Elements of a guitar/setup that contribute to intonation

Discussion in 'Guitars in General' started by Markdude, Apr 19, 2015.

  1. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    For years, I have been extremely sensitive to intonation, and the majority of guitars drive me nuts. I've read many discussions about the various approaches to compensating for the inherent problems with equal temperament (Earvana, True Temperament fretboards, Buzz Feiten, etc.) but I'd still like to hear more input.

    I'd like to have someone put together a Warmoth Telecaster build for me in the near future. I've always been very intrigued by the True Temperament Formula One neck and this seems like a good chance to try one, but I know that it of course is a compromise too because the improvements may turn into disadvantages when playing in the less common keys that it's not optimized for. Plus, for a long time I thought that equal temperament was the problem, but out of the many guitars I've tried throughout my life, there have been a handful that didn't exhibit intonation problems to a noticeable enough degree to bother me. Because of that, I'm thinking that equal temperament is actually fine with me, but there's something about the setup/construction of the majority of guitars that knocks things a bit out of whack and equal temperament isn't being achieved, and those select few guitars had something about them that didn't cause that (and thus were able to achieve a result closer to intended, actual equal temperament). I'd like to become more informed about what elements of a guitar's construction/setup could have been contributing to that. And if I'm not mistaken, many synthesizers generate equal tempered notes, and those don't bother me at all, so I don't think equal temperament itself is the problem.

    My hands are small (approx. 7.25" from the end of my middle finger to my wrist), so that may be one factor. I've never really done any kind of conscious comparing between different neck specifications and profiles, but it makes sense to me that my small hand size could be causing me to grip too tightly with some neck profiles. Do any fellow small-handed players have recommendations about what nut widths and neck profiles may lend to a more relaxed grip/fit?

    Another thing I wonder about, and is the thing that I'm most intrigued about, is fret size. I've got the suspicion that since I may be a bit heavy handed grip-wise, taller and/or wider frets cause me to push down too hard and pull the strings slightly out of tune (and thus they aren't achieving the intended equal temperament -- maybe something like a major third, being already fairly sharp in equal temperament but not enough to bother me, gets pulled further sharp and passes my personal threshold of dissonance?). Is it plausible that smaller frets might circumvent that string pulling and lead to improved (closer to actual equal temperament) intonation? I feel this very well could be the 'missing' factor since the vast majority of modern guitars seem to be made with large frets, and the vast majority of guitars drive me crazy intonation-wise. Warmoth's stainless steel 6230 fret wire is .080"x.043", would that be sufficiently small to circumvent the string sharpening (I should also add that I hear the same intonation problems in many other players' playing, so I don't think my technique is especially bad)?

    I know another issue which can cause the strings to go slightly sharp is how the nut is cut. I've had all the guitars I've owned set up by quite respected techs but they've all still exhibited the intonation problems I speak of, so I'm still thinking maybe the fret size was the key factor. However, what material would you recommend? Graph Tech TUSQ seems interesting. Are there any special instructions I could give the luthier other than "don't be afraid to cut it deep"?

    And of course, I know that the bridge/saddles are the most obvious element of setting intonation, but I also believe that it's the least likely to be the problem since the issues I've experienced point strongly towards being caused by fretting.

    Anything else I'm missing? I'd really like to get something that plays perfectly for me like those couple of 'magic' guitars did.
     
  2. Pietro

    Pietro 2-Voice Guitar Junkie and All-Around Awesome Guy

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    You are thinking too much, my friend.

    Guitars don't intonate perfectly. That is okay, I promise you. You will learn to adjust to a guitar that fits you well.

    It's not rocket science, it's music.
     
  3. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    I know. I'm well aware of how equal temperament works and have researched guitar intonation issues/philosophies/compromises for years. But like I said in the post, I have played a small number of guitars (without any kind of special intonation systems) that didn't sound offensively off to my ears, so I believe my ears are accepting of equal temperament, but I believe that most guitars aren't quite achieving equal temperament due to factors presumably related to fretting. The fact that those few guitars sounded fine leads me to believe there was something about their design (neck profile, fret size, nut width, etc.) and/or setup that was different than most guitars I've tried (which made them achieve results closer to intended equal temperament), and I'm trying to figure out what it might have been.
     
