How To

How to set Intonation: Series Index

There's been a lot of intonation talk around here for the last few weeks. I think we've covered how to set intonation on most of the guitars and basses that most players will be using.

Of course there are some things I've missed and I'll add additional articles as time and instruments allow. For now, though, I think we've made a pretty good start (and you're probably fed-up seeing intonation posts). 

I've rounded up all of the articles in this Intonation Series.

Setting Intonation on a Fretless Bass

While all of intonation steps are the same for a fretless instrument as for one with frets, the fretless does present a minor challenge: 

No frets means no 'exact' point for the octave/12th fret position. 

While a good player good pitch can probably compensate for any notes that are a little out, it still makes sense to get the instrument properly setup and intonated. Without that exact octave position, though, where do we check intonation?

Simple. We install a temporary octave marker. 

Using tape to make a temproary '12th fret' to help intonate a fretless bass

Using tape to make a temporary octave marker to intonate a fretless bass.

To do this, you just need to halve the scale-length. So, for a 34" scale bass, our 12th fee position would sit exactly 17 inches from the 'near side' of the nut. Find that position and pop on a piece of masking tape to mark it. 

Then, set your intonation as normal (not forgetting the prerequisites).

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, always check intonation and tuning with the bass in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

Then proceed as usual:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little using a flat or philips screwdriver as appropriate.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Setting Intonation on a Floyd Rose

Intonation on Floyd Rose and Ibanez Edge variants

Ah, the Floyd Rose… The torment of Setter-Uppers the world over. There's no doubt that the double-locking tremolo does its intended job very well but they are a massive pain in the rump to set up. Anybody I know who does this for a living gives a little inward groan when a Floyd comes in for a setup. 

No sense complaining, though. Let's get to it and recap the intonation prerequisites.

By the way, for the most part, this intonation procedure applies to the Floyd variants as well as the Ibanez Edge variants.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, always check intonation and tuning with the bass in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory, as always, is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little using a flat or philips screwdriver as appropriate.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Now this basic theory is all well and good but a double-locking trem can have some idiosyncrasies that make it a bit more challenging. 

SADDLE LOCKING SCREW

On your Floyd, or similar bridge, the saddles are bolted to the bridge baseplate. In order to move a saddle back or forwards for intonation the saddle locking screw must first be loosened.

Location of saddle locking screws on Floyd and variants

Now, in order to gain access to get a hex key into the saddle locking screw, we need to slacken off that particular string. I know you'll be tempted to just push the string to the side but, if you try to make the adjustment without loosening the string, the tension will pull the saddle forward and you'll be unable to control how much it moves. 

With string tension slackened off, it's easy to just nudge the saddle back or forth.

After you've moved the saddle, you need to re-tighten the saddle locking screw, clamping the saddle to the baseplate again. This is necessary so that the saddle doesn't shift as you tune the string back up to pitch. To allow more adjustment range, each saddle-locking screw can be screwed into one of two holes—use the forward or rear screw-hole as needed to clamp down the saddle.

You need to do this, one string at a time, repeating the saddle movement until your intonation is where you want it. 

It's tedious but that's the price of a well-setup Floyd. There is a tool called 'The Key' that can help with original Floyds. More below.

Why can't i just dump the trem?

It is possible to avoid so much detuning and retuning by depressing the trem far enough down that the strings slacken and no longer pull on the saddle when you release the saddle lock screw. Of course, you have to hold it in this position as you make your adjustments.

If you can do this easily, go for it.

Personally, I find it a bit awkward. I don’t find any benefit in doing things this way and I feel it’s less risky to go the long way around.

INTONATION STEPS ON FLOYD ROSE-STYLE TREMOLO

So then, all of this adds to our intonation steps and makes our process as follows:

Note: All steps assume that the locking nut is NOT locked.

