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Vincent’s Guitar Workshop – Issue 1

Guitars are funny. Six strings, a piece of wood, and a rather simple electronic circuit is all they’re made of. They’re all the same thing! Why does one cost $200 dollars, and the next is $2000? While many would jump to “brand name” as their go-to answer, you have to consider how the big brand names got there in the first place. The real answer is two things in my opinion, the first being the quality of the components used, and the second would be attention to detail. For example, Pablo Picasso could take a pencil and piece of paper and create a priceless masterpiece that would be cherished for years. I could take those same materials and make some decent kindling. Same components, but a much different end result!

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No matter the price of the guitar, the fact is that they all operate the same way and all need to be maintained the same way. Recently, I began an article series called “Vincent’s Tips on Tones” (check it out if you haven’t!). In the first issue, I mentioned that a proper guitar setup can have a large impact on your playing, and ultimately your overall tone. In this series, I’ll go further into detail about setting up your instrument and fixing issues that prevent you from playing to your full potential.

For starters, a little about myself:
My name is Vince and I’ve been working as a guitar technician at Eastwood Guitars for the past three years. It is my job to inspect, set up, repair, and prepare the instruments for shipment to their final destination. For the first few entries, I’ll go over the essentials of a basic guitar setup assuming there are no major problems with the instrument.

The first thing you want to do is look over the entire guitar for any blemishes, and make sure the electronics are functioning properly. There’s nothing worse than doing a full set-up only to notice a problem that’s going to require more work. If you’re working on a heavily used guitar, it’s still good practice to familiarize yourself with any damage on the guitar before you work on it. That way, you won’t notice it afterwards and think “uh-oh, did I do that?”

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If the guitar looks clean and is working, you can begin the setup. The first thing you need to understand is that whatever adjustment you make will have an impact somewhere else on the instrument. For example, flattening out the neck will both lower your strings and alter your tuning and intonation. For this reason, it’s important to inspect each piece in order, and make the adjustment where necessary. Often times you will need to go back and readjust changes you’ve made so everything will balance! Today I’ll focus on:

 Neck Relief.
Generally speaking, you want your guitar neck to be as straight as possible. A neck that is too far “back bowed” can cause significant fret buzz problems and dead notes, while one that is too far “over bowed” can cause your action to be impossibly high and throw off intonation.
With a keen eye, you can visually check for this by holding the guitar by its body, and looking down the side of the neck from the nut to where the neck meets the body. Be sure not to push on the neck when doing this as you could influence the bow in the neck. What you’re looking for is a bow in the neck. A neck that dips down like a valley is referred to as being over bowed. One that dips upward like a hill is known as being back bowed.

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If I’m working on my own guitar or I know what the owner likes, sighting the guitar in this way is enough to know what kind of adjustment I need to make to be happy with it. If it’s for an unknown customer, I prefer to use a measurement method that will turn out the same way each time.

Using a capo, clamp down the strings in the first fret. Then, push down on the low “E” string at the 17th fret. Now, look at the 8th fret. There should be just a sliver of space between the bottom of the low “E” and the top of the fret. If you have one, slide a .010 feeler gauge underneath the string. If it just sneaks under, you’re golden.

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If there’s a large gap between the feeler gauge and the string, it means your neck is over bowed and you’ll need to tighten your truss rod. If the gauge pushes against the string too much or doesn’t fit underneath, your neck is back bowed and you’ll need to loosen the truss rod.

Once you’ve determined the state of the neck, you can try an adjustment if necessary. First you’ll need to find the truss rod access, which is typically located where the headstock meets the neck just above the nut. You will need the right sized Allen key or truss rod wrench to make the adjustment (your guitar should have come with this when you bought it). If the key does not fit perfectly snug, do NOT turn it! The last thing you want to do is strip your truss rod!

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Once you’ve found a wrench that fits in tight, start by making a small turn counter-clockwise to loosen the rod. You never want to tighten first incase the rod is maxed out. Once you’ve learned that the rod will spin, you can start to make small adjustments whichever direction required to straighten the neck. Counter-clockwise will loosen the rod, while clockwise till tighten. Remember to sight the neck after each turn to see what’s happening with the neck.

