your guitar. Always check the tuning of your guitar to see if the problem persists before you attempt intonation, as it is a thorough process and the problem occurs much less frequently than your guitar simply going out of tune.
Now, before I go any further, I must tell you that because there are so many different guitar bridges (the part that your strings lie over near to your guitar’s pickups) available, there are also various methods of putting your guitar’s intonation back into synch, and it’s different for many different style of bridges. Below I have gone over how to intonate the four most common types of bridges that I have encountered. The two types of bridge that I have not covered in this lesson are the Bigsby style bridge and the Vibrola style bridge.
Before any of that, I will show you how to check that you guitar is properly intonated, or whether you need to alter it. Use a tuner to check that our guitar is properly in tune before you do this, also be aware that changing the intonation will de-tune your guitar, so keep your tuner close by. Once your guitar is in tune, pluck a natural harmonic over the 12th fret of the string that you want to check is intonated properly. For those of you that don’t know what a natural harmonic is, you lay your finger gently on the string over the 12th fret and then pluck the string, pulling your finger off just after you’ve plucked it. If you have done it right you should hear a high ringing sound that is the same note as the open string, just a lot higher. You don’t need to know about the other harmonic to intonate your guitar. Check with your tuner that this harmonic note is in tune.
Now, use you tuner and hold down the string on the 12th fret. It will recognise this as being roughly the same note as the open string. If this note is shown to be in tune, then you don’t need to intonate the string. If this note is shown to be too flat (it is too low or sounds like a lower note than the harmonic note) then that means that the string is too long; to counteract this you move the string saddle, which the string rests on while it’s lying on the bridge, closer to the guitar neck thereby making the string shorter. If the note is shown to be too sharp (it is too high or sounds like a note higher than the harmonic note) then that means that the string is too short; to counteract this you need to move the string saddle away from the guitar neck thereby making the string longer. You need to retune your guitar after you have altered the intonation, so be prepared for a lot of tuning while you do this. Also, be aware that you are best of just making slight adjustments to the intonation, moving the saddle little by little. This way you will be more likely to find the exact point at which the guitar is intonated properly again. You need to perform this intonation with every string on the guitar, not just one.
A final tip for all types of guitar bridge, it’s best to loosen the string quite a lot while you move the string saddle backwards or forwards, or you run the risk of snapping it.
The Fixed Bridge
This guitar is a Gibson SG special. A lot of fixed bridge guitars will have bridges similar to this. My finger is resting on the guitar bridge. Those small bar-like things that are sticking up from the bridge underneath the strings are the string saddles. You can tell the strings are meant to rest on these as they are grooved so the strings don’t slip off the saddle while you are playing.
Now there are a series of screws located on the back of the bridge, each one beneath one of the saddles. You turn the saddles on way to move the saddle closer to the bridge and turn it the opposite way to move it further away from the bridge; this generally the easiest bridge type to handle, as the screws are the only component that needs to be adjusted in order to change the intonation on guitar. Nothing else requires altering.
The Ibanez Style Fixed Bridge
Now some of you may not know this, but Ibanez use a different style of fixed bridge to most other guitar makers. The reason for this is because their technicians have a reputation for being quite analytical when it comes to designing their guitars, and obviously decided to fit their own style of fixed bridge because they thought it worked better than anybody else’s. It is more complicated than any other fixed bridge setup as well, which is why I thought it was worth a mention in this lesson.
Here is a picture an Ibanez Destroyer. My finger is resting on the fixed bridge known as the Gibraltar II Bridge. As you can see, there are no screws on back of this bridge, instead you have a series of screws holding each of the saddles down to the neck, which is a design copied straight from floating tremolo style bridges. This does mean however that you can’t simply turn the screws to move the bridge backwards or forwards.
Here you can see you need to use an alan key/hex key to undo these screws; what this does is allow you to slide the whole saddle towards the neck or away from the neck, although you will have to loosen the string while you do this, or it will prevent you from moving it at all. Once you’ve moved it, re-insert the screw into the little slot on the saddle and screw it back down onto the bridge. Re-tune you guitar and check the intonation and see if it has been corrected. If not than repeat the process until it has been corrected.
Non-Locking Tremolo/Fender Style Tremolo Bridge
You will have seen that on most fender Stratocasters the bridge can be tilted so that the strings are depressed while you play, giving you a ‘wavy’ sound, and also allowing you to do stuff like dive bombs and such. This however does require you to put a bit more effort in when you are re-intonating it, and now the bridge can move while you are tuning and intonating. This is one of the things that stops a lot of people from buying guitars with these bridges, as they are very confusing if you have not encountered them before and haven’t be taught how to approach them.
To this end, you have two options: the first is to simply go for it and put up with constant re-tuning, the other is to block off the bridge while you are intonating your guitar. To do this second option, you actually use the same method as you would for getting the strings in-tune with the bridge in the right position.
