Dodgy Intonation

This is one of my '61s-the one with the dead on intonation. Note the position of the G string saddle. I even had to flip it around because I ran out of range. Even though it's at its limit, the guitar is in tune everywhere with little compromise.

One of the things that has always bothered me about vintage Gibson guitars is that, more often than not, they don’t intonate very well without a lot of effort. Since the week between Christmas and New Years is always a slow one, I can spend some time with my guitars. Today I spent over an hour getting the intonation of one of my early 60’s 345’s spot on. I am blessed (cursed) with very good pitch. Not perfect-I can’t hear a note and tell you what it is like one of my brothers can but I can tell if a note is even slightly out of tune when played with another note. That means when my guitar isn’t intonated perfectly, I can’t play without retuning every thirty seconds. Drives my wife nuts. Part of the problem with these guitars is that the gauge of the string can affect the intonation and these guitars were designed for a wound G string. Well, I don’t use a wound G string and sometimes you have to take the ABR-1 to it’s extremes to even get it acceptably close. I can almost always get it but sometimes the saddle is jammed up against (usually) the back of the bridge. You can, of course, turn the saddle around if you need just ever so slightly more room unless, of course, its already turned around. When I intonate, I do the following: First I tune the guitar by using an electronic tuner. Then I turn the tuner off. Then I play a harmonic at the twelfth fret-starting with the low strings and tune the string so that the harmonic and the twelfth fret note are the same. Then I start testing the octaves playing an open string and its octave on the next higher string (tweak, tweak, tweak). Then I play two adjacent open strings together (fourths) and listen for beats (you know, the sort of tremolo that you hear when notes are out of tune). I tweak some more. Then I play 5ths on adjacent strings and do the same thing -and tweak some more. Then I play chords all over the neck to see that they are all in tune. It will never be perfect but I can usually get it very close. It is the nature of the fretted instrument to either be out of tune at certain places on the fingerboard or seem out of tune.  So, as a result, something called “tempered tuning” was developed.  Tempered tuning places all the notes at a slightly compromised frequency to yield good, but not perfect, tuning in all keys. The other kind of tuning called “Pythagorean” tuning tunes all the notes to their exact pitch. The trouble is that they are only in tune for the key your tuning in. So, if you tuned everything relative to a “C” and you want to play in the key of “E”, you would have to retune. My intonation/ tuning method is my own invention-it works for me but may not work so well for you. It largely depends on your ear. Using an electronic tuner will get you very close if your intonation is properly set. Unfortunately, it probably isn’t. At least do the harmonic 12th fret thing-that will get you closer. I don’t think that there is an innate defect in Gibsons that make them difficult to intonate but I can tell you from experience that I can get a Fender to intonate with a lot less fussing than most of the Gibsons I’ve played. My first brand new Gibson was a 68 SG and from the time I got it until I finally sold it a few years later, it would never tune properly. I didn’t know much about intonation and, apparently, neither did the guy at Manny’s on 48th street where I bought it. I thought the neck was warped or something but, having had these same B string and G string problems on a dozens of Gibsons since, I’m thinking there probably wasn’t anything wrong with it that a good setup couldn’t have cured. I wonder if Gibson went to the longer range Nashville bridge because of intonation complaints. I’ve had Gretsches that intonated better with a bar bridge that had no adjustment at all beyond moving the entire thing toward or away from the nut. A very talented guitar player named Buzzy Feiten was another intonation freak and he actually did something about it. But I will say this-if you put in the effort and get it right, nothing sounds as good.

Here's my 59 345. It is also very close to dead on. Note the G string again. It's got a little room left but not much. Don't use my photos to intonate your guitar. They're all different.

One Response to “Dodgy Intonation”

  1. Patrick Crabtree says:

    I had one of these ES-335’s in that dark wine color, a ’73 model. It drove me nuts, especially that G-string. The Tune-a-matic bridge rattled all the time and the G-string was never right (always too loud even after adjusting the Humbuckings) until I went with a wound G-string. Finally, I ditched the bridge and the plastic-grip tuners and went with Les Paul bridge and tuners which fixed all those problems. Still, I could never get the neck down where I wanted it. Finally gave up, traded it off, and bought a Start. I’ve been happy ever since! 😉

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