When you think you’re happy with how straight the neck looks, you can check the relief again with the capo method, followed by a play test! Many times a simple neck adjustment is all a guitar will need to play smoothly. However, if during your play test there are still problems with the guitar, the issue lies somewhere else – but we’ll get to that in a later “Guitar Workshop”! Next time, I’ll talk about the two things I follow up every neck adjustment with; String height, and intonation!

Happy playing!

Adventures in Intonation

Getting a guitar in tune, and keeping it in tune, is often an interesting endeavor—in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!” Most serious players know that there is a never ending series of adjustments needed to keep your instrument playing right.

Joey Leone’s recent article on the importance of set-up was spot on. Years back, I worked as a salesman in a small, independent music store. I’d never worked in music sales before, so unpacking brand new guitars fresh off the UPS truck was a new experience for me. I quickly discovered that they were almost never properly adjusted. It was a roll of the dice at best. The guitars that happened to come in playing well were the first to go out the door in the hands of happy, paying customers. The other instruments would hang on the wall a lot longer, while we repeatedly explained that a professional set-up would make them play and feel much better. So I got to thinking that if I learned the basics, and at least got the guitars and bass guitars into reasonably good adjustment, sales would go up. I started talking to our guitar tech, and asked him to explain to me how it all worked. He was amazingly patient with me while I relentlessly picked his brains, until finally, I began to “get it.” I got pretty good at setting up the instruments, and sales went up substantially—not that the owner of the store was in a hurry to give me a raise for my efforts!

Still, I was glad for what I’d learned. While major repairs and maintenance (including fret work and the neck set on acoustic guitars) were things I was wise enough not to tackle, routine adjustments became, well, routine. The electrics were the easiest to work with, because most of the adjustments were done mechanically, with a screwdriver and an Allen wrench.

I found a quick way to scope out a truss rod adjustment, without needing the expensive machined straight edge our tech used. Using both hands, I’d just press the bass string down in two places on the fingerboard, simultaneously–say at the third and 11th frets–and then pluck the string with a free finger. If the string bottomed out, it meant the rod was too tight, and the neck too flat. Conversely, if I could see much more than the thickness of a playing card’s worth of space between the string and the frets (looking from the side, as you would while playing), it meant the rod was too loose, and the neck had too much forward bow.

After that, I’d start adjusting the saddles—up or down for string height, and on the electrics, forward or back for string length. These two adjustments—height and length—are highly interactive. If your strings are higher, you have to press them down farther to play a note. That means more stretch, higher tension, and raised pitch—resulting in the need for lengthening the string, by moving the saddle away from the nut a bit. Lower strings mean less stretch, and less need for compensation. Different players like different string heights, of course, so there’s no single right way to do this, but at the store, I’d try to find a middle ground that would satisfy most players.

Nut slot adjustments are something untrained players shouldn’t mess with. The tech showed me how to do them, using an X-acto saw blade and 400 grit sandpaper. If the slots aren’t shaped properly, the strings won’t seat and flex properly, causing all sorts of problems. I started out doing nuts on cheap, entry-level guitars that had action bad enough that I could hardly have made them worse. And amazingly enough, I had a pretty good touch, and was able to do them well. Still, I left the top-of-the line instruments to our tech, though I’ve done the nut slots on my own pro guitars, since then. Ironically, most guitar techs don’t take the slots down far enough, in my opinion. That’s because if they go too far, the strings start buzzing, and they have to make you a new nut, or at least do some extra shimming—things they really don’t want to take the time do. I think the open string clearance between the nut and the first fret should be about the same as the clearance obtained between a closed string (that you’ve pressed down at a given fret) and the next fret up (toward the bridge). That way, you don’t get additional stretch at the first fret, sparing you the all-too-common aggravation of a guitar that plays sharp at the first fret. But talk to your guitar tech about it. As the saying goes, don’t try this at home.

Worn frets make guitars play sharp! That’s because as a fret wears down, the string vibrates from the front edge of the fret, rather than from the crown—effectively shortening the string, and thus slightly raising the pitch. Worn frets can also cause string buzz against higher, less worn frets. If you then raise the action to offset this, you create all sorts of tuning and playability problems. So get your frets worked on, when they need it. A guitar tech I know suggested that changing your strings is like buying gasoline for your car—something routine and inexpensive. Getting your frets adjusted and replaced is like buying tires. More expensive and done less often, but it’s something you simply must do, from time to time.

