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Observations about intonation.

Discussion in 'Hardware, Setup & Repair [BG]' started by BurningSkies, Oct 14, 2005.


  1. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY
    So it was set up night at ol' Burnin' Skies' house tonight. Not for basses, as mine're set up nice all the time. ;) But instead, my guitarist came over and I donated several hours of time to help his #1. While this refers to one of our little six string brethren, I still think it applies to REAL instruments like our basses. What I really learned is that it's almost useless to do a detailed set up without the actual player there. Here's the story why:

    Lately he's been dissatisfied with the tuning of his guitar, as have I! I notice that he tunes way too much,gets out of tune quickly AND seems to pull himself out of tune with his fretting and picking. He's also having trouble with E-string breakage at the bridge.

    -First up for the night, we're exchanging bridge pieces (in this case, the high E for the G) in hopes of solving or temporarily alleviating the breaking. This goes well on the Wilkinson Strat-style bridge, with no difficulties.

    -Next is a quick rough-setup with the old grungy strings to get the action roughly in place and then a ballpark intonation check.

    -Next, I ask him to put on the new strings and stretch them as he normally does. In the process, I notice his string stretching is um...WELL underdeveloped. #1 suspicion of mine confirmed about the out-of-tune problem.

    -New strings on, up to pitch on the ol' DTR-2 tuner and I ask him to check the action. I adjust several of the strings a touch, handing it back to him for a recheck each time...in 10 minutes he's happier with string height than with his previous "Pro" set up.

    -Next, I S-T-R-E-T-C-H the strings for real. As I do for any bass or guitar, I keep stretching them and retuning until they don't drop in pitch when stretched. Yes it takes a while, but when done, tuning stability is increased a lot, as is, I feel the consistency of tone (the strings are "seated" better on the instrument). I think he caught on to the amount of stretching you really need to do to get things solid from watching without me saying a word.

    -Next I check the intonation, carefully checking 12th fret and harmonics, adjusting several times to get right on. I retune across the board by open notes, play up the neck...check tuning again at 12th and replay...sounds pretty good!

    -Now I ask HIM to play the guitar... :meh: :confused: Doesn't sound so good. Stuff just sounds OUT. Bah. It was DEAD IN when I was playing?!? I find myself thinking that maybe it's his technique...he hits much harder than I do, and frets pretty hard too. I ask him to check 12th fret tuning and harmonics, hitting as he normally played...now several of the strings appear to be out. I pick it up and play again...and it's back 'IN'... :meh: Soooo, I ask him to check it again, and I adjust the intonation to HIS playing on all strings...now I ask him to play chords, and lines up and down the neck and try it out. IT WORKS! It's in tune up and down the neck, chords sound in and he's not pulling things 'out' while playing, a problem he's had since I've known him.


    The lesson? Intonation is dependant upon playing style more than I ever expected...I'll never do a 'take home' job without the player around. When he walked out the door he said "I think this had needed a set-up for a really long time now, I can't wait until the show tomorrow night!"


    Oh, and for my trouble my guitarist gave me a super nice Jamaican footy shirt! :)
     
  2. very informative piece...you've may have unlocked the mystery of why 70-80% of all guitarists play at least part of the time out of tune. :)

    as far as the "intonation to suit playing style phenomenon", I believe that you are absolutely correct, but also that the criticality is magnified with shorter scale lengths, such as electric guitars...
     
  3. WillBuckingham

    WillBuckingham

    Mar 30, 2005
    Could you explain why its important to stretch strings? What does it do?
     
  4. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY

    You may be right about the shorter scale playing a part. I've been playing with this guy for years, and I've never seen a guitarist that has as many playing in-tune problems. It'll be interesting to see if this changes things in the long run. The guy isn't a new player either, he's been playing guitar since 1973.

    I know one of the problems is that he likes his action fairly high, and when he digs in he pulls himself out. It's funny, this guitar is a Warmoth strat, and he's actually worn the finish off of the fretboard on 8 different positions in something like 4 years, and it ain't from practicing too much.
     
  5. Unchain

    Unchain I've seen footage.

    Jun 20, 2005
    Tucson, AZ
    I noticed the smae thing a long time ago. When I set up my friend's fretless, it worked fine for me, right in tune and intonated, but when he picked it up, completly out. Thanks for sharing the info BurningSkies.