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, slacken the string and loosen the saddle locking screw before moving the saddle forward a little.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, slacken the string and loosen the saddle locking screw before moving the saddle back a little.
  5. Re-tighten the saddle locking screw to clamp the saddle back to the baseplate. Move the saddle locking screw to the forward or rear screw-hole as necessary to ensure adequate adjustment and a sound clamping.
  6. Tune that string back up to pitch, check tuning of the other strings (see below) and go back to 1.

Adjusting intonation on a Floyd Rose (using The Key in this instance). Allen wrench loosening saddle screw.

Keep checking your tremolo balance

If your bridge is floating or raised off the body, keep an eye on how it’s behaving as you proceed. If your saddles travel a lot during intonation, the overall tuning of the instrument and balance of the bridge can be affected.

Keep checking the tuning of the other strings as you go and, if they sharpen or flatten by much, adjust the tremolo spring tension (around the back) to bring them back to their original balance point. Loosening the screws holding the tremolo-claw/springs will lower string tension and tuning. Tightening the screws will raise overall tuning.

THE KEY INTONATION TOOL

If you have an Original Floyd Rose (or licensed OFR), there is a small, but handy, tool called The Key. 

The Key latches into place between the back of the bridge and the string-locking screw. Within limits, it allows you to set intonation under string tension.

The Key prevents the saddle pulling forward under string tension.

You fit the key and tension it so that the saddle doesn’t get pulled forward when you loosen the saddle locking screw (so youcan just push the string to the side rather than de-tuning it). Turning the adjustment on The Key allows you to move the saddle in a more controlled fashion.

The Key doesn’t work with anything other than the Original Floyd Rose style bridge. If you’ve another Floyd or an Edge or Lo-Pro you’re still de-and-re-tuning each time.

Also, The Key is better at ‘forwards’ movement (i.e. ‘with’ the string tension rather than against it) so it’s a good idea to set all of your saddles farther back before you start and move each forwards into position when you set intonation.

It’s not a panacea, but The Key can make a fiddly job slightly less fiddly.

Find The Key on Amazon: US | UK

Note: This Amazon link has my affiliate code attached. If you click it and buy stuff, Amazon gives me a few cents. It doesn’t cost you any more and it means that, every now and then, I get to buy some tea or something. If this bothers you, feel free to just search for the stuff yourself.

DOUBLE-LOCKING TREMOLO INTONATION QUIRKS

What? The detuning-loosening-moving-tightening-retuning-checking process isn’t quirky enough for you?

Ok, then…

Keep an eye on what hole the saddle lock screw is in. You’ll want it to make good contact with the saddle itself. I often see Floyds with a saddle barely clamped under a sliver of lock screw. You don’t want saddles slipping so move the screw to the hole that gives best purchase.

The nut deserves some serious consideration. Unlike a traditional nut, it’s not possible to set each string’s height individually. With your locking nut, the height has to be adjusted by inserting metal shims between it and the neck.

Since the height the strings sit in the nut plays a big part in intonation, it’s important to get it right. You can buy metal shims online (Stewart McDonald do a set of various thicknesses and you should have plenty of options if you Google ‘floyd rose shims’). You can stack different thickness of shim together to get things where you want.

Again, this is a bit fiddly and will probably involve some trial and error and a couple of tries.

SET INTONATION ON FLOYD ROSE SPEEDLOADER

The Floyd Rose Speedloader procedure is a little different. You can lock the trem in place before you start and each string can be slackened off by unlatching the string-saddle which means there’s not so much de/re-tuning involved.

Engage the tremolo stop.

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, slacken the string by unlatching the saddle string release (as if you were changing the strings). Then loosen the saddle locking screw before moving the saddle forward a little.
  4. If the 12th fret note is flat, slacken the string by unlatching the saddle string release (as if you were changing the strings). Then loosen the saddle locking screw before moving the saddle back a little.
  5. Re-tighten the saddle locking screw to clamp the saddle back to the baseplate. Move the saddle locking screw to the forward or rear screw-hole as necessary to ensure adequate adjustment and a sound clamping.
  6. Re-latch the saddle (as if you’d just installed a new string) and tune that string back up to pitch Check tuning of the other strings (see below) and go back to 1.