Keeping your guitar in tune requires strings that still have some elasticity. They don’t have to be brand new, but over time, strings become stiff and brittle, long before they break. Stiff, brittle strings play sharp, so once they reach that point, it’s time for a new set.

String gauges can make a difference, too. I like fairly heavy strings on my Strat. I use a 12 to 52 set, with a wound 3rd string—pretty much the same gauges I use on my acoustic flat top. I find them more stable, tuning wise, than lighter strings, and I like the fatter tone I get. But some people have no trouble with the lighter, faster, 9’s, 10’s, or 11’s. It just depends on your touch and style.

The weather affects your guitar! Humidity swells wood, higher temperatures expand everything, colder temps contract everything, and all of these variations affect the tension on your strings. A guitar can be in tune at home, and get wonky in a cold car trunk on the way to a gig. At the gig, you re-tune the still-cold guitar, only to have it shift on you again as it warms up in your hands, requiring you to re-tune again (and again!). Don’t worry. It’ll eventually settle down. Better still, arrive a little early, and let the guitar warm up before you play it.

Finally, let me just touch on the question of scale tempering. Musical scales are built around theoretical mathematical ideals, but real world instruments have built-in compromises. These compromises are called scale tempering. The modern equal-tempered tuning system was a major innovation developed for keyboard instruments during the time of J. S. Bach, and his composition, The Well Tempered Clavier, demonstrated its effectiveness. Prior to that system’s introduction, you could not play in some keys without retuning your keyboard. These days, most guitars are built according to the equal-tempered system, but ironically, acoustic pianos employ a variation called “stretch tuning,” to compensate for the sharp harmonics generated by their stiff, massive, bass strings. The piano sounds more in tune with itself, but it’s a challenge to get guitars and other instruments in tune with the piano. Guitars with compensated nuts, guitars employing the Buzz Feiton nut and tuning system, and guitars with computer-designed curved frets are all examples of recent attempts to improve tuning accuracy and compatibility with keyboards.

There’s no way this short article can address all of the things that affect how in-tune a guitar plays on its own, and with other instruments. But I hope it points you in the right direction.

Gordon Kaswell is an award-winning composer, working musician (playing guitars, keyboards and bass guitar), and freelance writer. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. You can email him at gordon@efn.org

Guitar Troubleshooting: Finding the Source of a Bad Electric Guitar Connection

Sooner or later your electric guitar, cable, or amplifier is going to have problems and you need to do some guitar troubleshooting. There really isn’t much that you can do to prevent it. Honestly, instruments and equipment just get old and need repairs.

But, it’s still good to know what components of your electric guitar connection need replacing so you can prevent yourself from spending money on something that wasn’t actually necessary. Here is a basic order for troubleshooting the connection between your electric guitar and amplifier.

1. Cable

  • Before you even attempt to get your precious guitar or your expensive amplifier fixed, you need to find out if your cable is just messing with you. The fastest way to check it is simply… replace it.
  • Switch it with another that you know is guaranteed to work and you’ll know immediately from your guitar troubleshooting if you need a new cable.

2. Guitar

  • Jiggle and turn the tone and volume knobs. There could possibly be something wrong with the volume or tone knobs of your guitar and you can find out by giving those knobs a little jiggle. If there appears to be static in the sound or no change in tone or volume when the knobs are manipulated, now you know it’s a guitar problem and it’s primarily in those knobs.
  • Lightly jiggle the cable input. A lot of guitar troubleshooting finds bad guitar input jacks, because they tend to go bad with lots of playing while you’re sweaty. If you have your guitar plugged into the amplifier, move the cable around in the guitar’s input slightly and notice if you hear any static or dismissal of sound.
  • Press the strings to the pick-ups. The pick-ups underneath the strings where you strum are where all the tone gets absorbed into the hardware and if those aren’t working, your guitar is now a poorly made acoustic. To check, simply turn on your guitar while plugged into an amplifier and lightly press a string to one of the silver dots on your pick-ups. If you hear a sound come through your amplifier, then your pick-ups are all ship shape.

