When it comes to tuning, guitars are sometimes like an untamable beast. Back in my early days as a guitar maker, customers would bust my chops for hours, days and sometimes weeks until they were happy with the way their guitar tuned. As I think back on the countless hours I’ve spent attempting to understand intonation, fret placement, and varying saddle compensations to get a guitar perfect, I can say that there is no single key issue, but rather a lot of little details that add up, from the location of a fret slot to the properties of one’s hearing.
Have you ever tuned your guitar, played a G chord with satisfaction, and then played a D chord and immediately wanted to start adjusting? If so, you’ve experienced the first lesson of tempered tuning. While the strings may be perfectly in tune for one chord, they are not necessarily in tune for another chord. To thicken the plot, there are several ways to fret any chord on the guitar. You might be in tune for a perfect open E chord, and then as you move up the neck and play other E chord forms find that they get out of tune.
Guitar makers have been working to understand and improve this for generations. Once in a while someone comes along claiming to have finally figured it out, but I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this. For example, consider pianos, or better yet, piano tuners.
If you were to buy a Sanderson Accu-Tuner for piano, you would find that it comes pre-programmed with several piano temperaments. The one I owned had 25 different tuning versions for pianos built into it, with room for a professional piano tuner to add 25 of their own. This way, they can either find one they prefer, or one that the player prefers. So the question is: Which of those is the right one? The answer is: They all have a place.
One bit of truth among all those various temperaments is that the piano has to be “out of tune” to be in tune. By that I mean the piano starts at middle C, with a perfect note, and then as it gets higher it is tuned sharper, or stretched, and also stretched flat in the other direction. This is the only way a piano will end up sounding right, but there are dozens of versions of the stretch. Such is the nature of a stringed instrument that plays chords. A guitar is similar, with the added element of being fretted, which stretches strings in the process. A player can also squeeze the string into a new note either by pushing down hard or pushing sideways.
There are a few basic rules I’ve followed to make guitars that have good intonation and are easily tuned. First and foremost, the frets have to be accurately placed. A fret scale needs to be figured out with placement to the thousandths of an inch, and then the frets have to be placed in those locations accurately. Today’s computer machines make placing the frets much easier than it was just twenty years ago. Second, one must decide whether to place the nut in the theoretical spot or to compensate. I’ve always moved my nut forward at least half the distance of the width of a fret slot. Others, like Buzz Feiten, like to move twice as much as I move mine, and Buzz has had great success with his method. Moving the nut forward helps get the notes right on the first few frets because the string distorts most when pushed down near its ends. Next, the saddle has to be compensated, and this is where it gets tricky. For our guitars, I must admit that it took years of trial and error. Yes, we found the good spot years ago, but it really does take experience and the development of a sort of philosophy of how the saddle is compensated. I also like to have a standard action height because strings stretch more or less during fretting as action is higher or lower. Finally, I think it’s important to be open-minded about what good intonation is, but to eventually make a decision and not chase it forever, which only leads to confusion.
For players, I recommend following a few tuning rules. First, use a good tuner to set the open strings and try not to vary too much from there. Second, be sure your strings are still new enough to actually be in tune. Strings not only lose their tone as they age, but also lose their ability to be fretted accurately. Often, bad intonation can be remedied with fresh strings. Third, realize that tuning is a temperament, that there are several that are valid, and that another word for temperament is compromise. Yes, you might experience passing notes that are not perfect, but then find that the next notes are perfect. Finally, if you become confused or unhappy, go back to your tuner and get the basic notes on target.
Over the years I’ve noticed that chord forms are changing all the time, putting new pressure on intonation. New players are using new forms that combine many open strings with fretted strings high on the neck. These forms might use a different temperament. So, you might find that with your style of playing, you could look at your tuner and instead of tuning every single note dead-on you might prefer to tune a string or two up or down a few cents. By paying attention to the needle on your tuner and the results you get with your chords, you can even make your own temperament. Feel free to experiment, while following some basic rules, and you might find new and better ways to tune.
Bob Taylor is the co-founder and president of Taylor Guitars. He built his first guitar as a teenager and has since gone on to establish Taylor Guitars as one of the world’s premier acoustic, acoustic/electric and electric guitar manufacturers.
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