Setting Intonation on a Jaguar, Jazzmaster, or Mustang

The Jaguar, Mustang, and Jazzmaster—sometimes called the Fender ‘offset’ guitars have individually adjustable saddles for setting each string’s intonation. The basic principles are as usual so let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, always check intonation and tuning with the bass in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory, as always, is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little using a flat or philips screwdriver as appropriate.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Jazzmaster/Jaguar Bridge -Intonation by adjusting screws at rear

Mustang bridge - intonation by adjusting screws at rear

FLOAT THE BRIDGE IN THE RIGHT POSITION

Your Jag/Jazz/‘Stang bridge is designed to ‘float’. The bridge is intended to stand on its height-adjustment screws in the ‘thimbles’. The idea is that tremolo-use would rock the bridge back and forth so the strings wouldn’t have to slide across the saddles and tuning stability would be improved. For the most part, this works (as long as you’re not dive-bombing it).

Do remember, though, that this means you must set intonation with the bridge in the ‘proper’ position.

For most people, this means the bridge is sitting in the centre of the thimbles—at right angles to the body—with room to rock backwards and forwards.

Comparison of bridge 'orientations' for Jaguar, Jazzmaster, Mustang

OR FLOAT THE BRIDGE IN THE ‘WRONG’ POSITION

That said, there are players (and repair people) who like to push the bridge against the back of the thimbles so it’s ‘default’ position is angled towards the back of the guitar.

The advantage of this is that there’s a positive stop point. If you ever feel that your intonation or tuning is out, you can give the bridge a nudge backwards to ensure it’s where it’s supposed to be. The disadvantage is that, while down-bends on the trem will rock the bridge, up-bends mean the strings move across the saddles (which is what Leo was trying to avoid).

In practice, I don’t find any major additional tuning issues with the bridge angled back so, if you want to try it, go for it.

Whichever way you choose, set your intonation with the bridge in that position and, if you change, you’ll have to reset intonation.

JAGUAR/JAZZMASTER/MUSTANG INTONATION QUIRKS

  • If your bridge floats upright, give things a check every now and then to ensure it’s returning where it should. You’ll likely notice tuning issues if they occur when you're actually using the trem but, if you don’t use the trem much, your bridge might get shifted to angle back or forwards without your realising. Keep an eye on it.
  • Some offset guitars now come with tun-o-matic bridges installed. No problem. Check out the tun-o-matic intonation instructions.

BRIDGE UPGRADES

The standard Jaguar/Jazzmaster bridge isn’t brilliant. It’s got threaded-bar saddles that aren’t great for tuning, or for holding strings. The height adjustment screws in the saddles can often vibrate loose, rattling about and messing things up.

If possible, a lot of players swap in a Mustang bridge instead. The Mustang bridge is a bit more solid. It’s got brass ‘barrel’ saddles with a preset radius and no individual saddle height adjustment. The problem is that, as standard, it only comes with a 7.25” radius. Some Jags and Jazzmasters are fine with this but some have the more modern, 9.5” radius on their fingerboards.

Warmoth sell a ‘Modified Mustang’ bridge with some saddle height adjustment and this can be a good option. StayTrem also make a Mustang style bridge that is available in either 7.25” or 9.5”. They’re nice bridges

MASTERY BRIDGE

And of course, there’s the Mastery Bridge. This is a redesign of the original offset guitar bridge that’s pretty well thought out. It doesn’t float in the same way as the original but the enhanced coupling and the bridge’s solidity make for good tone.

Setting Intonation On A Mastery Bridge

The Mastery bridge has two saddle-pieces, each holding three strings (one for wound and one for unwound). Each saddle-piece is adjustable for overall angle rather than having each string adjustable.

Two screws on each saddle-piece alter its intonation angle. Since you’re adjusting the overall intonation of three strings, the Mastery intonation may not be as ‘exact’ as if each string were individually adjustable.

