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How To Check Your Electric Guitar String Intonation Using Natural Harmonics
For a guitarist there's nothing more frustrating than trying to
get your guitar in tune. In theory, you should just plug your
guitar into one of those new electronic guitar tuners and the job
is done ... the problem is everyone hears musical pitch slightly
differently ... what might sound good to one player may sound
incorrect to the next player.
The truth is you have to make subtle changes in the pitch for a
guitar to play in a a variety of keys. Take particular notice
next time you are at a concert or jam session, watch the
experienced guitar players ... if a guitar is handed from one
player to another notice how the second guitar player will make
tiny adjustments in the intonation of the guitar to accommodate
his or her listening preferences.
Natural harmonics are beautiful bell-like tones that skillful
guitarists use in a variety of ways to add variety and colour to
the musical performances.
How to play natural harmonics: simply do the opposite to what you
would do to play a normal fretted note.
(a) place your finger above the fret.
(b) don't press the string down to the fret, just rest your
finger lightly above the centre of the fret.
(c) after you have picked the string remove your finger from the
string and the harmonic will ring.
Practice these natural harmonics on the twelfth fret of the
The names of the natural harmonics produced at the twelfth fret
are as follows:
6th string = E, 5th string = A, 4th string = D, third string = G,
second string = B, first string = E.
Notice how these natural harmonics share exactly the same letter
names as the fretted notes at the twelfth fret.
Checking your string intonation: string intonation is the ability
for your string to produce the correct pitch when fretted.
The important point here is... just because a string has been
tuned to the correct pitch via an electronic tuner does not mean
that the string will produce the correct pitch for every note
when played over the entire length of the string.
Three factors determine the strings ability to play the correct
(a) string wear on the underside of the string due to metal to
metal contact with the fret alters the diameter of the string,
causing irregular vibrations and incorrect pitch.
(b) similarly, string corrosion caused by the chemical make of up
of the players perspiration, will created irregular string
(c) incorrect bridge saddle adjustment.
Before setting your string intonation make certain your strings
are in good condition and if necessary change them. It's best to
set the intonation after the new strings have "settled in", so
it's a good idea to play the new strings to get rid of most of
the string slippage before to do any intonation work.
How to set your intonation:
Step 1. using your electronic tuner, tune your open string to the
Step 2. compare the natural harmonic on the twelfth fret with the
normal fretted note at the twelfth fret ... both these notes
should register the same pitch on your electronic tuner if your
string intonation is set correctly.
Step 3. if your fretted note at the twelfth fret is flat when
compared to the harmonic at the twelfth fret, shorten the string
length by moving the bridge saddle closer to the head stock of
the guitar. You adjust the bridge saddle by using a small
screwdriver to turn the adjustment screw at the back of the
Step 4. if your fretted note at the twelfth fret is sharp when
compared to the harmonic at the twelfth fret, lengthen the string
by moving the bridge saddle further away from the head stock of
Step 5. repeat steps 1 to 4 for each string.
The best way to make sure your guitar is in tune is to use a
variety of tune methods, in fact, your guitar will need to be
slightly out of tune in all keys for it to sound good.
Tuning your guitar with natural harmonics is excellent way to
cross check your tuning with the electronic tuner, it's also a
great way to improve your ear.
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