    PS: Do ever use a lighter touch when intonating, then when you go to play it just doesn't sound right? Happens to me too much :meh:
     
  6. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY
    First off, to give a little description of what I do...once the bass (or guitar) has been strung and brought up to pitch on all strings, I start on the low E and work my way through to the higher strings. I also keep doing this until the strings no longer go out of pitch.

    I pull the string out from the fretboard (upwards if your bass is flat on yer lap), usually right around, say the 15th fret or so. I grab it with a few fingers and smoothly and firmly pull the string up until it reaches it's 'threashold of stretch'. That's the place where it feels like it isn't going to go any further safely, without risking breakage. It's hard to describe, but you'll know it when you feel it. Don't let the string slap back but bring it back down to its regular place.

    Repeat this several times, then check tuning. You may find your string has dropped by a step or more! Tune the string again, and repeat. Once you've done it until it doesn't drop in pitch you're good to move on to the next string.

    What does this do? I have a feeling its only a small bit of actual string 'stretching' and in fact, what you're really doing is seating the string solidly. It tightens it on the tuning post and makes the connection of the ball/bridge tighter.

    What does it do for your playing? Well, I find that it has no long term effect on string tone (your strings will sound just as good, just as long) but it WILL help your bass' tuning stability very much. I hardly have to tune my basses at all, and never tune during a performance. It also takes care of that first few weeks of new-strings-tuning-all-the-time-to-stay-up-to-pitch time...
     
  7. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY
    I really haven't had too much a problem, but then I use the same feel to tune, check my intonation and play. Over time I've worked on lightening my touch, both left and right hands to help my overall speed, tone and dexterity. Over time, I've been able to lower my action and set my basses up for that style of playing, and have lots less pain after 3+ hours of stage time.

    Live you have to keep reminding yourself to relax, breathe, and unclench the muscles of your hands, shoulders and neck.

    I have a feeling it's a problem that lots of players without much formal training have, and also players who came out of heavy playing (metal, punk, industrial, etc) have.
     
  8. Unchain

    Unchain I've seen footage.

    Jun 20, 2005
    Tucson, AZ
    Yep. I've lightenged my touch a lot. Helps compansate for harmonics/tapping as well as controlling over all volume. I come out of punk, so heavy playing was always a flaw, until I started listening to "better" music (speaking in terms of musical talent, not quality ;) ) and practicing better habits. Thanks for the advice BS...err BurningSkies. Sorry that the abbreviation for your name is a little risque. :p
     
  9. Blues Cat

    Blues Cat Supporting Member

    May 28, 2005
    Katy, Tx
    Dude I just went thru that w/my guitarist while cutting a blues demo.
    I'm a tuning/intonation freak. He's got a strat w/high action & huge frets. When picking he dents the body of the guitar @ the neck PU.
    I use a peterson tuner & make him use it @ gigs & when recording. He would tune & then try chords & it was just out. His roomate is a master luthier & intonates it for him. He also is one of only three luthiers in the world to make his classical acoustics w/a tournavas in the sound whole.
    Turns out for example when he hits a simple barred A in the 2nd fret, his forefinger was @ a 45 degree angle, brutally out of tune.
    Maybe he needs to have it intonated while he's beating the crap out of it.
     
  10. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY

    Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I think its especially easy to hear when dealing with a chordal setting. This guy has fairly tall stainless steel frets too, so there's more room to the fretboard, and since he's wearing through the finish on it, it tells me he's got the iron-clamp-of-death grip too.

    The funny thing is that this guy is more of a blues player than a hard playin' guy...but there's this myth that you really have to 'dig in' to get great tone.
     
  11. Blues Cat

    Blues Cat Supporting Member

    May 28, 2005
    Katy, Tx
    I stopped him in the middle of trying to grab some smooth intonation & said, "Look @ your knuckles man, they're white, you're fretting allmost all the way to the wood". Lots of chords out of intonation on a recording is unnacceptable to me, I would rather not record than have a recording that makes your shoulders rise as to cover your ears.
    Some people don't hear intonation issues unless it's really off.
    The guitarist is not a bad guitarist either. But, he couldn't play a barred rock type chord to save his life, & when I tried rock style on his guitar it was choppy & I had to keep regrabbing the chords.
    I think he read that SRV had high action big strings... & thought I gotta do that. I think that if he would change his setup & not be so gorilla fisted, he could be allot better & have more fun playing less notes & not having to try as hard.

