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.

New HOW-TO Series: Intonation

Over the next while, I’ll be running a series on Intonation.

We’ll kick off with an introduction outlining the why-and-how basics of intonation on your guitar or bass.

Then, we’ll follow that with a series of articles on exactly how to set the intonation on a number of common instruments—the actual practical steps to get the thing intonated.

Each article will also include a number of extra tips on how to deal with the particular ‘quirks’ of that instrument. These can be really handy as many instruments will throw curve-balls at you as you try to intonate them.

And, last but certainly not least, I’ve written a new guide to accompany the series.

Solving Intonation Problems is a 24-page guide to help deal with some of the trickier issues you’ll come across. It’s crammed with tips to help when you’re stuck and can’t figure out where to go next. There are also some sections on some of the hardware ‘solutions’ to better intonation.

If you do any guitar/bass setup or DIY, I think you’ll find it useful.

Solving Intonation Problems is available for digital download now.

And it’s free.

Just sign up below to get your copy.

And remember to check back here for the intonation articles over the next couple of weeks. If you use a feed reeder you can paste into it and you’ll get them automatically. 

Download a free guide to solving tricky intonation problems

Download a free guide to solving tricky intonation problems

Guitar and Bass Intonation Series roundup

Setting Intonation on a Fretless

Marking 12th fret position to intonate fretless bass

Marking 12th fret position to intonate fretless bass

We won't get too far into the whys and hows of intonation right now but, you'll probably all know that your guitar or bass should be 'intonated' to ensure that each string plays closely in tune in all positions on the neck.

Generally, this is done by ensuring the note played at the 12th fret position is properly in tune with the open string (which is the same note, an octave lower). If the fretted note is sharp or flat, we adjust the bridge saddles back or forward (respectively) to compensate and properly intonate the string. 

We pick the 12th fret because it marks half of the instrument's scale-length (the 'sounding' part of the string from nut to bridge saddle). 

What if there's no 12th fret?

On a fretless instrument, we have no fret to mark the exact octave position. While a good fretless player could probably automatically correct for a slight variation in intonation, I don't think he or she should have to.

So, when I'm setting intonation on a fretless, to make sure I know the exact 12th fret position, I measure. To do this, you just need to halve the scale-length. In this case, we have a 34" scale bass so 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. If you stick the tape to your shirt first, it will remove much of its tackiness and it'll be less likely to leave gum behind or pull finish away.

Now you've got a perfect marker for setting intonation and the bassist has no excuse for poor fingering. ;-)

Guitar Hardware School: Nuts II - Compensated Nuts

Most nuts have a pretty simple design. The strings sit in slots and 'take off' from the front edge of the nut. This marks what is effectively the 'zero-fret' position and each string 'starts' at that same zero location. 

It doesn't have to, though.  

It's possible to move the starting point for each string slightly back towards the headstock or forwards towards the bridge.  

Why would you do such a thing? 

Well, in a similar way to that in which your bridge saddles are compensated to intonate the guitar and help provide some tuning consistency all over the neck, the nut can also be compensated to help a guitar play more in tune. 

I should note that, when talking about playing in tune or tuning consistency here, I'm not discussing the way a guitar slip out of tune. I'm talking about the way each note (open and fretted) should be neither too sharp or too flat compared to what it should be. For instance, if I play fret the third fret of the fifth string, I want to hear an in-tune C note. 


Compensation is the adjustment of a string's length so that it plays as closely as possible in tune at each fret position. Generally, on a guitar, we compensate (or intonate) by moving the position of the bridge saddles. On an acoustic guitar, you'll have noticed the saddle is generally installed at a slight angle—so the sixth string is a little longer than the first. It's possible to further compensate the acoustic saddle itself.

Even the best setup guitar can still have some fret positions where a sensitive ear can hear some inconsistencies. In many cases, this hangs around the first few positions.  

How to address this? 

The Compensated Nut

A compensated nut on your guitar or bass moves the 'take-off' point for the string back or forwards in an effort to improve overall tuning consistency. It's essentially the same process as for the bridge.

Music Man compensated nuts at back. Buzz Feiten shelf-nut blanks in front

Some manufacturers, such as Music Man, fit compensated nuts to their instruments as standard. Each string slot has a shifted 'edge' or take-off point.

It's also possible to have a compensated nut retro-fitted to your guitar or bass.  

The big players on the retro-fit scene are mostly Buzz Feiten and Earvana. These take slightly different approaches to address similar problems. Earvana's nut is similar to the Music Man nuts pictured above (and, in fact, I seem to recall a lawsuit between those two companies on the subject). Earvana adjusts each string by a different amount and the instrument is then set-up and tuned as normal. 

The Buzz Feiten system uses a 'shelf' nut that moves the string's take-off point closer to the bridge by a particular distance (calculated based on a number of factors including string-gauge, scale-length and fret-width). Each string is moved by the same amount but the instrument is intonated differently to 'sweeten' the tunings. When tuning the guitar, you tune to the 'E' note on each string rather than tuning the open strings (or just simply use a Feiten-approved tuner). 

Both approaches can make for very good results. Personally, I prefer the Buzz Feiten as I think it looks and sounds better (it's a bone nut) and more 'musically correct'. Full disclosure: I do have a dog in this race, though, as I'm an authorised Buzz Feiten fitter

The Bottom Line: Is It Worth Upgrading?

It depends. Most of us are happily hammering away on our guitars without being bugged too badly by intonation and tuning issues and, even with a standard nut, a good setup can go a long way towards addressing most problems for most people. 

However, if you're constantly on edge that some of your chords just refuse to sound right; if you're playing with a pianist/keyboardist and are plagued by tuning issues on certain notes, it might be worth considering.  

Don't be surprised, though, if a good tech advises you to consider a fret level/re-crown at the same time though. Worn frets can bring their own intonation issues and it's generally a good idea to address these at the same time so you'll get the full benefit.  

Also, remember that these aren't magic. While a compensated nut can improve things, there are limitations inherent in any fretted instrument with equal temperament. That's probably a discussion for another day but keep in mind that we can never achieve perfection (we can get close, though).