3. Amplifier

  • Check the power: This one is a no-brainer, but sometimes it can be overlooked when you get overwhelmed by your guitar problems. For this guitar troubleshooting, if your amplifier won’t turn on, you’ll need to try the power cable. Simply switch it out with another and see if your amp turns on. You’ll immediately know if something is wrong.
  • Move the cable around lightly inside the input: Just like you tested the input on your electric guitar, the input on your amplifier should be tested the same way. Jiggle it around and if you hear any static or the sound begin to cut out, you’ll know it’s an input problem.
  • Press and turn all of the knobs, even the ones not used often. I once had a faulty knob that chose to create a loud, blaring noise every time that it was pushed in slightly. Test your amplifier knobs by pressing on them and turning them in their appropriate directions.

It really stinks when you have to get repairs on your electric guitar or your equipment, but doing the necessary guitar troubleshooting can save you some money on unnecessary repairs. Go through these steps the next time there’s a problem with your guitar’s connection and discover where the source is.

Kyle Hoffman is an experienced guitarist that loves to play just as a hobby, and to perform live on stage. To learn Kyle’s valuable tips for beginning the guitar the RIGHT way, visit How To Play Guitar as part of his popular guitar blog, How To Tune Guitar.

That Is Not My Guitar Until It Is Setup To My Specifications

Hello there in guitar land, thank you all for your comments and feedback to my column and to the WEBCAST hosted by Eastwood guitars.

This month I will be discussing a much overlooked aspect of guitar playing and appreciation, the professional setup. As I always say – this is not MY Guitar until it is setup to my specifications. I think perhaps 90% of today’s guitar players do NOT have a personal guitar repair technician that they work with. People have a favorite video / music store with a favorite clerk that helps them with selections, a tailor, a banker, a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer… yet they don’t have a favorite guitar tech. Why? Here are three scenarios that will exemplify this point.

Scenario #1: My Seagull sounds better then my Martin!

How many times have I heard this story, “I bought this cheap guitar at a local music store for $200 bucks, and it really needed a good setup and strings, and afterwards it sounded amazing!” The truth is that this is no urban legend – the professional setup is the real deal – and can make a decent guitar play and sound very good and sometimes even great. This is true for electrics and acoustics equally, although the most obvious is the acoustic as they are usually more prone to neck and body adjustments due to heat and humidity (or lack thereof). But, the electric guitar also needs a good setup as well.

Scenario #2: Music store guitars.

In my 30+ years of perusing music stores I have rarely entered a music store where the guitars were maintained w/ fresh strings and a good setup. As a matter of fact they are rarely even in tune to concert pitch (A440). I know – the profit margin, the man hours, blah, blah, blah – the truth is Mr. Music Store owner you will sell more guitars if they are maintained. Truth be told unless you are talking about a high end guitar shop where they have to sell guitars to pay the rent, guitars are usually hung up on the wall and expected to sell themselves.

So if you are really interested in buying a guitar in a music store, ask them to restring it and set it up for you. I mean don’t be an idiot and jerk the guy around for no reason, but you should know what it sounds like before you buy it. For a guitar under $1,000? Probably not. But for something more expensive, you bet.

For all you vintage guys out there how many times have you picked up that prehistoric Strat and were disappointed with how it played, knowing full well that it probably has been sitting for a long time without the benefit of some needed tweaking. Most dealers will say, “dude I left it as I found it” like that is a favor to you, how convenient! It’s really a disservice to those who’ll plunk down 20 G’s for a piece of guitar history, because these fellas know as well as we know, that just because it was made 50 years ago don’t mean it’s a good guitar, and the only way to know is? You guessed it, if it’s setup professionally.

Scenario #3: Online Purchases.

Online mega stores, Ebay auctions, direct sales, mom and pop sellers, third party sellers, yes my friends this is where a majority of guitar and guitar related commerce is done, online.