That said, because we have one saddle piece for wound and one for unwound strings, in practice, it’s pretty good. If you play with a wound G string, you might have some difficulties balancing that string's intonation but I suspect that’s a pretty small percentage of readers.

Here’s how I set intonation on a Mastery.

  • Set your intonation for the first string.
  • Then set the third string intonation.
  • Check the second string intonation. If all three strings are pretty close, you’re done. If one is out, you can adjust the overall angle to ‘balance out the differences’ in the same way you might for a three-saddle Telecaster.
  • Follow the same pattern with the wound strings (4, then 6, then 5)

Turning adjustment screws alters overall angle (and intonation) for three strings at a time


Setting Intonation on a Wrapover or Stop-Tailpiece Bridge (Including PRS)

Some guitars have a wrapover tailpice style bridge. If you’re not familiar with these, imagine the tailpiece where the strings anchor on a Les Paul. That’s it.

The strings go through from the front, wrapover the rear of the tailpiece and then make their way up the neck.

“Why?” you cry, “Why would you do such a thing?”

Well, originally, because it was cheap. Costs less to just bung on a tailpiece than to pay for a tun-o-matic bridge as well. The ‘student’ model, entry-level guitars like the Les Paul Junior came with just a wrapover bridge when they started out.

And here’s the thing… They can sound great. You see, good coupling between bridge and body is a big part of good guitar tone. With one of these wrapovers, there’s nothing else. It’s a hunk of metal bolted to a guitar. Not much to get in the way of tasty tone.

The problem, of course, comes when we consider intonation.

On your regular Strat bridge or tun-o-matic, we can individually set each string saddle to the optimal location for that string’s intonation.

On a wrapover… not so much.

It’s compromise city. The bridge is adjustable ‘overall’.

By that, I mean that, on the bridge, behind where it mounts on each post, is a small ‘grub-screw’. Adusting the screw on either the bass or treble side can change the angle the bridge mounts at.

Intonation on wrapover/stop-tailpiece bridge is accomplished by adjusting overall angl

For instance, if you adjust the bass-side screw clockwise, it pushes against the mounting post and moves that side of the bridge further back. Essentially, the overall angle of the bridge can be changed and this can be used to approximate a good intonation.

On a guitar, this isn’t really a recipe for perfect intonation. That’s the thing though—if you’re playing one of these, you’re accepting the compromise.

INTONATION PROCEDURE

First up, let’s recap our intonation prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, always check intonation and tuning with the guitar in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory is the same as any other guitar:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, the string must be 'shortened' by moving the bridge forward a little.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, lengthen the string by moving the bridge back a little.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Of course, on a wrapover tailpiece bridge, you can’t do each string individually. Instead, you'll adjust the angle of the bridge to get things in the ballpark. 

I like to set the outside strings first. Get them correct first.

Then check the middle strings and see how they seem.

From there, you can tweak the overall angle a little to ‘balance up’ the intonation so that no one string is too far out.

Remember… compromise.

PRE-INTONATED WRAPOVER BRIDGES (LIKE THE PRS)

Some wrapovers come with a moulded or carved ‘intonation line’. This gives you an advantage over the straight line of the simplest of these bridges. The intonation line provides a ‘good for most people’ intonation by replicating the stagger of a properly intonated guitar.

The PRS bridge is probably the most recognisable of these pre-intonated models. Each string bears off a differnt point on a 'staggered front end’ of the bridge. Using the grub screws to get the bridge to a good angle will generally give a pretty good overall intonation.

Again, start with the outside strings and then check the others.

'Gibson-style' pre-intonated bridge

INDIVIDUALLY ADJUSTABLE/INTONABLE WRAPOVER BRIDGES

You can get wrapover bridges that have adjustable saddles built in. These can be a good way to improve your intonation without changing your guitar’s look or vibe too much. Think of these as a tun-o-matic built into a stop-tailpiece. Use the grub screws to set the overall angle and get things close and then adjust each saddle the same way you would for a tun-o-matic.

