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