  4. Pietro

    Pietro 2-Voice Guitar Junkie and All-Around Awesome Guy

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    Find and buy one of those.

    Seriously, otherwise, there are no guarantees, and you'll end up paying a lot of money to have a guitar made that may or may not make you happy.

    you are very picky about a guitar. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, there is everything right.

    But based on my experience with people as picky as you are about stuff (NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT), and not only in guitars, but in other things...

    ...I am convinced you will NOT be happy unless you hold, play and hear it first.
     
  5. weshunter

    weshunter Supporting Member

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    Agreed with Pietro.
     
  6. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    That's also something I'd like to do, and have tried to do, but unfortunately I haven't come across any guitars like that in a long time. However, I don't believe there's anything wrong with trying to discuss the more scientific (for lack of a better word) aspects that could contribute. I know there are a lot of knowledgeable people on TGP and I'm hoping they could weigh in. It's true that some guitars simply seem to play better than others, but decades and decades of analysis, experience, and experimentation in electric guitar playing/designing (and obviously much more in guitar playing/designing in general) surely have lead to informed knowledge about how this sort of thing is affected, so I would like to respectfully disagree that "don't worry about it and just blindly play every guitar you can until you find the right one" is the only worthwhile option. I think trying to find out more about what can contribute, at least in theory, is reasonable.

    There have been many great, informative discussions about this sort of thing on TGP, but I haven't seen anyone ask exactly what I'm asking so I thought I'd post this thread. I think what I'm asking about is actually probably more simple and easier to answer than a lot of the discussions about intonation/temperament woes (which often come from someone making the faulty assumption that there is somehow a way to achieve perfect intonation). I believe I can be happy with equal temperament, it's just a matter of figuring out what aspects of guitar construction/setup can minimize discrepancies from the intended, actual equal temperament. A small number of guitars have shown me that equal temperament, even being imperfect, can still sound good to me, so surely someone knowledgeable might know a thing or two about what factors contributed to those guitars being closer to intended equal temperament than others. I don't think that's too wacky to ask about. Much more minuscule stuff gets discussed all the time.

    Perhaps this topic might get more traction in the Luthier forum.
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2015
  7. Pietro

    Pietro 2-Voice Guitar Junkie and All-Around Awesome Guy

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    With all respect, I disagree.

    I believe you can be happy by practicing... a lot... on a flawed and imperfect instrument that, notwithstanding its "imperfections", inspires you.

    Practicing a lot.
     
  8. TheoDog

    TheoDog Silver Supporting Member

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    Player's touch is the single biggest factor affecting intonation IME.
     
  9. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    I'm not sure how you can disagree with how I'm supposed to feel about something I experienced myself on multiple occasions, but okay. It would be a different story if every single guitar I'd ever played was unacceptable intonation-wise. Then I could definitely suspect that equal temperament in itself is what I don't jive with. But like I said, I have indeed played a few guitars myself without special intonation systems (therefore equal tempered, imperfections included) and without a doubt, I found them to sound acceptably pleasing to my ears, whereas the majority of other guitars don't. Therefore, it seems very logical that equal temperament itself is not what I dislike, it's more than likely the fact that something about the setup of other guitars (combined with my hands, technique, etc.) keeps them from getting as close to actual equal temperament than these particular guitars did. It seems even more likely that equal temperament itself isn't what I have an issue with since many synthesizers create pitches that are precisely equal tempered, and they sound fine to me.