If you're planning to buy one of these, make sure it's right for your guitar. Some of them can be taller than the regular tailpiece bridge which might cause problems getting a good action. 

Intonable Wrapover bridge - individual saddles can be adjusted for each strin

Setting Intonation on a Tele

First, let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember to always check intonation and tuning with the guitar in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory is always this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little by turning the adjustment screw at the back of the bridge (counter-clockwise) using a flat or philips screwdriver (whatever is appropriate).
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string and head right back to 1.

Now, if you have a Tele with a six-saddle bridge, just follow these guidelines for each string and you’re good to go.

The traditional, vintage-style Tele warrants some more discussion, though.

Three saddle Tele bridge

INTONATION ON A THREE-SADDLE TELECASTER

The three-saddle bridge is great. It’s a big part of that vintage Tele vibe. Don’t expect perfect intonation in every case, though.

Because each saddle intonates a pair of strings at the same time, these bridges can be a bit of a compromise.

The best approach is usually to balance out the differences.

For instance, you might end up with your 1st string slightly sharp while your 2nd string is slightly flat. Each may be out just a little but getting one perfect might actually pull the other one further out.

Setting a three-saddle bridge involves some experimentation to determine where the balance lies for each string pair. Give yourself some time to play around and get it right. It's a balancing act. 

ERR BASED ON YOUR PLAYING

Depending on what you play most often, you might find the compromise above doesn’t quite suit. For instance, perhaps most of your chord work means a slightly sharp G string sounds bad for you. It might be possible that setting the G perfectly but pulling the D farther out is a good place for you.

Like I say, there’s some experimentation involved. Set things the way you think minimises any intonation issues on each string and then play it for a while. Don’t be afraid to tweak things if you need to.

INSTALL A SIX-SADDLE BRIDGE

There’s always the option of installing a more ‘modern’ six-saddle bridge. Then you can set the intonation for each string individually the same as you would for, say, a Strat.

Of course, you might not want to take from the look and vibe of your three-saddle bridge. In which case…

ANGLED SADDLES

You can replace your regular old, straight saddles with pre-compensated saddles.

There are a number of different aftermarket saddles available that are either ‘angled’ or ‘notched’ to better match the compensation most players will need.

Your usual guitar-bits supplier should be able to help out or you can actually get a good selection from Amazon too.

Compensated saddles are still one-saddle-per-two-strings but they’ll usually give you better intonation than regular, straight saddles. They can’t be quite as accurate as a six-saddle bridge would be but, for keeping your Tele feeling Tele-ish, they’re a good solution.

TELECASTER INTONATION QUIRKS

As the saddles of three-saddle bridges move closer to the back of the bridge, the angle of the adjustment screw gets steeper. This can make it really awkward to turn the screw (because the slot’s beginning to point down towards the face of the guitar). If this happens, be careful—it’s easy to ruin the screw slots or scrape the guitar finish. If you have to, slacken off the strings to make the saddle easier to move. It’s a pain, but it’s better than damaging your guitar.

Access to a Tele intonation screw can sometimes be difficult

As with six-saddle bridges, a lot of back or forwards saddle movement can also do odd things to the action of each string. Before you start, make a note of each string’s action and re-check if you have to move the saddles by much. 

A heavier gauge string (if you can handle it) might well get you better Tele intonation too. Bear it in mind and start strengthening those fingers. 


Setting Intonation on a Gibson

OK, on this one, we're assuming you have a Tun-O-Matic bridge. This is what's generally installed across a huge swath of the Gibson range and it's almost certainly what's installed on your Les Paul, SG, Firebird, Explorer, 335, etc., etc. There are a couple of styles of tun-o-matic but the basic operation is the same. If you've got a wraparound-style tailpiece bridge, check out that article. 

