Basics on Guitar String Intonation – Strings By Mail

Basics on Guitar String Intonation – Strings By Mail


What does it mean when someone says the “intonation” on a guitar is off? What it means is that while a string will be in tune when it’s open, when it’s fretted it will be out of tune. The higher up the neck you go, the more obvious this is. You may hear this more dramatically when you play an open chord, and then play that same chord higher on the neck.


Basics on Guitar String Intonation

Basics on Guitar String Intonation

If you wanted to test your guitar to find out whether the intonation is good or not, all you need to do is have a tuner available, play an open string, and then play that string at the 12th fret. When the string is in tune when its open and it’s in tune when it is fretted, you’ve got good intonation.

Intonation is set or determined by the relationship of the nut to the 12th fret, and the 12th fret to the saddle. These proportions of the lengths of the string must be essentially equal, with slight adjustments know as compensation that vary according to string tension and material as well as action and scale length. The result is a slightly longer saddle half of the string’s length. A good luthier or an experienced player can make an adjustment at the saddle area to fix the intonation if it is off.

A key point that many people are not aware of is that if you change the tensions, materials, or gauges on your strings, your intonation will very likely need to be reset if it’s going to be totally accurate. So as you experiment to find the correct gauge, tension, or material of your strings, be aware that after you’ve settled on what you like the best you may need to take the guitar in to a good luthier and have it adjusted for that tension, gauge, or material, unless you are prepared to make this adjustment yourself. If you decide later on to change the string gauges, materials, or tensions again, you should check the intonation to see if you need to have it readjusted for your guitar to sound its best.

Another factor to keep in mind is that even a good string will deteriorate over time and eventually your intonation will go bad. So you do need to keep good and fresh strings on your guitars, and you do need to set them up correctly. If you have any other questions, please get in touch with us!


You can see the full video demonstration here:

13 thoughts on “Basics on Guitar String Intonation – Strings By Mail

  1. Hello John,

    “Intonation is set or determined by the relationship of the nut to the 12th fret, and the 12th fret to the saddle. These proportions of the lengths of the string must be equal.”

    At least for classical guitars using nylon strings, this is not correct. In order for the classic to play in tune in first position, and the octaves at the 7th fret to be in tune, the distance from the center line of the 12th fret to the string’s point of contact on the saddle needs to be closely .060″ (1.5mm)longer than the length from the nut to the 12th fret. In fact the string length is compensated at both the nut and the saddle positions.

    This was all worked out by the late classic builder John Gilbert twenty some years ago, and published in Guitarmaker magazine. When I switched to John’s double compensation method my guitars began playing in tune everywhere on the fretboard.


    Brian Burns

  2. Thanks very much for the information….I appreciate it, and didn’t realize this ‘basic’! I’ll certainly keep this in mind, and likely order (more) strings soon… to you. … … joseph

  3. Please note that the statement, “These proportions of the lengths of the string must be equal” referent to the length between the nut and the 12th and the 12th to the saddle, is in error. The statement should read instead, “These proportions will be slightly different, the saddle half of the string being slightly longer than the nut half. The difference between the two is called the “compensation.” The small extra increment of length, or compensation, is added at the saddle end to compensate for the slight sharpening of the note that occurs due to the slight increase of tension when you press the string down to the fret to play it. The precise amount of compensation required will vary in direct proportion to the height of the string, the elasticity of the string material and the gauge of the string AND is inversely proportional to the scale length of the particular instrument and the string’s tension when tuned to pitch. Thus the required compensation required for perfect intonation will vary if you change the gauge of the string, change the action height of the strings, or when you change the tension of the strings–like when you lower the low E string to D.

    Since so many factors affect the amount of compensation, electric guitars provide a movable saddle for each string which allows the player or technician to increase or decrease the amount of compensation as needed to insure that the pitch of the string, when fretted at the 12th fret, plays exactly one octave higher than the pitch of the same string played open. On acoustic guitars, which usually carry a fixed saddle, changing or improving the intonation is a far more difficult procedure: whereas the builder locates the saddle on a new guitar in a way that anticipates the compensation requirements of a particular set of string gauges, set at a particular action height. When either of these changes, the single fixed saddle may have to be relocated, a feat which requires specialized skills and tools.

  4. I heard some good advice as a beginner guitar player. They said if you are going to take guitar lessons, the first one should be having your guitar teacher using the 1/2hr lesson showing you how to set up your guitar with an intonation, truss rod adjustment, and string changing demo.

    Simple lessons that will help you a lifetime. Also a good way to test your teacher’s communication skills with you, and see if it will be a good fit.

  5. Thanks for your comments William and Brian. The article suffered from over simplification as an introductory primer, and is now better for your input.

  6. Hi there,

    Hi thanks in advance for answering my questions and for the post, am experiencing an intonation crisis at the moment, recording has really exposed the problem.

    How does this apply regarding adjusting a classical guitar?

    How does mix and matching basses and trebles from different sets or even brands affect intonation? And inserting a single wound 3rd string into the mix to?

    …Say you get a favourite set of basses, an individual wound 3rd string and your favourite 1st and 2nd string from the same treble set, do you then take your guitar to the Luthiers and get them to set the intonation up or is that only for other guitars not a classical/Spanish guitar?

    Can nylon strings be intonated correctly if used down tuned half a step or is that a big no because the strings are manufactured to be strictly at the correct-standard pitch?

  7. Compensation is certainly for classical guitars too. Any changes you make to your strings potentially cause enough change to call for a luthier’s attention, but you can mix any combination you like.

    Once you settle on that combination if you notice any issues, have them addressed. There are compensated saddles on the market, which will be an improvement over a saddles with no compensation. But they may or may not be perfect for a given situation.

    This particular model is popular and geared to the most common and usually most noticeable problem of 3rd string issues:

    Whereas this model, also popular, address the issues often found with 2nd, 3rd, & 4th strings:

    They are designed for common circumstances,and should help. A luthier may be able refine those stock compensations further for your situation, but some situations can only be fully addressed by an initial luthier compensation.

    In regard to the question about tuning the strings on a classical guitar down, this will have some degree of impact on the intonation as well. If you were going to always play at a different pitch you would want to have your intonation set at that lower pitch. If you are changing pitch between pieces than you may need to settle for some intonation compromises, unless you use different guitars. And yes manufacturers do design strings with a pitch in mind, but between differing proportions of instruments, use of mixed sets of different players, and arrangements that call for retuning, strings are often used in circumstances the manufacturer may not have had in mind and players can make choices among tensions and materials to find the feel and sound they desire under a variety of circumstances.

  8. I would like to just make the suggesstion of the tonerite 3G guitar enhancer. I havent got one yet, but I have read some nice things about it.

    1. Hi Dean. Our point was more or less to check and see if you may need to re-intonate after a string change, basically check your tuning down the whole length of the neck as you tune up your new set of strings. This is especially recommended if you change the string gauges, materials, or string brands/manufacturers, as the different manufacturer specs and tensions often vary.

      Thanks for reading, and for you comment!

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