    I really don't want this thread to become an argument so I'll just agree to disagree. I don't think this is remotely as ridiculous of a topic to discuss as you're making it out to be, especially considering guitarists regularly discuss MUCH more trivial things than elements of guitar setup on these very forums. People commonly discuss their preferences about many aspects of guitar setup until they're blue in the face, so I don't see what's so strange about asking people to do that with special regard to how it affects a particular, and important, aspect of how the guitar plays. I've searched and found tidbits of how people feel some of these factors affect intonation, but not a whole lot, so I know there are definitely players and luthiers out there who have experience with this and I'd like to draw their attention and get more insight. The way a guitar plays is just as important as its tone, so I don't think it's overly pedantic to discuss our preferences and findings with a particular focus. If "play everything you can get your hands on, keep what you like, and don't let yourself do any analysis (conscious or subconscious) about what common elements you like and dislike" was the only philosophy, there would be no guitar forums. There's nothing wrong with getting away from the school of thought that good guitars play well because of voodoo special mojo magic and getting a little bit scientific/technical.

    This thread really isn't that loony. It's basically just a slightly more granular version of "what are your preferences for guitar construction/setup?" (which is discussed extremely often and nobody has an issue with it), just for players and luthiers who are more picky about intonation (and there are definitely a good number of us out there).
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2015
  10. kimock

    kimock Member

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    Markdude, you're asking the question the wrong way around.
    Those instruments you found inoffensive were likely inoffensive for multiple reasons, the one constant was your perception of agreeable intonation.

    You need to identify what you think is in-or-out-of-tune, and then work back to specific set-up, tuning, and technique issues that agree with your idea of in-tune.

    Right? The way ET works, any physical set-up stuff on the guitar that might spoil any interval will sweeten its inversion. That ****'s reciprocal, you gotta ID the problem interval, tonality, etc to know where to go and in what direction to push it before you can say "bridge, tuning, string gauge, nut, relief, technique," and get results.

    Right? Don't look to the guitar for answers about what you're hearing.
    Study what you're hearing, that's where the issue is.
     
  11. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    Hi kimock, thank you for your reply. I believe I remember reading some very informative posts from you in the many threads I've found through searching for discussions about intonation/temperament, and I thank you for chiming in.

    For me, the main thing has always been major thirds (like most guitarists, I suppose). Sometimes my approach will be to utilize other voicings than barre chords (like 3254xx vs. 355433) or to tune by ear based on the chord voicing of choice and writing the song mainly around it (which inevitably ends up in tuning either the G string or B string a bit flat depending on which position major chords are being used, and then bending that string up slightly while fretting other types of chords...but then I'm out of luck if I want to use that open string because it sounds noticeably flat and there's no way around it). I do a lot of recording and another approach has been punching-in for different types of chord voicings and retuning in between, but of course that's disjointed, uninspiring, and feels like cheating. Of course, at times I also just try to accept it for what it is and write in a way where I don't utilize any chords/voicings that sound out of tune, but that feels extremely constraining (especially since even simple major chords will be 'forbidden' with a decent amount of gain) since I like to write music with very specific voicings in mind because I feel it has a big impact on the texture of the music.

    The peculiar thing about those few guitars though was that I didn't have to do anything special. Didn't have to tune to a particular voicing, didn't have to bend any note slightly (at least consciously), etc. I just tuned them normally (every open string to pitch) and they played and sounded right. I know that of course they were certainly off to a certain degree because of the nature of equal temperament, but they were less off than other guitars I've played -- to the point that it didn't bother me.
     
  12. buddyboy69

    buddyboy69 Member

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    honestly i think a major factor in the intonation of a guitar beyond setup is the age of the strings.
     
  13. Zeegler

    Zeegler Member

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    Agreed. Great musicians and songwriters have been making fantastic music for a long time with flawed, imperfect guitars. If they were good enough for them, they're good enough for all of us.
     
  14. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    Before anyone else makes a reply like this, I'd like to reiterate for the fourth time now that I AM talking about normal, imperfect guitars. I've played many normal guitars that didn't sound agreeable to me and a small number that did sound fine to me. The ones that sounded fine to me obviously had the same inherent imperfections that all normal guitars do, but something about their construction/setup seemed to alleviate the problems enough that they didn't bother me.

    This thread is not asking "how can I drastically modify my guitar so that it somehow defies the laws of physics and intonates perfectly on every note in every key?" It's saying "I've played a few normal guitars with traditional designs and components that intonated way better than the vast majority of other guitars, so what elements of their setup and construction could have contributed to that?"