The adjustment screws can be a bit fiddly to access so be careful. Try not to damage your strings, your guitar top or the screw itself. Use an appropriately sized screwdriver (usually a small-medium flat-blade)

HOW TO SET INTONATION ON A GIBSON TUN-O-MATIC

First up, though, let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, too, always check intonation and tuning with the guitar in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little by turning the adjustment screw. You'll usually want a small, flat-bladed screwdriver for this. 
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Setting intonation on a Gibson tun-o-matic

GIBSON TUN-O-MATIC INTONATION QUIRKS

  • Usually, the adjustment screws are accessed from the back of the bridge. Occasionally, though, you might find a guitar with the bridge reversed—the adjustment screws are accessed from the front. This can be a bit tricky—drop your bridge pickup down a little if it helps get to the screws and be careful not to scratch or dent the pickup. 
     
  • Because the tun-o-matic is pretty narrow, and there’s not a lot of back/forward movement possible, Gibsons may be less forgiving to certain string gauges. Lighter gauge strings can require more overall compensation. If you’ve problems intonating your 8-gauge strings, you might have to flip saddles or move bridges (see below).
     
  • You can see that the Gibson bridge is installed at an angle—farther back on the bass side—in a similar manner to an acoustic guitar. Since the tun-o-matic bridges are generally relatively narrow, this gives them a ‘head start’ in the compensation game but sometimes it's not enough.  The saddle flipping trick outlined below might help.
  • Every now and then, you might come across a Gibson that just will not intonate. Sometimes, the bridge is just in the wrong place (seriously—it happens) and, even if you flip saddles, there isn't enough travel to intonate. If you bought it new you can try warranty service. There are also some after-market tun-o-matic bridges that are wider and might allow extra travel if you can find one. And, as a last resort, you can have the original holes plugged and the bridge re-mounted. It's a pain but it's occasionally required. 

REVERSED SADDLES ON A TUN-O-MATIC

The big quirk on these bridges is the reversed saddles. It might be helpful if I expand a little on the bridges themselves.

While there are any number of slight variations, there are two types of bridge fitted to most Gibson electrics. They are the ABR-1 and the Nashville.

The ABR is the original bridge. Usually, you can look at an ABR bridge and see that two or three bass-side saddles are installed ‘backwards’ (with the sloped or angled side pointing towards the neck). This is to make up for the fact that there is insufficient travel on the intonation adjustment screws to get these strings to properly compensate. By flipping the saddles, you can get a tiny bit more compensation before the saddle hits the back of the bridge. Essentially, it’s a cludge. It’s a workaround.

Gibson tried to address the issue by introducing the Nashville tun-o-matic bridge. This bridge has a little more travel and it generally intonates without any saddle-flipping. Of course, as with many changes made by Gibson, lots of players complained they preferred the original and so you’ll find a mixture of Nashville and ABR bridges installed across Gibson models.

FLIPPING SADDLES ON AN ABR-1 BRIDGE

The ABR already has some saddles flipped. The Nashville doesn’t. However, on either bridge, you’ll occasionally have to flip one yourself. Sometimes you’ll be at the end of the saddle’s travel—it won’t go any farther back or forward but you’re not quite intonated. Flipping a saddle might just get you where you need to be.

On the ABR, it’s pretty easy (if a little fiddly) to do.

  • First up, slacken off the string you’re intonating.
  • On the bridge, there’s a really thin ‘retainer wire’ holding the saddle screws in place and stopping them from falling out. Use a small flat-bladed screwdriver to remove one end from its hole and carefully move it so the screws are free.
  • Lift the saddle and screw out of the bridge slot. You might need to prise it slighly. Be gentle.
  • Back out the adjustment screw, flip the saddle 180º and re-insert the screw.
  • Pop it back into the bridge and (the fiddly bit) put the retainer wire back in position over the saddle screws and get the end back in the hole.
  • Bring the string back up to pitch and continue intonation.

Reversing a saddle on a Gibson ABR-1 tun-o-matic bridge

FLIPPING SADDLES ON A NASHVILLE BRIDGE

On the Nashville bridge, you can get lucky and find a model that the screws just ‘back out of’ but most often the screws are ‘captured’ by a clip of some kind.

