Guitar and Bass Setups Part 2: Intonation

Last week, we learned how to quickly and easily diagnose and correct basic issues in the guitar’s neck, immediately improving playability and tone. Join us again this week as we zero in on the bridge to fix the intonation issues that drive listeners crazy.


An appropriately rickety-sounding guitar can fit perfectly in the right production, but in general, poor intonation will sap an instrument of the finer points of its tone, whether your sonic goal is power, sweetness, or clarity.

While the problems associated with poor action – dead spots or limited playability – are easy for anyone to spot,  issues rooted in  poor intonation are far more insidious. Plenty of players don’t realize there’s a problem with their guitar until they hear it under the microscope of a recording session.

A properly intonated guitar or bass sounds in-tune with itself, and with other instruments, no matter what register or chord is being played. Poor intonation is most often apparent in chords that won’t ring true no matter how carefully the strings are tuned, or in upper-register fretwork that always sounds a few shades off the mark.

For our purposes, we can think of intonation as how well each string stays in tune with itself throughout the entire scale-length of the guitar or bass.


Using a phillips head screw driver, adjust the working length of each strength for proper intonation.

Using a phillips head screw driver, adjust the working length of each strength for proper intonation.

Intonation can go out of whack when a guitarist changes strings and accidentally alters the placement of the bridge saddles. Or, it can suffer when the player switches to a new gauge of strings, which by nature, will require their own specialized adjustment.

Intonation can also use a tweak as the neck falls out of its original alignment, or as the nut slots deepen with wear and age. Finally, on more affordable guitars, there’s a pretty good chance that the instrument was never really set up very well at the factory to begin with.

Sometimes, the quickest and easiest fix for compromised intonation is a simple string change.

Old, crusty and worn-out strings have trouble staying in tune to begin with. Add the compromised intonation and weak tone that goes along with them, and you have the ingredients of a recording nightmare. A quick replacement with strings of the same gauge can do the trick, and improve tone on many levels.

If you’re staring at a fresh and broken-in set of strings and you’re still having intonation issues, it’s time to take the battle to the bridge.


Our most effective weapon against intonation issues is the lateral (front to back) position — the bridge saddles…

Learn how to intonate your own guitar or bass by following our easy step-by-step guide on SonicScoop.

This entry was posted in Most Popular, November 2011, SonicScoop, Studio Skillset. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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