How to make basic intonation adjustments

Unable to play in tune across the neck? This quick fix should help.

Adjusting intonation with strobe tuner app
Strobe tuner apps are cheap, convenient and accurate. This E string is 0.3 of a cent flat. That will never do

Why you need this

  • To make your guitar play in tune all over the neck

What you need

  • High-quality tuner or tuner app on your phone

Have you ever noticed that notes and chords played down the cowboy end of the neck sound in tune, but things sound increasingly out of tune as you move higher up the neck? If so, your guitar’s intonation probably needs adjustment.

Perfect pitch is a curse that afflicts very few of us, so for the most part we can achieve perfectly acceptable intonation by following a very simple procedure. Best of all, there are plenty of super-accurate ‘strobe tuner’ phone apps that allow you to achieve much better results than old-fashioned guitar tuners.

Before intonating your guitar, you should ensure that the neck relief and action is properly set. If the guitar has a vibrato bridge, you also need to adjust the spring tension to taste. Once you’re ready, carefully tune all the open strings to concert pitch – making several passes if necessary.

Starting with the top E, play the open string then fret the string at the 12th fret, play it again and check your tuner. If the fretted octave note is sharp, you need to increase the scale length, which means moving the saddle further away from the nut. If the octave note is flat, you need to decrease the scale length so that the saddle is moved towards the nut.

TC Electronic PolyTune clip on Taylor headstock
TC Electronic’s PolyTune Clip

Unless the guitar is wildly out, the adjustment range is unlikely to exceed a few millimetres. Each time you adjust a saddle, remember to re-tune the open string before re-checking the intonation. If you are finding it hard to increase the scale length, try slackening the string before attempting to move the saddle.

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If you’re using a strobe tuner app, it should be set to ‘cents’. You will notice that it’s super-sensitive, and the pitch of the fretted note will vary depending on how hard it’s being pressed. Just try to apply the sort of pressure that’s typical of your playing style.

With the top E done, you can work your way across the other strings. Be aware that pickup magnetism can pull the wound strings flat as you move up the neck, so consider dropping their height when you are performing this procedure. This is a typical Fender trait.

Also, use a screwdriver with a shaft that’s long enough to reach the saddle screws straight-on. If the handle forces you to come in at an angle, it’s easy to slip off the screw head and damage the finish. Those of you distressing guitars should feel free to use the shortest and most inappropriate screwdrivers you can find.

Check out more of our DIY guides here.

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