This may be a circlip (C-clip) or wire clip. Getting these off to flip saddles is possible but it’s a lot of hassle—especially putting them back again. The wire clip in particular will probably need to be replaced afterwards.

Approach this with caution and talk to your trusted repair person rather than forcing the matter.

Circlip or C-Clip retainer

Wire retainer clip


Setting Intonation on a Bass

Most basses have saddles that can be moved backwards and forwards to set the intonation. Usually, you access the saddle adjustment screws from the rear of the bridge but sometimes the adjustment is performed from the front. Either way, the extra ‘chunkiness’ of bass hardware, compared to guitar, tends to make the job a bit less fiddly.

First though, let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, always check intonation and tuning with the bass in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory, as always, is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little using a flat or philips screwdriver as appropriate.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Setting intonation on a bass guitar bridge (a BadAss in this case)

 

NON-ADJUSTABLE SADDLES

There are basses, like some of Gibson’s EB models that have a bridge not unlike the ‘tailpiece’ or wrap-over bridges on some Gibson guitars. These bridges do not have an adjustable saddle for each string. Instead the bridge is adjustable ‘overall’.

Adjusting 'grub' screws alters angle of bridge and therefore overall intonation.

On the bridge, behind where it mounts on each post, is a small ‘grub-screw’. Adusting the screw on either the bass or treble side can change the angle the bridge mounts at.

For instance, if you adjust the bass-side screw clockwise, it pushes against the mounting post and moves that side of the bridge further away. Essentially, the overall angle of the bridge can be changed and this can be used to approximate a good intonation.

Now, bass strings tend to intonate in a (relatively) straight line to each other—unlike the more zig-zag line of a guitar’s saddles. This usually means having a bridge like this isn’t as much of an intonation drawback as it might be on a guitar.

When intonating an overall-adjustable bridge, set the outside strings first. Check the middle strings then and see how they seem. From there, you can tweak things a little to ‘balance up’ the intonation so that no one string is too far out.

5-STRING BASSES

The bottom B can be troublesome. If you’ve got a 5-string, you’ll want to pay close attention to the rest of your setup and make sure it’s good for that bottom string. Nuts, in particular, need to be spot on—too narrow a nut slot and the string will pinch (often choking the note or even giving weird overtones) and too wide a slot will allow the string to move, killing off the tone.

Pickups are another thing to be careful of. Too powerful a pickup, or one adjusted too close, can wreak havok on that bottom string in particular. If you’ve any problems picking up an accurate tuning signal, first thing to do is to lower the pickup.

My advice is to go heavy. Don’t be shy about banging a good heavy bottom string on. More string mass means more stability (usually). Go heavy, my friend, even if you’re buying just an individual string for the bottom and using your regular gauge for the rest.

Oh, and electronic tuners… Some older (or cheaper) tuners don’t have the range and get confused by that low string, misreading it or failing to realise it's there at all. Of course, if you have a 5-string and a tuner, there’s a good chance you know this already.

Setting Intonation on a Strat

With the exception of, maybe, a four-string Precision bass, setting intonation on most Strats is probably one of the easier jobs. Even more so if you’ve got a hard-tail, non-trem Strat.

HOW TO SET INTONATION ON A FENDER STRATOCASTER

Let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

On a Strat, you should have your tremolo bridge balanced/floating or set hard to the body as you normally would. Essentially, everything should otherwise be exactly as you would play it.

And speaking of playing, remember, always check intonation and tuning with the guitar in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory is always this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little by turning the adjustment screw at the back of the bridge (counter-clockwise).
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
  5. Retune the open string, check tuning of the other strings (see below) and go back to 1.

Setting the intonation on a Stratocaster

KEEP CHECKING YOUR TREMOLO BALANCE

An important consideration on a Strat:

If your bridge is floating or raised off the body, keep an eye on how it’s behaving as you proceed. If your saddles travel a lot during intonation, the overall tuning of the instrument and balance of the bridge can be affected.

