The joys and pains of tuning, Part II (b)

One of the most frustrating problems that many guitarists experience is getting open chords to play in tune on their instruments. How many players have had their guitars properly set up, with the action, intonation, truss rod, and string height at first fret all carefully adjusted only to find that open chords sound terrible? I certainly have. The instinct when this happens is to start messing about with the intonation at the bridge, which will make no difference to the issue at hand, and will only create new problems elsewhere on the fretboard.

The problem is with the nut. It’s in the wrong place, usually too far from the first fret, meaning that all notes at the first three or four frets will be sharp; and the reason that messing around at the bridge won’t help is that any adjustment you make there will have virtually no effect below the fourth fret.

This situation arises quite a bit, and it happens because when some guitar makers calibrate and cut the fretboard, they will cut it for the nut at the zero point of the scale length (the scale length being the distance from the front edge of the nut to the centre of the bridge). And there’s where the problem lies. The nut shouldn’t be at the zero point of the scale length, it should sit slightly short of it. So, some compensation is needed, just as it’s needed at the bridge to adjust for the fact that the strings are stretched whenever you push them down to the frets. In effect, intonation is set at both ends of the strings.

The solution is to move the nut to the correct position, although, as it turns out, the correct position can vary from guitar to guitar. This might seem like you’re changing the scale length, but that’s not quite how it works. The scale length is chosen by the makers (25.4 inches for Martin, 24.75 inches for Gibson, etc.) and from this measurement the fretboard is calibrated using the 17.817 rule. This is where the scale length is divided by 17.817 to give the position of the first fret, the remainder is divided by 17.817 to give the position of the second fret, and so on. Any compensation which is then made to the nut end of the fretboard is needed because, even when the strings are as low as possible at the first fret, the act of pushing the strings down on to the fret is enough to make them play sharp.

I’ve developed a method for nut compensation that has worked with every guitar I’ve tried it on, and I’ll go through it now. The first thing that’s needed is a sufficiently accurate tuner. Pedal tuners aren’t really suitable, and any tuner apps I’ve tried just aren’t accurate enough. In my opinion, this tuner:

tuner 1

the Korg GT-120, is the best digital tuner out there. The needle is smooth and accurate, and the tuner is responsive whether you’re using the built in mic, a clip on one, or a cable for electric or electro-acoustic guitars.

Using the tuner, let’s have a look at the problem at hand. Here’s the reading for the in tune open G string of a Sigma guitar I worked on.

tuner 2

The needle is dead centre, and both the red pointers are on. Now, here’s how it was at the first fret, G#.

tuner 3

As you can see, it’s quite a bit sharp. This will make an open E chord sound pretty nasty. Maybe you’d instinctively lower the G string a bit, but then it would be flat in an open C chord, and you’d end up going round in circles. The other strings are similarly sharp, which means that all fretted notes are going to sound pretty out of tune in relation to open notes over the first three or four frets.
The tool I use to trim the fretboard is a Tusq saddle blank with some medium sandpaper attached by double sided tape.
sanding block
I make sure that the sandpaper is carefully trimmed at the bottom edge so that only wood from the end of the fretboard is removed, and not from the bottom of the slot.

This is a long process; sand back the end of the fretboard a bit, replace the nut (without glue at this stage), and check the intonation at the first fret. Repeat till the first three frets are in tune on all strings. When replacing the nut, the nut slot will obviously be wider than before, so I build the nut up at the back using a mixture of superglue and baking soda, like this:

and then sand it down to fit, like this.
nut 2
This has to be repeated each time you remove wood from the end of the fretboard. When it’s done, a new nut can be made, although most times I’ll just sand it smooth, polish it and keep the same nut. Another approach is what I did with this Strat, where a piece of rosewood veneer was used to fill the gap left by moving the nut forward.
Here’s that G# again after the process is complete.
tuner 5
It’s spot on, as are all the other strings.

Although this is a laborious process, and it can certainly cost you a few sets of strings, the good thing is that once it’s done, it’s done. It’s a permanent fix. The difference is remarkable. Open chords play beautifully in tune (according to equal temperament tuning, of course), tuning is improved across the fretboard, and playing with a capo needs no retuning.

The joys and pains of tuning, Part II (a)

The joys and pains of tuning, Part II (a)

If you think about it, getting a piano to play in tune is a simpler concept than getting a guitar to play in tune. This is because, on a piano, all the notes are ready made: eighty-eight of them all lined up, and all you have to do is tune each of the strings (or group of 3 strings for higher notes) correctly and you’re ready to go. Obviously, this is a huge simplification of the enormous skill required to properly tune a piano, but we’re talking conceptually here.

With a guitar, only six notes are prepared in advance: the open strings. All the other notes have to be made by altering the length of the strings, which is achieved by pressing them against the frets. And this is where the concept is more difficult: all of the notes being in tune relies on the fretboard being properly calibrated so that the frets are exactly a semitone apart, on the bridge and saddle (or saddles) being in the right position so that the octaves at the 12th fret are in tune, and, just as crucially, on the nut being in the right place so that the first few frets are in tune.

For the last few decades, the use of computer numeric control (CNC) machines has become the norm in guitar factories for many operations, including calibrating fretboards. This has led to greater consistency, more efficient use of materials, and very accurate fretboards, so when guitars have tuning problems (and they do, from budget models to top of the line) the issue is virtually never the fretboard.

There can be problems with the bridge, but not often. On electric guitars bridges are usually fully adjustable for action and intonation, so a bit of time spent with a screwdriver, an allen key, and a tuner will sort out your octaves at the 12th fret. Stratocaster style bridges, like this:

tuning image 1
have plenty of forward and backward travel in the saddles, so there’s almost never an issue there. Gibson tune-o-matic style bridges, like this:

tuning image 2
have less travel in the saddles and, occasionally, a saddle will run out of room before the intonation is correct. In this instance there are bridges available with more saddle travel that fit directly in place.

Acoustic guitar bridges are a different proposition, as they’re glued to the top of the guitar with a slot routed for the saddle. Compensated saddles are pretty much ubiquitous these days, usually with the low E and B strings sitting further back than the other strings, like this:

tuning image 3
and, for the most part, they work fine. Sometimes it might be necessary to slightly reshape the top of the saddle, but that’s fairly easily done.

Every once in a while, a bridge will be put on in slightly the wrong position. In the case of my Sigma SDR-28H, the bridge is just under 2 millimetres too far back, the upshot being that, even with the saddle shaped so that all the strings sit at its front edge, the D, G, and high E strings were all slightly flat at the 12th fret. Filling the saddle slot and routing it in the correct position wasn’t an option because the saddle is close to the front of the bridge. I decided to make some little extensions for the strings in question and glue them to the front of the saddle. Here’s how it ended up:

tuning image 4
It took a lot of time and patience to shape these little pieces (which are made from GraphTech Tusq, the same material as the saddle) and adjust them so that the 12th fret octaves were in tune. I also had to make sure that the string heights remained unaltered at the points where the strings pass over the extensions, which meant reshaping the back of the saddle slightly at those points, but it all worked out fine, and the guitar is now in tune at the 12th fret on all the strings.

Often though, all this is not enough. How many guitar players have spent time setting up their guitars, carefully adjusting the action and intonation, only to find that they can’t get open chords to play in tune? I certainly have. The problem in this case is with the nut, an area of guitar setup which is often overlooked, and I’ll be dealing with this in Part II (b).