    Sorry if I seem rude, I just think some of you are really misinterpreting what I'm saying and trying to make this into another issue entirely. I'm not asking how to drastically modify a guitar into something unconventional. I'm asking what aspects of fairly standard constructions and setups have a large bearing on intonation (other than saddles). Sure, the playing and writing are the most important thing in making a guitar sound great, but I'm sure more than a few great records were recorded with guitars that had careful work put into their setups (and some probably weren't, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing to care about).
     
    Last edited: Apr 19, 2015
  15. Rick51

    Rick51 Member

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    Don't blame the size of your hands. Assuming you are full-grown, you will have to make do with what you have. Also note that those hands have produced acceptable results on some guitars.

    You mention your tendency to press the strings down too hard. That is likely the primary issue for you. The taller the frets, the more tuning issues will result. Try out a guitar with vintage-style frets, and work on developing lighter technique on that left hand.

    If your intonation problems are mainly in the first three frets, your nut slots might not be deep enough. Open string action at the first fret should be .015" - .020". For nut materials, I like bone or Tusc, but it doesn't really matter as I don't use open strings much.
     
  16. Markdude

    Markdude Member

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    Gotcha! Vintage style frets are the main thing I'm wondering since I was hypothesizing that smaller frets might help. I'll try to hunt down a guitar with one to try out. I believe the EVH Wolfgangs have vintage style frets but I might be wrong.
     
  17. kimock

    kimock Member

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    Ok, that's a whole clearer for me now, thanks.

    You've got a couple of the normal intonation issues, you like to hear some stuff, probably mostly major tonic function, closer to Just Intonation so you sweeten the tuning, you realize that strategy needs more tones than you've got so you temper the diff, and you organize your voicings accordingly but find that limiting.

    You're also fine with the idea of blowing it off because you've played some music on some guitars that were perfectly acceptable, and admitted to yourself that you could just play and wrote to whatever you can get in-tune enough.

    That all sounds pretty healthy to me.

    If you wanted to throw some money at the problem you should get an ET True Temperament squiggle fret neck.
    Scary good.
    If you're ok with a well set-up conventional straight fret guitar, the TT will amaze you. They work.

    Otherwise, the two most important contributing factors are string gauge and scale length.
    The intonation improves as the strings get longer and tighter, less inharmonicity, less of the "strings not in-tune with themselves", smaller percentage of fingering pressure slop, more accurate compensation possible at the bridge, potential for lower action, etc.

    If I were you I'd go straight to the nearest 27 inch scale guitar you can find and put a set of 12's with a wound G on it.
    Soloway Swan, Baritone Tele, Buckethead Les Paul, or whatever else is out there and see if that does the trick.

    It does it for me, for sure.
    I have the Soloway and it's ridiculously better than a Fender scale length at not getting in its own way intonation-wise.
    It's just physically more in tune with itself at that scale and tension.
    I have a Strat strung heavy and that's pretty good, but it's hard to beat the longer scale.

    Anyway, there's all the normal little set-up tweaks you have to do anyway, but they'll all be more effective at longer scale and greater tension, so you should just start there and see what you think.

    You want to be looking in the lower, longer, tighter, bigger string on a straighter fingerboard direction.
    Higher, shorter, looser, smaller, less straight is gonna be less in tune.
     
  18. Mr Analog

    Mr Analog Member

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    Neck relief and action will affect intonation to some degree. With a straight neck and low action, the strings don't have to bend as far to meet the frets. A nice level and crown on the frets will help as well.
     
  19. uihsongshi

    uihsongshi Member

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    I promise you. You will learn to adjust to a guitar that fits you well.[​IMG]
     
  20. halcyon

    halcyon Supporting Member

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    Yup. Additionally, the take-off point at the nut (a conventional nut) should be rather small and right at the edge where the nut meets the fretboard. This can be distilled to a "properly cut nut." I mention it, however, because *actual* properly cut nuts aren't as common as one might hope.

    Really, though, you're going to have to learn to accept it at some level. Try to have fun and just play more often!
     

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