What Is Intonation On The Guitar & Bass?

If you’ve been playing the guitar or bass for a little while, there is a good chance you’ve come across the term “intonation” at some point, possibly in the context of guitar setups, repairs, or things of that nature. So what is intonation exactly? If you’re unfamiliar with this small but extremely important word, this article will explain what intonation is and why it needs to be correct on your instrument.

Defining Intonation & Its Importance

Simply put, intonation is the guitar’s ability to play in tune up and down the neck. This is a critical part of the instrument’s performance, as even the best players will sound bad if their guitar is out of tune across the fingerboard.

If your guitar is poorly intonated, you could be tuned to the correct pitches on your open strings; however, as you continue to play some frets, the notes will not be accurate, and you will sound out of tune.

For example, let’s say you’re playing on one of your E strings and you’re in standard tuning. If you have a guitar that has intonation problems, the first fret will not be a true F note – it’ll probably be either sharp or flat. Regardless if you tuned your open strings perfectly, the remaining notes that you fret won’t sound in-tune whatsoever because the intonation is off.

Intonation isn’t a concept that’s unique to the guitar or bass, though. With other stringed instruments that don’t have frets, like the violin, intonation is something that must be practiced. Since there is no guidance from the frets, players must develop their own sense of pitch accuracy while playing across the fingerboard.

For guitarists or bassists, though, intonation is mainly a technical issue with your instrument. Either your guitar or bass has poor intonation or has accurate intonation. So how do you tell if yours is or isn’t properly intonated? The next section will help you answer that question.

How To Test Intonation On Guitar

Aside from playing your guitar and noticing things don’t sound quite right as you play up and down the fretboard, there is a very simple and straightforward way to tell if your guitar needs to be intonated correctly. Here are the steps:

 

1. Tune all of your strings perfectly with your guitar tuner

2. With your tuner plugged into your instrument or nearby it, play the note on your 12th fret and then play the natural harmonic on the 12th by lightly touching the metal fret. If your guitar isn’t producing the note of that string and the fretted note and the natural harmonic aren’t identical, your guitar has intonation issues. For example, if you’re starting with the high-E string on a guitar, the 12th fret should produce an E, and so should that natural harmonic.

3. Repeat this process with all of your strings to verify if there are or aren’t any problems. It’s not unusual for one or two of the strings to have inaccurate intonation and the rest be perfectly fine.  If you want to be extra sure, you can test every fret as well.

Suppose you find that there are, in fact, some intonation problems with your guitar or bass. In that case, you’ll need to get this fixed as soon as possible because it will eliminate some of the frustration you’ve most likely been having with your instrument. 

What Causes Intonation Problems?

There are a handful of reasons why your guitar could develop intonation issues, including:

  • A loose nut
  • Poor bridge saddle alignment
  • Very old guitar strings
  • Too high of action
  • Too much neck relief

Intonation problems can simply occur as the instrument ages and gets exposed to its environment. For example, if you don’t keep your instrument stored in a controlled environment, extreme temperatures and excessive humidity or a lack thereof can cause the wood to shift over time and cause some of these problems to appear.

If you recently purchased a new guitar or bass, though, it’s possible for instruments to have intonation problems right out of the box, especially cheap guitars.

Either way, unless you’re pretty savvy with guitar repairs, I highly recommend taking your instrument to a professional who can diagnose the issue and fix it. More than likely, you probably just need a complete guitar setup! If you’re a beginner, I suggest taking it to your local guitar tech because it will be less overwhelming right now, but as you become more experienced, feel free to learn how to do your own repairs. However, if you want to know what goes into setting intonation, here’s an excellent video from Music Nomad explaining it:

Conclusion

Intonation problems are annoying, but it’s essential that they are resolved if you want a pleasant sounding instrument and an enjoyable playing experience. Hopefully, by reading this article, you have a better understanding of why that’s the case and what you can do to identify if you have poor intonation on guitar or bass. If you find that things are off with your instrument, simply take it to a pro guitar tech, and they’ll get it up and running and sounding like it’s intended to.