I must confess that I was one of those “I ain’t buying what I can’t play” guys. The idea of paying for a guitar that I had not seen gave me chills, and even more frightening to this paranoid guitar buyer was the fact that I was buying one of many guitars in that model that they had in stock. Who was going to pick the one I was getting? Beavis or Butthead? Or what does “very good condition” mean? Now we deal with words like “vibe” “correct” and “players” guitar – and are supposed to know what that means. I know what new means, it means new! I know what a demo is, it’s a demo! Alas, now I have learned how to buy guitars that I cannot play, one way is to buy from someone who is reputable and has a track record. Another is to buy what you know, a 1970 ES 335 (if it has no issues) is a 1970 ES 335, you will pay for it, and 99 times out of 100 get what you expect (from a reputable dealer or seller).

BUT… Now please my friends, pay attention here because this is the gospel as I know it. Never take a guitar out of a box after it has been shipped to you, and expect it to play right. To me that’s an unreasonable expectation. You buy a guitar on the merit of its sound, playability and pedigree (where and who it comes from). Like I said earlier, you can’t expect the store owner to take a lower cost guitar, re-string it and setup to your specifications, just for you to try it out. All players have different ideas about string gauges and low action etc, etc. That is why you need to find your own local technician, who will begin to understand your personal preferences and expectations. These guys can make a $500 guitar play like a $5000 guitar, and the more they know about you the better a job they can do for you. So, as soon as you get your guitar, inspect it for shipping damage and for flaws. As far as flaws are concerned, be reasonable, as far as I am concerned my expectations on a guitars fit and finish are directly related to its price.

Here is what I believe are the necessary parts of a good setup:

  • A neck adjustment (if needed)
  • Intonation
  • Action adjustment
  • Fret work (leveling if needed)
  • Pickup balancing
  • Nut filing (a way underrated aspect of tuning issues)
  • New strings
  • Cleaning scratchy pots (used guitars)

These tasks should be done by a qualified guitar repairman. You should have a local guy who knows your likes and dislikes. I personally like a flat neck adjustment with almost no bow and a higher action then most would like. You have your own expectations for a setup, communicate these to your local repairman and than enjoy your guitar.

Guitar Tech Setting Up a Guitar

Guitar Tech Setting Up a Guitar

I will say again – any guitar I own is not truly mine until it is setup to my specifications.

So in closing my friends I respectfully say don’t decide whether a guitar is a good guitar or not until it is setup professionally.

So many guitars, so little time.

Guitar Tuning & Set-Up Tips of the Stars!

This month’s column focuses on my pet peeves and some very important and yet overlooked aspects of guitar playing and your enjoyment of your guitar: tuning and set-ups.

Tuning a Gibson Acoustic Guitar

Tuning a Gibson Acoustic Guitar

Everybody deserves to have a guitar that plays well, stays in tune, and is in tune with itself. This is not just the privilege of globetrotting superstars, but everyone who owns a decent instrument.

Before I go any further, let me give you the proviso that I am not a guitar tech, set-up guy, or luthier. I’ve been playing for almost 4 decades and I’ve picked up a lot of valuable information along the way. What I do know is when to go to an experienced guitar technician / luthier to get problems solved. The whole purpose of this column is to inform those of you who were curious about some of these things but were afraid to ask or just plain didn’t know. You experienced guys and gals – Eddie Van Halen and Django Reinhardt: who’s better? Discuss.

New Eastwood Wandre Deluxe Electric Guitar

New Eastwood Wandre Deluxe Electric Guitar

New Guitars

In preparation for our upcoming cross-Canada tour this summer as a member of The Bachman Cummings Band, I decided to take my 2005 G&L ASAT Deluxe to my friend Brian Mascarin, a very in-demand luthier and guitar technician in Toronto, to have him dress the frets for me. Now you would think that the frets on a $2,500 guitar like a G&L would be set-up to perfection. Not so.

Consider the journey that guitar took to get to me: it was made in California in a very temperate climate, traveled across the continent in a truck, possibly in freezing weather, and arrived in Toronto where it hung in a music store for the better part of two years by its neck! And with the same set of strings!

I detected an annoying buzz under the D string that I couldn’t get rid of so I took it to Brian. He said it is not uncommon for some guitarists to come directly from the music store with a brand new Gibson, Fender, or Paul Reed Smith to his shop where he sets up the instrument to its new owners specs and tweaks any minor flaws that the factory may have overlooked. Keep in mind that with the worldwide explosion in popularity of the guitar, these manufacturers have to pump out literally hundreds (thousands?) of guitars every month. It is not realistic to assume that these instruments are 100% ready to go in every way for every player’s needs.

