Intonation....Why it Isn't Perfect!

Ah...the fretted instrument.  They have been around for centuries.  They have so many benefits like easier note selection, the ability to more easily play chords, and a visual way to divide the fingerboard into easier to digest sections.  That being said, there are a couple of drawbacks.  While potential buzz is increased, we have already covered that topic, so we will be talking about the other main issue that has been driving guitarists insane for years.  Intonation.  Or the lack of having perfect intonation.  With many instruments, intonation is paramount to being taken seriously.  In the world of classical and orchestral instruments the intonation is up to the musician.  With guitar.....well...not so much.  

Intonation is the "accuracy of pitch in playing or singing, or on a stringed instrument such as a guitar".  

The guitar being fretted, while having several very distinct advantages over non-fretted instruments, has one fairly big flaw.  It cannot be intonated perfectly over the entire fretboard.  You can see this when you play through several chords and can hear that they are all just a little out of tune.  You can also try to tune a chord (say G) to be perfectly in tune with itself.  now when you go to play an A or E you will be out of tune.  This is normal and is an issue that has been around since the very first fretted instruments.  Setting the intonation is a combination of adjusting the length of each string as well as ensuring the string and nut slot height are also correct. 

A properly intonated instrument will be very close, but never perfect.  That's ok.  It is part of the instrument.  While there are some attempts to correct this issue (true temperament frets), the guitar has been around a long time and all of our heros had the same shortcomings.  Of course, you could get a fretless guitar..... 

17 comments

  • Hi John,

    Thanks for your comment. The compensated nut has been a thing for some time now and is certainly an option. I am not sure who the Canadian guy is? I remember when Buzz Feiten’s system came out and it was the hottest thing since a fuzz pedal! That being said, it lost its magic for most of my friends that were so into it. The Earvana is another shelf style nut system that has been around more recently. These nut systems compensate the nut to help improve intonation (particularly when playing open chords) and they do help. Both systems reduce the distance from the nut to the first fret by staggered amounts to help with intonation on open chords. I do not personally use them as I do not feel like it is needed for my guitars and playing, but others may benefit from them. Thanks again!

    Ben Calhoun
  • Hi GmoCrick,

    Thanks for your question! Acoustic guitars actually are very much in the same boat with a couple of different methods than their electric counterparts. When you change string gauges, the neck tension will change and it will move. In your case a typical bluegrass set is 12-56. If you went to a much lighter gauge like a 11-52 or so, you will will have less tension and I would expect buzzing on the 6 fret down. The actual tuning stability should not be compromised, but with a lighter gauge you may want to give the strings a good stretch. A good tech can sort you out. One of our really good customers has many high end acoustics and only plays 10-47 strings on them. It takes a little work, but they can be made to play and sound great!

    The nut is handled the same way as an electric in regards to build and adjusting. The neck also works very similarly. The bridge is adjusted by filing to improve or shift intonation, but is usually not needed as the larger gauges don’t seem to show intonation differences as much as smaller strings.

    Hope this helps and thanks again!

    Ben Calhoun
  • Hi Alex,

    Thanks for your comment! Remember, tinkering is almost always a good thing as long as you know how to undo what you did or a good tech to help you get back to square one. That’s how most of us learned anyway! I will never forget my first guitar…..I “tinkered” it so bad that our local tech couldn’t get it back to playable lol! And then I was forced to learn a bit….

    Ben Calhoun
  • Hello Tom,

    Thank you for your question! I have worked on a fair amount of SA1100’s over the years and they are great guitars! I always suspect the nut first, but you could have a key slipping. There is a screw at the end of the tuner button. This can be tightened, but should not be an issue unless it is really loose. I wouldn’t tighten it too much either or it will be difficult to turn the key. You can also disassemble the key, but I would not until you rule out the nut and winding.

    1. When in tune if you pull on the string a bit does it go out of tune? That may be a faulty tuner or the string is not wound properly. Check that you have a couple of winds and that the string is “locking” in on itself. Otherwise tuner replacement is possibly needed. (Chances – 1 in 50)
    2. Do you ever hear a “ping” sound when tuning that string? That is 100% a nut slot binding issue. Solve by slightly filing the nut slot to the correct width. (Chances – 1 in 5)

    The string butler is another solution and it does work fairly well. That being said, It is not needed if the nut is cut well.

    Ben Calhoun
  • Hello Dee,

    Thank you for your comment! We were discussing more common issues and tuning machine issues are just incredibly rare compared to the issues we discussed. That being said, you are absolutely correct that older tuning machines in particular (non-sealed) do need occasional lubrication. In addition, the worm gears can wear out and the actual shaft that the button goes on can strip too. Thanks for pointing these out!

    Ben Calhoun

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