Let’s face it: guitarists often play out of tune. There are many reasons for this, from forgetful or uninformed players to bad strings and, unfortunately, faulty guitars. I’ve learned about these things the hard way; I’ve been uninformed myself, I’ve had plenty of bad strings and also a bad guitar or two!
In this article, I’ll first tell you about my views on how to tune a guitar, and later we’ll see how you can easily test your strings and your guitar for intonation (accuracy of pitch) and what you can do if something’s not right.
Tuning your guitar by ear
Most often the reason for a guitar being out of tune is the simplest one—the player has not tuned the instrument properly! Surprisingly often that crucial step is simply forgotten, but it’s not unusual to find players who choose not to use an electronic tuner, but rather tune by ear, which almost always results in compromised tuning accuracy.
Of course there are some players who really can tune a guitar very accurately by ear, but honestly, most of us can not. It’s actually very difficult to do—the whole procedure of tuning by ear is riddled with potential problems. Without delving too deep into it here, you shouldn’t use any intervals other than unisons and octaves, and you should probably not use harmonics either, at least any others than the 12th fret one. Playing chords and adjusting your tuning based on how they sound is a definite no-no, if you wish that all other chords should play in tune too! And as we shall see, the strings and the particular guitar you are using enter into the equation as well.
Tuning by ear easily just turns into a big confusion, and the results often aren’t good.
Using an electronic tuner
There really is no downside to using an electronic tuner*.
The guitarists who choose not to tune with a tuner are, in my opinion, probably worried more about their image than their tuning accuracy. That’s right: there is a prevalent view among musicians that real professionals don’t need to use tuners, and that using a tuner means that you’re not really able to tune your instrument without help, which is seen as little pathetic at best.
That’s of course not true, and wildly irrelevant anyway, since being able to tune by ear doesn’t really make you a better musician. And no one criticizes you for not knowing how to adjust the setup of your instrument yourself, even though that ability would be much more important and useful for a professional.
Simply put, it’s not only okay to use a tuner; it’s the way to go.
*Okay, there’s one downside: it’s not the most elegant thing you can do to tune a guitar in front of an audience using a tuner. But it’s even less elegant to play out of tune!
Bad strings play out of tune
The other common reason for out-of-tune guitars is bad strings. They are indeed very common, especially among certain brands. For some reason, fluorocarbon (so-called carbon) strings are the worst offenders. Savarez Alliance treble strings used to be very uneven, but I haven’t used them in years, so I don’t know the current situation. Galli Carbonio trebles, which I use now, sadly continue the tradition of undependable intonation. D’Addario strings are usually very well intonated, and right now I’m gathering more information about their Titanium treble strings. Hopefully they will work better. All that being said, normal nylon strings also often play out of tune, too, so you’re not safe using them.
How do you find out if you’ve got a bad string or a bad guitar? Unfortunately, it’s not as straightforward as it might seem.
How to test your guitar and strings
I think you should forget about the commonly used method of playing a note on the 12th fret and comparing it to the harmonic of the same fret. Although it will give you some rudimentary information, it won’t really help you. A good electronic tuner will be much more useful.
To test your guitar’s intonation, first tune the open strings with a tuner. After they are perfectly in tune, start playing single notes all over the fingerboard, slowly, and see if you can see a pattern emerging.
- Are the notes on the first few frets more or less in tune, but do the notes higher up tend to be sharp of flat?
- Is that tendency progressive—the higher you go, the more it shows?
- Is that same tendency apparent on other strings, too?
- It’s very important to press the strings against the fingerboard squarely, without stretching them at all! If you do stretch them, you will make them sharp or flat.
Do you notice a general tendency towards accuracy all over the fingerboard all across the strings? Count yourself lucky! You seem to have a good guitar and good strings on it!
Do some of the strings stand out from the rest? That’s pretty normal: those strings are probably badly intonated. Unfortunately, about the only thing you can do is change the strings, although sometimes turning them over end-for-end will result in better tuning accuracy. And if you do change the strings, the new ones might be just as bad! If playing in tune is very important to you, you can mix and match string from several sets to get a guitar that plays in tune. You can still count yourself lucky, because your guitar is likely to be all right. Changing the strings is very easy and cheap compared to the alternative!
Did you notice a common tendency towards sharpness or flatness on all strings when you went up the neck? Or did the notes on the first few frets all play sharp or flat, even though all open strings were tuned accurately? If so, I’m afraid I have bad news for you: it’s possible that your guitar is to be blamed for that.
It’s nowhere near as common as it once was, but it’s still possible to come across a guitar that has been constructed incorrectly. And the sad thing is, it doesn’t really correlate with price. In fact, I would say that affordable factory-made guitars are usually pretty good, but some expensive luthier-made instruments can be astonishingly bad, especially considering their price! You’d think that if a maker can charge thousands for a guitar, he or she could also make it play in tune, but that’s not always the case.
If you just found out that you have a badly intonated guitar, there might be something you can do about it yourself.
As a side note, guitarists who own expensive luthier-made instruments are understandably wary of tampering with them in any way. Often I can see their point; there’s no sense in ruining a treasure to save pennies. But it’s hard for me to understand guitarists’ common reluctance to learn about basic setup: not only would it be very useful to be able to fine-tune your guitar’s setup to suit your particular playing style, but you’d also save a lot of time and money, not to mention the sense of empowerment you’d feel!
My case; some things you can fix yourself
In the picture below you can see the bridge and it’s bone saddle in one of my guitars. I noticed that particular guitar never seemed to play quite in tune, but for a long time I did nothing more about it. The guitar has got a beautiful sound, and I just accepted its slight out-of-tuneness as a quirk in an otherwise fine instrument. But eventually I decided to really look into the matter.
I took a rule to measure my guitar, and I found that the bridge is actually in the wrong place! It’s been glued about 1,5 millimeters closer to the fingerboard than it should be, and that resulted in inaccurate intonation. All strings played sharp in the upper reaches of the neck, and more so the higher I went.
I chose to partially remedy the problem by filing a backwards slope in the bone saddle, which you can see in the picture. That slope effectively moves the bridge backwards about 1 millimeter by shifting the contact point of the strings and the saddle backwards. The result is much better pitch accuracy around the fingerboard; it’s really a noticeable difference. Everything sounds better now!
I believe that this is something that most people would be able to do themselves, if they find themselves in a similar situation. If you would like to have more information, just ask in the comment section!
Another thing you might have noticed about the picture is that I’ve raised the saddle by inserting thin slivers of wood veneer beneath it. It’s actually a very good method of adjusting action. There’s no loss of tone, if done properly.
Some things you can’t fix yourself
If, however, you guitar has the opposite problem of playing flat on higher frets, or if the intonation varies a lot from fret to fret (that’s the most difficult situation), you probably don’t have much choice: you need to take your guitar to a professional repair person or guitar maker, if you want it fixed. And we could be talking about some expensive repairs here, I’m sorry to say. If the bridge needs to be moved or the fingerboard replaced, those are big and costly jobs. Even just removing the frets, filling the grooves and refretting more accurately takes a lot of skill, experience and time, unfortunately.
In any case, I think you should take your guitar to be evaluated, if it has intonation problems that you can’t fix yourself by changing the strings or fiddling with the saddle. A good repair person can tell a lot by just a quick look, and that won’t cost you much!
If you’re serious about music and playing guitar, you really should be aware of the important characteristics of your instrument. Intonation is one on them, not just things like tone color. Be aware! Measure with an electronic tuner, measure with a tape or rule if necessary. Find out if everything’s as it should be!
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