The need for a set-up by a qualified expert is even more crucial in the case of instruments made offshore: drastically different manufacturing climates, month-long trans-oceanic journeys with varying degrees of temperature and humidity, and high volume factory output are factors that have to be considered. No one can dispute the very high levels of quality and workmanship that goes into guitars made in Asia but keep in mind the changes and the journey your instrument has undergone before it got to you. No wonder it needs a bit of tweaking and TLC!

Guitar Strings on the Wall

Guitar Strings on the Wall

Strings

Quite often I hear of guitar owners complain that their newly purchased axe just doesn’t play the same as it did when it was purchased (Hey! It was in tune when I bought it!).

Did you change the strings? Of course you did. You took off the now tarnished and oxidized strings that the factory installed and put on a fresh set of your favourite brand with your favourite gauge – you know the super slinky .008’s with the .056 E string! Or the good guys at the store or e-store threw in a set of strings for you. Now the neck has a bow in it and the strings are an inch off the neck.

Why? Because you changed the geometry of the instrument. Here’s a real nugget for you – a guitar’s playability is affected by the gauge of string you use! A set of strings exerts hundreds of pounds of tension on a guitar’s neck. When you change the gauge or thickness of those strings, the tension on the neck changes. Your guitar was set up with a certain gauge of string at the factory. Unless you replace the strings with exactly the same brand (string characteristics in the same gauge vary from brand to brand owing to different manufacturing techniques and different metals used), your guitar will play differently. The only way to accurately determine the gauge of a string is with a micrometer and not many music stores have one of those under the counter.

What to do? Pick a brand and a gauge of string, get your guitar set-up for that string and stick with that string. When you experiment with different brands or gauges (and you should!), get the guitar setup again for that particular string.

Guitar Neck Truss Rod Diagram

Guitar Neck Truss Rod Diagram

Truss Rods

The truss rod is what is adjusted to add or reduce – relief – or bow in the neck. As I said in the opening, I am not a repair guy and I’m not going to tell you how to adjust your truss rod. I personally don’t think you should because the potential for permanent damage is huge. This is when you should go to an experienced technician.

Tune-o-Matic Guitar Bridge

Tune-o-Matic Guitar Bridge

Intonation

Ever wonder why some chords play in tune and others don’t? That’s intonation – the guitar’s ability to be “in tune” with itself. Without going into a long boring treatise on the tempered tuning system developed in the 16th century or whenever it was, suffice to say that your electric guitar, thanks to Mr.McCarty and the engineers at Gibson in the 50’s, has a bridge with little moveable saddles on it called a “tune-o-matic” bridge.

These little saddles adjust the string “length” relative to the 12th fret, which theoretically is the midpoint of the note. There are many resources on the net to get more details on the theory, but the idea here is to let you know that if you have a decent electronic tuner, a small screwdriver and a bit of patience, you can intonate your guitar so that it plays more in tune with itself.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Plug your guitar into your tuner.
  2. Tune the strings to pitch.
  3. Pluck the harmonic of the 6th string (pluck the string with your finger directly over the 12th fret without fretting the note).
  4. Fret the note at the 12th fret and compare it to the plucked harmonic.
  5. If the fretted note is sharp, move the saddle back (or to your right looking down on the guitar). If it is flat, do the opposite. Make small adjustments until the pitch of the harmonic and the fretted note is the same. Do this for all 6 strings.
  6. If you’re confused, go see your friendly neighbourhood guitar technician or luthier. A set-up with new strings, truss rod adjustment and intonation costs around $20 – $50 but it is well worth it.

Resources

Please visit David’s Website and don’t miss the Bachman Cummings tour this summer!

Here are the names of three very qualified technicians / luthiers in the Greater Toronto Area:

  • Musicality, Brian Mascarin (416) 787-1531 Toronto
  • The Peghead, Mike Spicer (905) 972-9400 Hamilton
  • The Guitar Shop, John Bride (905) 274-5555 Mississauga

Why Won’t My Guitar Play in Tune?!