This is done by first taking the panel off the back of you guitar with a screwdriver so that you can access the springs inside it. After you have done this, tighten the screws that are attached to the metal plate that the screws are hooked onto. This will pull the bridge towards the body and make all the strings go sharp (higher in pitch or sound higher). Don’t worry though. After you have done this, block the bridge by lifting it up from the body using the tremolo arm that comes with your guitar and insert something underneath the bridge so that it rests in the position you want it to be in when you play. Personally I just use a spoon because it’s small and flat and I can rest it across the cavity without having to drop something inside it that I might have to fish around for later. You tighten the springs so that the bridge doesn’t lift up while you’re tuning.
My finger is resting on the bridge of this fender telecaster. You can clearly see that the saddles are attached to the back of the bridge by screws. Although this seems more complicated, it actually makes it very simple. All you have to do is tighten the screws to bring the saddles away from the neck, and loosen them to push them closer towards the neck. The Picture below shows how to do this.
After you have got all the strings properly intonated and tuned up again you are ready to remove the block. Once you have removed the block the strings will go sharp again as the bridge moves back to fill the cavity. To reverse this, tune one string by plucking it then slowly loosening both screws in the back of the guitar that are on the plate that the springs are attached to. Once that string is in tune, the other strings should also be fairly close to being in tune, and the bridge should be in the perfect position for when you start playing. This may sound like a long-winded process, but if you were to try this without blocking the bridge then the bridge would be moving back and forth while you are tuning, making intonation very difficult as you would have to continually reset it to the right level.
Locking Tremolo/Floyd Rose Style Bridges
These are very similar to the floating tremolo bridges with two main exceptions. Firstly there are locking nuts at the top of the guitar neck which look like this:
Also the bridge on a locking tremolo is set up slightly differently. To make sure that there is no confusion as to which bridge I am using for this lesson, the bridge is an Ibanez Pro edge Tremolo that is installed on a Joe Satriani signature Ibanez guitar. The reason I’m mentioning this is because the Ibanez system is in my opinion a much more reliable system, but both are pretty much the same in how you set them up. I already have a lesson on how to set up a Floyd rose style tremolo on the website if you need more in depth help.
This is a picture of the floating bridge installed on the JS100. Now you need to be aware of something before you start. The screws that my finger is resting on aren’t the screws for loosening the saddles. These screws are in fact used to clamp the strings down when they are inserted into the bridge of the guitar. These are not to be tampered with unless you want to remove the strings completely. The screws holding the saddles down are actually the one just underneath each string, so those are the ones you should be fiddling with, not the one I’m pointing to. I did this to show you just how easy it is to make a mistake when using this kind of bridge.
Now, you basically follow the exact same procedure as I described above for the non-locking tremolo bridge. However, you must first loosen and take off the locking nuts on your guitar so that you are able to tune your guitar with the tuning heads on the headstock of your guitar, otherwise the fine tuners on the bridge will never be able to cope, and you won’t have as much room left to tighten or loosen them once you put the locking nuts back on.
As is said before, you need to block the bridge while you are playing. You do this the same way as you would with a non-locking tremolo bridge; you unscrew the back panel and first of all tighten the screws that are on the same panel as the springs, which will pull the bridge towards the body and cause the strings to go sharp (go higher in pitch or sound higher). Don’t panic though because this is intentional. Next you take a small object and use it to block the bridge in the position you want it to remain in when you are playing, I have shown how I do this with a spoon. You need the springs tightening so that the bridge pushes down on the block so that it doesn’t lift up while you are tuning.
Next, you tune the guitar and check the intonation of each string again. If some of the strings aren’t intonated properly, then you need to fix that. You un screw the screw in the saddle that you want to move (the one close to the pickups, not the one on the top) and then slide it either closer to the neck or further away from the neck as desired. After you have intonated all the strings and tuned the guitar up again, remove the block. This will cause the strings to go sharp (too high pitched) again. Don’t worry though. Tune one string by plucking it and then slowly loosening the screws you previously tightened until that string is in tune. The other strings should also be roughly in tune as the bridge should now be in the position it was when you blocked it. Double check that the strings are roughly in tune before reattaching the locking nuts. After this you fine tune the strings with the fine tuners on the bridge and your guitar back to full working order and is now properly intonated.
A last little tip is should give you is that if your guitar sounds like it’s perfectly in tune and you are having no problems with getting the notes to sound the same, i.e. it doesn’t sound like intonation is wrong, but your guitar doesn’t feel comfortable to play, don’t change the intonation. Intonation is a way of changing the sound your guitar produces and has no effect on the ‘playability’ of you instrument.
Apart from this the only other tip I can give you is that it’s a good idea to check intonation every time you change strings, as with it being fresh strings they aren’t going to be as stretched as older strings and so it’s likely they will require a different length to produce the same notes.
That’s pretty much it for this lesson. I hope that this has helped some of you out there.
Take care guys and I’ll see you next time!