I've run through a lot of frequently-asked setup questions over the last few weeks. I figured it might be useful to round them up and present them as a list so they're a bit easier to find.
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.
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.
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:
- Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
- Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the pen string—is it flat or sharp?
- If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little.
- If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little.
- Retune the open string and go back to 1.
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.
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
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