Keep checking the tuning of the other strings as you go and, if they sharpen or flatten by much, adjust the tremolo spring tension (around the back) to bring them back to their original balance point. Loosening the screws holding the tremolo-claw/springs will lower string tension and tuning. Tightening the screws will raise overall tuning. Don’t go nuts.

STRATOCASTER INTONATION QUIRKS

  • Keep an eye on the trem-balance as mentioned above. That’s a biggie.
  • Sometimes, the bottom string won’t travel back far enough to properly intonate. It’s not that common but it happens (the 6th string in the image above is pretty close to the back of the bridge). You can gain a little extra travel by completely removing the screw and using an end-nippers to shorten the spring. You can even leave the spring out completely—although that's a last resort.
  • A lot of saddle movement, back or forwards, can also do odd things to the action of each string (geometry’s a bitch). Before you start, make a note of each string’s action and re-check if you have to move the saddles much. 

How to Set Intonation

Over the next little while I'll give you some information on how to assess and set the action on a number of guitars and basses. If every, single instrument isn't covered, there should be something that's similar enough to an instrument like yours, or—at least—enough information to figure out how to approach your own. 

Before we begin, you should remember that intonation is the last thing you will do when setting up your guitar or bass. If the nut, action, relief and pickup height is not where you want it, there’s no point setting intonation (and it’ll be more difficult). Get everything else right first and then look at intonation.

WHY DO WE HAVE TO SET INTONATION?

There are a few things going on here but for the most part, think of it this way:

When you fret a note on a guitar (or bass—let’s assume we’re talking about either instrument for the rest of this article), you actually stretch the string a little. This stretching sharpens the note by just a little.

To compensate for this—and you’ll often hear intonation referred to as ‘compensation’—we make each string a little longer, effectively flattening it.

Heavier strings will need more compensation than lighter strings. This is why you can see an acoustic guitar saddle angles back as it goes from treble to bass strings.

  String compensation. Saddle on acoustic guitar angles to allow bigger strings more compensation

String compensation. Saddle on acoustic guitar angles to allow bigger strings more compensation

HOW to setup INTONATION?

On most electric instruments, you’ll likely have adjustable saddles to easily compensate each string. Some guitars are more or less flexible in this regard (and we'll get to individual instruments in a little while) and acoustic instruments with non-adjustable saddles present more of a challenge.

Before we start, remember the prerequisites: The rest of your setup must be right for you and you should have fresh strings installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Also, you'll always check with the instrument in the 'playing position', not resting on its back on a bench or similar. The instrument should be orientated as if you were playing it. Ideally, sit comfortably and hold the instrument in your lap like you would if you were playing. Feel free to set it down on a bench or whatever to actually make the adjustments but always back to playing position to check. 

The basic theory is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the pen string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little.
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Flat forward / Sharp back

A NOTE ON ELECTRONIC TUNERS

If I affect my best Morgan Freeman voice, I can say something like, "Time was, back in my day, we set intonation using our ears."

Since this isn't back in the day, though, I'm going to assume you'll probably be using an electronic tuner of some sort. This can certainly help matters but try to make sure you use a decent one. 

When you’ve got Peterson selling a strobe tuning app, with 0.1 cent accuracy for iOS and Android that costs about USD10, there’s no excuse. There are other apps and, of course, good hardware tuners too. Just try to use something decent.

Clip-on tuners aren't great for this job. Their accuracy is often lower and, more importantly, they sometimes have problems sensing the fretted notes. If it's all you've got, give it a go, but see if you can scrounge up something non-clippy if possible.

Or use your ears.

 Get your free download of Solving Intonation Problems

Get your free download of Solving Intonation Problems

Solving Intonation Problems

I've written a new book to accompany this series of posts on intonation. Solving Intonation Problems will give you some help dealing with the trickier issues you might come across. There are tons of tips and some info on some hardware solutions for improved intonation. 

Solving Intonation Problems is a free download. Just sign up below for your free copy. 


How to set intonation on your guitar or bass