Guitarist

Change Your Tune

Are you condemned to sound out of tune if you can’t intonate every string? Or can the compromise­s be overcome? Huw Price finds out

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Years ago, I was offered the opportunit­y to have a Buzz Feiten conversion performed on my acoustic guitar. The process involves installing a new nut with a ‘shelf’ that lips over the end of the fretboard and shortens the distance between the take-off point of the open strings and the 1st fret. The saddle is also relocated and carved for carefully calculated intonation offsets.

Feiten’s tuning system is designed to overcome wellknown issues with standard equal temperamen­t tuning, and promises more in-tune-sounding open chords, as well as improved keyboard compatibil­ity. I can report that it performed as promised, but once the novelty had worn off I noticed that the guitar’s tone had become thinner and a bit sterile.

Since then, I’ve observed that acoustic and electric guitars with imperfect intonation can sometimes sound fuller and sweeter than those with individual­ly adjustable strings. So, how can imperfect intonation be compatible with big and musical tonal qualities?

Consider chorus pedals, which duplicate the input signal, alter the pitch and recombine the processed sound with the dry signal to create a bigger and richer tone. Even if you hate chorus as an effect, you probably enjoy double-tracking powerchord­s and acoustic guitars when recording. The difference­s in timing and pitch between takes achieve a chorus-like effect, albeit without the naff electronic artificial­ity that drives some of us crazy.

With analogue multitrack tape, varispeed can be used to run the machine a tad fast on one take and a tad slow on another to achieve a bigger sound. Also consider 12-string guitars. Session player Tommy Tedesco had an anecdote about showing up to a studio date with a sixstring acoustic when the producer requested a 12-string on the talkback. He hadn’t brought his 12-string, so instead he bounced his six-string on the floor to put it slightly out of tune and then played the part. The producer, who couldn’t see what Tommy was up to, declared it was exactly the sound he was looking for.

My point is that most guitars are inherently out of tune to some degree, but (within reason) that can sound pleasing if you know how to work around it. Clearly, intonation adjustment is limited with acoustic guitars, and in that regard, they are similar to certain electric guitar models such as traditiona­l T-type guitars with three-saddle bridges, Gibson-type guitars with wraptails and Gretsches with bar bridges.

Temperamen­tal Teles

Most intonation guides tell you that the fretted note and harmonic at the 12th fret should be identical in pitch. That’s achievable with six individual saddles but not with vintage-style Telecaster­s. Instead, try tuning the open strings and then compare fretted notes at the 3rd and 15th frets. A strobe tuner helps, and you can download strobe tuner apps for smartphone­s. If the notes sound sharp at the 15th, adjust the saddles further away from the nut, and if they’re flat, do the opposite. A few cents sharp at the 15th and a few cents flat at the 3rd can work well, so try splitting the difference.

The G string is usually the main culprit and Telemeiste­r Jerry Donahue’s solution has proved popular. Intonate the A, B and both E strings as closely as possible using the usual 12th-fret harmonic method. Next, set the centre saddle intonation screw so the fretted note at the 12th fret on the D string is slightly flat of the harmonic. In this position, the G string should sound slightly sharp of the harmonic at the 12th fret. Without moving the saddle, retune the G string so it plays in tune at the 12th fret and you’re done. With any luck, open E major and minor chords should sound more in tune. These days, there are plenty of compensate­d saddles to choose from, assuming six-saddle bridge conversion­s don’t appeal, but they’re not perfect and the methods described still apply.

Tuneful Top Wraps

Gibson’s trapeze and wraptail bridges would have proved slightly less problemati­c if guitarists hadn’t swapped from wound to plain G strings. Gibson did finally introduce the compensate­d ‘lightening’ wraptail, but even then it was configured for wound G strings. Luthier

Neil Ivison offers some advice: “You have to find a happy medium,” he suggests.“I tend to set the top E dead on, then I set the G as best I can. The lower strings just seem to fall in because intonation issues are less noticeable with those. When I’m making fine adjustment­s, the G position is sort of a pivot point. There are plenty of compensate­d wraptail options, but I’ve had a couple of vintage Gibsons – a 1958 Special and a 1959 Junior – that intonated great even with the original wraptails.”

“Digital tuners are fine for a baseline reference, but to get your guitar really in tune with itself, you have to learn to trust your ears even more”

Another thing to consider is matching string radius to fretboard radius. I learned this when I was looking to improve the playabilit­y of a vintage Gretsch Tennessean and discovered Tru-Arc bar bridges. Consider this when you’re upgrading a wraptail or setting saddle height on your T-type, because it really makes a difference.

Bridge and saddle positionin­g do have a strong bearing on a guitar’s ability to sound in tune, but there are other factors at work. Nut slots play a huge part, as do the height and condition of the frets. But some of the responsibi­lity falls on players. When adrenaline kicks in, some of us overbend or press too hard. Playing a note on a guitar string is not like pressing a piano key, and you have to learn how to play in tune. Hopefully it will become instinctiv­e and allow us to adapt our technique to suit different guitars.

Finally, don’t over rely on digital tuners – especially the clip-on headstock variety. They’re fine for a baseline reference, but to get your guitar really in tune with itself, you have to learn to trust your ears even more. Before splashing cash on fancy hardware, be mindful that perfectly adjusted intonation doesn’t guarantee you’ll sound in tune or sound good.

 ?? ?? Three-saddle bridges on vintage-style Teles – such as this Vintera ’50s Telecaster Modified model – can limit the intonation adjustment that’s available. But some strobe-tuner-assisted tricks can help you out
Three-saddle bridges on vintage-style Teles – such as this Vintera ’50s Telecaster Modified model – can limit the intonation adjustment that’s available. But some strobe-tuner-assisted tricks can help you out
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Neil Ivison’s Hurricane ’59 features a compensate­d wraparound bridge, but he does note that he’s had “a couple of vintage Gibsons – a 1958 Special and a 1959 Junior – that intonated great even with the original wraptails”
Neil Ivison’s Hurricane ’59 features a compensate­d wraparound bridge, but he does note that he’s had “a couple of vintage Gibsons – a 1958 Special and a 1959 Junior – that intonated great even with the original wraptails”

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