Confessions of a luthier
(First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #469)
This month Alex tackles the common misconceptions around intonation, and why trying to play the guitar “in tune” is a fools errand anyway...
Between the shifting tiers and local lockdowns of the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to have found myself teaching numerous guitar set-up masterclasses. These sessions are designed to give my students the confidence to be able to make adjustments to their beloved six- strings, and it’s been encouraging to see so many guitarists and amateur luthiers signing up to broaden their understanding of the mechanics of the guitar. Even though setting up a guitar is a relatively easy affair once you know how, there’s always a bit of myth busting involved. At the top of my list of lutherie folklore is the matter of ‘intonation’; or fixing a guitar that doesn’t play in tune.
Consider firstly what happens when we play a note on the fingerboard. A certain amount of pressure is needed from the fretting hand to get the note to sound clearly: we have all felt, at some point, the agonising union of a high ‘e’ string with an uncalloused fingertip. This pressure stretches the string over the top of the fret and increases the pitch of the note slightly causing it to sound out of tune, especially against any perfectly tuned open strings.
We can fix this problem by moving the saddles slightly further away on each string, a process known as ‘compensation’. The distortion of the fretted notes tends to be more pronounced on the lower strings, often resulting in a familiar-looking slanted saddle.
In my experience though, incorrect alignment of the saddle is rarely the main cause of a poorly performing guitar, and this is what I’ve been highlighting so often during my workshops. The first of the pitch-wobbling offenders is string gauge. We are spoilt for choice when choosing strings these days, and guitarists opting for ‘9s’ or ‘10s’ should understand that - whilst easier to play - these thinner strings are far less likely to sound the desired pitch with any accuracy. Players with a lighter touch will have more luck, but heavy handed players with a sensitive ear would be better off stringing their instrument up with spaghetti. Alternatively the higher tension that comes from ‘12s’ or ‘13s’ will not only produce a robust tone, but far improve your guitar’s ability to resist the pressure from your fretting hand, and sound the intended note with precision. You might have tossed your ‘9s’ in the bin, but don’t expect a higher string gauge to instantly solve all your problems, you’ll need a good set up too. Those ‘13s’ will put quite the bow in your guitar’s neck, raising the height of the strings from the surface at the same time. A high action is not a friend of good intonation, so make sure the truss rod is adjusted accordingly to allow only a little neck relief, as well as keeping the saddle heights in check. Finally, don’t forget your nut slots, otherwise the consonance of those cowboy chords will suffer too!
If you are keen to go down the rabbit hole of improving intonation further, it is worth exploring the world of tunings and temperaments, if only to ultimately absolve yourself of any responsibility towards ever playing (or making) a guitar that is perfectly in tune with itself. There is not enough space to discuss this topic in detail here, but essentially there is a beautiful mismatch between the ‘perfect’ guitar (in intonation terms) and an instrument capable of playing equally well in all keys. You can blame mother nature or physics for this one, but achieving both on a fretted musical instrument is impossible.
This realisation always reminds me that it is all too easy to get lost in the minutiae of detail with setting up guitars, when really they are not instruments of mathematical perfection, but rather tools for channeling emotion and expressing creativity. There is something beguiling about this notion that music can only ever just miss the mark, perfection always seems to be over the brow of the next hill.
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