Learning how to set the intonation on a guitar is one of the most important steps to achieving the PERFECT electric guitar setup! Setting up a guitar incorrectly can result in problems across the neck, inability to get in tune, and general frustration. Don't let it happen to YOU!
Learning how to set up your OWN guitar will save you two things: Money and general frustration!
When you learn how to set the intonation on a guitar and get the PERFECT electric guitar setup, you will sound better, enjoy playing more, and appear more professional when fine tuning your saddles before a gig!
Guitars with old strings or high action are prone to having intonation problems. Follow these preliminary steps to setting up your electric guitar the RIGHT way before setting your guitar's intonation:
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Each bridge system has little saddles that the strings rest in individually. The intonation is set by sliding them back and forth. They are usually adjusted with a Phillips head screw driver or a hex key. I always keep a multipurpose tool in my gig bag with the tool tips my guitars require.
Once you have the right tool, grab an electronic guitar tuner with fresh batteries and plug into it. Make sure your volume is all the way up. The method for testing each string can be confusing at first, so we will break it down a little bit.
First, go through and tune each string to a "natural harmonic" on the twelfth fret. Normally you would tune a guitar using open notes, but when setting the intonation, this method is more accurate.
Make several passes through the strings because tightening or loosening one string can pull the bridge and detune the others!
If you use a different tuning most of the time, like a half step down, set your intonation to THAT tuning instead of standard.
Setting your intonation involves testing a natural harmonic on the twelfth fret of a string (which has already been tuned to standard) against the SAME string fully fretted on the twelfth fret, without doing a natural harmonic. The difference between the two testing positions will determine whether you need to pull the saddle forward or slide it back.
The "saddles" are there to allow you to shorten or lengthen guitar string.
If the twelfth fret is SHARP compared to the natural harmonic, your string is too SHORT and you need to lengthen it by sliding the saddle back. If the twelfth fret is FLAT compared to the natural harmonic, your string is too LONG and you need to shorten it by sliding the saddle forward.
Keep using your guitar tuner to compare the two test notes until they are equally in tune.
Once you have adjusted the saddles, you should then retest the strings with the tuner using both the twelfth fret harmonic and the fretted note. If they are EXACTLY the same, then move down to the next string and repeat the process from Step 1.
Learning how to set the intonation on a guitar can be about as intimidating as learning the guitar solo for "Tom Sawyer", but the payoff for knowing how to do a little DYI (do it yourself) will be worth the patience!
You can't really mess anything up, like you can by tooling around with the truss rod, so feel free to experiment with this oh so important aspect of guitar set up. Now when your friends find out YOU know how to set the intonation on a guitar, you can charge THEM for the service!
...do your fingers a favor and collect them all!
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Up to Electric Guitar Setup for more tips on guitar adjustment and setup.