Intonation – Fix your pitch

Intonation Matters!
Intonation Matters!  Do you want the notes on your killer solo to be this out of tune?

Have you ever picked up an stringed instrument that seems in tune, but as you play some chords up the neck it begins to sound out of tune?  Perhaps you started to play a great lick only to find it just sounds kind of flat.  I know I have and I used to blame cheap instruments and poor craftsmanship. As it turns out this could just mean the instrument isn’t set up properly.  If you try to record an instrument that isn’t set up you will quickly find that tuning becomes a big issue.  Playing with other people is also difficult because your tuning changes while theirs may be constantly in tune.  The good news is that this can be very easy to fix!

Intonation is one of the most important things to understand with many stringed instruments. Electric guitars, bass guitars, and even instruments like banjos all have adjustable intonation. Instruments like acoustic guitars make it much more difficult to adjust the intonation and will require help from a luthier. This is because the bridge on acoustics isn’t easily adjustable like those on electric guitars.

How to adjust intonation:

You can test your instruments intonation by tuning the first open string correctly then playing the 12th fret on that string to see if it is still in tune. If the 12th fret note is sharp then your string length needs to be longer. If the 12th fret note is flat then the string needs to be shorter.  Adjust the bridge of your instrument appropriately. Now re-tune the string and test again. Once it is in tune on the open fret and 12th fret you can move on to the next one. Do this for all of the strings on your instrument and **BAM** you’ll have a properly tuned instrument ready to rock!

Note that none of this covers the action of the guitar .  That is a different issue that is also very important.  I may make a post on this later.

A smart man once said a picture is worth a thousand words.  Below you will find a few pictures to show you exactly what I mean 🙂


Here is a diagram of how to adjust the intonation on a banjo.

Bridge of a banjo
Bridge of a banjo

Electric instruments usually just need a regular or small screwdriver to adjust their intonation.  Follow the same steps as above and do each string one at a time.  You’ll have a properly tuned  instrument in no time!  One thing worth mentioning is that you don’t want to press too hard on the 12th fret while making these adjustments.  If you press too hard it will bend the string and produce a sharper pitch than you normally do while playing the guitar.  Just try to press the 12th fret as hard as you would playing normally.

Fender Fat Strat - Bridge properly intonated
Fender Fat Strat Bridge – This is what mine looks like with good intonation. 
Bass Guitar Bridge - Ibanez GSR200
Bass Guitar Bridge – Properly intonated Ibanez GSR200.

It should be just as in tune on an open string as it is on the same strings 12th fret of your instrument.  I know it’s not perfect in these screenshots, but it’s really hard to get a screenshot while it’s perfectly in tune.
Here are snapshots I took of what the tuning should look like on a tuner using GuitarToolkit on my iPhone.   It’s a great tool!  Buy it if you have an iPhone.  You won’t regret it 🙂

6th string in tune on the guitar
Tuning 6th String
6th string 12th fret in tune on the guitar
12th fret of the 6th string also in tune on the guitar.  This proves that the 6th string is properly intonated.

Video demonstration coming soon!

I’d like to thank the good people at Exploring Music for showing me how to properly set up my banjo. They have very helpful employees and cheap lessons. I took a few violin lessons there and I plan on returning!

-Aaron B.


Thanks for visiting the Aaron Brown Sound blog! Come back soon for more posts about video game audio, audio engineering, sound design, composing and all other things relating to being an audio professional 🙂

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