While related, keeping a guitar in tune and having a guitar play in tune up and down the neck are two different issues. If your guitar stays in tune but the chords sound out of tune as you go further up the neck and closer to the body, this is the article for you. Having your guitar play in tune up and down the neck is generally referred to as intonation.

Let me start off by saying that No Guitar Will Play Perfectly In Tune. EVER. The tempered system of tuning upon which guitar fret placement relies on is imperfect, but it’s the best we can do. The system was designed by J.S. Bach in 1717 and first demonstrated on his work, The Well Tempered Clavier. Before Bach’s tempered tuning, fixed pitch instruments (keyboards, instruments with frets, etc.) were designed to play in one key at a time. If you needed to play in a different key, you’d use a different instrument or completely retune the one you had. Bach’s system redesigned the relationship between all of the notes so that the octaves in all keys would be an octave apart. In order for this to work, all of the notes in between the octaves had to be slightly out of tune. For folks with good ears, nothing played on a guitar or piano really sounds in tune.

That said, lets talk about intonation as it applies to your guitar. Basically, intonation is the process of setting all of the octaves on your guitar an octave apart, and eliminating some of the problems that may hinder this procedure.

Most guitars have a string length between the nut and bridge of between 24″ and 26″. If you were playing the guitar, as a slide instrument and not depressing the strings to the frets, setting the intonation would be a simple matter of placing the bridge of the instrument at the prescribed scale length. Since most guitarists press the stings down to fret them, simply setting the bridge to the scale length won’t work. When you press a string down, you bend it sharp. The bridge of the guitar needs to be moved in such a way as to lengthen the string beyond the calculated scale length to compensate for this. The amount of compensation is a function of string gauge, string core diameter, height of the string above the fingerboard, and the player’s technique. Basically speaking, the larger the core diameter, the harder you press, and higher the string height, the greater compensation.

Setting the intonation can be pretty easy or complex depending on how picky you are and the limitations of the design of your instrument. It is easiest to set intonation on electric guitars with; fully adjustable bridges, neck and pickups. It is most complex to do so on an acoustic without these features. Quick functional intonation settings can be accomplished by properly setting one set of octaves on each string, while those with good ears may want to set several sets of octave on each string and average the setting for optimal results.

Before intonation can be properly set, all of your ducks need to be in order. In other words, no matter what you do with string length, your guitar wont play in tune unless the neck is properly adjusted, the nut height is set so that the strings are the same height over the first fret as they are over the second fret when the strings are depressed on the first fret, and the pickups are far enough away from the strings so that their magnetic field doesn’t interfere with the vibration of the strings. If the frets on your guitar are worn or unlevel, this will also cause intonation discrepancies. All these items will be topics of future articles.

To properly set the intonation, you will need a good electronic tuner or a well trained ear and a tube amplifier. Most good guitar repair shops use strobe tuners by Peterson or Conn. These provide the best results, thought any quality electronic tuner should work.

Assuming the guitar is properly set up, you are now ready to set the intonation.

  1. Tune the guitar to concert pitch with the electronic tuner.
  2. Play the low E and check it against the tuner to see that it is still correct.
  3. Play the octave E at the 12th fret on the low E string. If the tuner shows that it is sharp to concert pitch, you need to lengthen the string. On an electric with an adjustable bridge, this is probably a matter of moving the E string bridge saddle away from the neck. On an acoustic, it will require filing the saddle in the proper direction. If the string is flat at the octave, it needs to be shortened and the process is reversed.

That’s about all for keeping your guitar in tune. I welcome any questions or comments.

Post by: Scott Freilich

Hi folks. I’m Scott Freilich. I built my first instrument in 1968, and have been repairing guitars professionally since 1973. I’ve run the guitar repair division at Top Shelf since 1979. I received training at Gibson’s old Kalamazoo plant, and have been a factory authorized luthier for Gibson, Fender, and Martin for over 20 years. My clients have included the Goo Goo Dolls, The Black Crows, Ani Di Franco, 10,000 Maniacs, Taj Mahal, Billy Sheehan, Percy Jones, and Melissa Ethridge. It would be my pleasure to provide you with any information regarding guitar repair, and maybe add you to my client list.