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Expositions by Steve Whittlesey

Intonation & Setup 101

Posted by on Mar 5, 2016 in Main | 0 comments

As long as a guitar is not physically broken (i.e. twisted or splintered wood, broken components, etc.), it should be able to be setup with proper intonation and be playable. This is to say the guitar is a true instrument, not of toy or junk variety.

Intonation is critical to any instrument, and since we’re talking guitars I will relate this to the guitar. If you tune your guitar perfectly, then attempt to play it and it just sounds bad and out of tune, you’re intonation is most probably to blame (barring any performer imperfections). A quick verification of intonation is to play an open string and then play that same string played at the 12th fret (playing a harmonic at the 12 fret may be easier to differentiate differences). You can also fret the the string at the 12th fret and compare it to the same position played as a harmonic. It should be exactly the same note, in tune, albeit one octave higher. If it is not an exact octave of the open note, your intonation is off. This is the quick ‘n dirty quick check method. I use a quality tuner (I prefer strobe) and check the intonation at each string change.

Adjusting the intonation is in and of itself pretty basic, depending on the guitar in question. Most guitars are adjustable, some are not. Please check with your manufacturer.
There are a lot of variables to take into account that affect intonation. String age; always do your setup with new strings, as old strings will naturally deteriorate intonation. Your neck straightness (truss rod adjustments), action (string height over the fretboard) and bridge setup (fixed, tremolo, etc) all directly effect intonation. Below I step through the process of what I do for a proper setup.

Personally, I start by removing all of the strings. There are as many opinions on this as are players; do as you choose. With the strings off, I thoroughly clean the fretboard getting all of the crud off. With the strings off: 1. this provides access to, well, clean thoroughly, and 2. full access to the entire topside of the guitar for repair or replacement as necessary.

Straighten the Neck Part 1
Once clean, and any physical issues are resolved (e.g. bridge/saddle or electronic work, etc.), the neck needs to be dead straight. This is, of course dependent on manufacturer and playing style. A slightly bowed neck may provide some relief for easier playing.

I use a steel yardstick and lay it lengthwise, providing me a good visual of the bow, if any, of the neck. I rarely have to adjust the truss, and when I do, it’s usually less than a 1/4 turn. I have done successful repairs on guitars given up by their owner where it required much more, but it is rare. The more out of whack the neck is, the greater the risk of breaking the neck to restore it. I start with a perfectly straight neck, then add relief via 1/4 turn of the adjustment screw. Just my personal preference. If I can’t get the neck perfectly straight, it is generally indicative of other problems (i.e. high, low, loose or worn frets, warped fretboard, etc.).

NOTE: Until the strings are installed (adding tension), I ballpark the straightening at this time. Guitars that I know and play regularly, I install the strings first then check with the tension applied. I just hate installing a set of new strings on a given-up guitar only to find the neck is truly worthless.

Install NEW Strings
I then install new strings. I use locking tuners on all of my electrics, otherwise I use a $5 string winder to not only speed up the process, but to have clean windings. Spend the $5! Once the new strings are on, I’ll start with a rough tuning of the open strings. Out of habit to minimize the tension war, I tune the low E, then high E, D, B, A then G (or something close to that effect) – assuming standard tuning.

Straighten the Neck Part 2
With the proper tension of the new strings, I will now do my final neck straightening. Again, only very small adjustments (< 1/4 turn) should be required at this point. Then re-tune the open strings. Adjust the Action
After the strings are installed, setup your action. The action is the string height above the fretboard. The higher the action, the higher the strings, the lower the strings; the lower the action. Low action results in fast playing, but with the potential of fret buzz (open or fretted strings hitting the higher frets). You don’t want fret buzz.
Each of my guitars are different and use different string gauges, thus the action of each is set accordingly. My Parker guitars (electric Fly Classic and an Event Series acoustic) are generally kept at the factory settings. My Ibanez RG electric I use .010 or .011 strings and set the action a little higher for rhythm playing. Starting at the factory recommendation is best, then raise or lower to your playing style. The action is generally factory set by using feeler gauges at the 1st and 12th frets, low E and high E strings. Always refer to your guitar manufacturer’s recommended settings.

Gibson Les Paul style electric guitars are in the ballpark of:
1st fret- treble side – 1/64″
1st fret- bass side – 2/64″
12th fret- treble side – 3/64″
12th fret – bass side – 5/64″
Other manufacturers will use other frets and heights.

You will then need to raise/lower the bridge height (generally via screws) and may need to adjust the nut slots accordingly (via filing or replacing the nut, if too low). If you are experiencing any fret buzz, raise the string(s).
Then re-tune the open strings.

Final Intonation Adjustment
All of the previous steps play major roles in your guitar’s intonation. The final step is to do the minor intonation adjustments. This is performed at the bridge and is dependent upon your guitar and bridge design. Gibson uses a Tune-O-Matic bridge for adjusting each string, there are now others with a similar design. Still others can be adjusted only at the treble end and bass end of the saddle or bridge. It is usually not possible to achieve perfect intonation for every string with this design. If an individual string is out of tune, you may be able to compensate by replacing that string with a higher or lower gauge string.

NOTE: You can use any tuner; quartz, strobe, fork, your ears, whatever.

Using a strobe tuner (Peterson or Sonic Research Turbo), I tune the open strings, then check the fretted 12th fret tuning. I then make my adjustments to match the open and 12th fret tunings (1 octave). Then, I’ll compare the 12th fret fretted and 12th fret harmonic tunings, making smaller adjustments as needed.
Once all strings are tuned and intonation set correctly.., start playing! Stretch and break in that new setup! Enjoy.

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