    It's good to know I'm not the only one going thru this.
    My trax have been done for 2 mos, I'm playing drums & bass, & I'm ready to walk away if he can't record professionally.

    Venting complete.
     
  12. pkr2

    pkr2

    Apr 28, 2000
    coastal N.C.
    Great post, BS.
    "I have a feeling its only a small bit of actual string 'stretching' and in fact, what you're really doing is seating the string solidly. It tightens it on the tuning post and makes the connection of the ball/bridge tighter."

    Lots of wisdom in this statement. I believe that a malfunctioning nut is one of the major reasons for an instrument going out of tune while playing.

    Lots, if not most nuts are made of plastic rather than bone, metal or some other material that is harder than the strings. Over time,a plastic nut will take on an imprint of the windings and the string will actually "jump" as the string is played. In order for a string to be stable the tesion must be equal between the anchor point and the bridge, the working portion of the string and between the tuning peg and the nut.

    All of us have ran into the string that, just as it reaches pitch, jumps over the desired pitch. That is almost always a prob with the string not sliding smoothly across the nut. This is also the fault that often causes a string to only tune by going past the pitch and having to tune back down to pitch.

    The remedy is to either lube the nut slots or put a tiny piece of rice paper between the nut slot and the string. The best remedy, though, is an upgrade to the nut using a harder material.

    The minor details are often the difference between a so so setup and a great setup.
     
  13. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY

    Thank you, and I agree with what you're saying. I think that the two 'witness points' of the nut and the bridge saddle are under scrutinized in most instruments. In many instruments the nut is a pretty wide piece of material (my Dingwall on the other hand has quite a narrow phenolic nut).

    I think there are a few factors to what's going on at the nut, beyond the hardness of the material. The cut of the nut is pretty important as is the cant of the slot. Because of the downward pressure of the string, it's easy to have binding at the nut. So, you have the forces of string tension (running along the length of the string), and downward pressure from the winding at the post or string trees (both of which are very important for you bass to sound right) but at the same time those things are causing friction, you need a witness point that's low friction. If your wound strings cause indentations in the material you have twice as much trouble.

    In the case of the guitar I was working with last night, the bridge saddles already had plenty of string wear and the nut definitely isn't super high-quality material, more of a standard plastic. The tuners were locking posts, so as per the instructions of the manufacturer, no extra winds.

    I believe that with any instrument, if the strings are firmly seated at the post and the bridge and you've gotten any extra 'stretch' out of them then you're not going to have the SLOW process of 'seating' going on while playing over weeks. You've got it all at one time and since the strings are going to stay where you've 'set' them, you have less tuning, less movement across the nut, and therefore less chance of catching at the nut.

    Since your strings are 'set' the vibration should be better too, as you have less movement that robs energy from your string's speaking length, and maybe, just maybe more vibration being transfered to the body wood. Yes, I know that less body vibration = better sustain (thus heavy mass bridges that isolate the strings), but somewhere in the equation is the notion that body vibration imparts wood-tone characteristic.
     
  14. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY

    A problem a lot of guitarists who buy into the blues player vintage gear/tone mojo mythology have is based on EXACTLY what you say. Bass players buy into it too. I want to be clear that the same thing goes on in the bass world just as much. I just don't do bass set-ups beyond my own, but I watch a lot of bass players choke the life out of their instruments.

    Unfortunately, guitarist have a canon of this BS to follow. You have players like SRV, Buddy Guy, Dick Dale, etc. who all have very heavy playing technique. You hear all day long "it's all in the hands" which players take to mean that you've got to hit/fret hard to get good tone.

    Besides that just not being true (and killing your potential playing dynamic), most guitarist only buy HALF the story.

    SRV DID have a very heavy playing style, but he used 12 or 13 guage string sets. He also had his guitars set up to use heavier strings properly and set up for his playing style and touch(SRV did have his own tech). Most players who try to emulate this use much lighter guage strings that can't handle this style of playing and don't have serious custom set-ups. They also don't have the hours of playing or practicing that the pros have so they just don't have the technique to back it up. Instead they get 'the claw'.

    Think about 99% of the people who are emulating Flea or Claypool...Most of the guys that I see try this have NO IDEA of the real play-feel of either player and are working really hard to pull their strings right off the bass altogether! My recollection of Primus from back in the day is that Les had plenty of finesse, while Flea even publicly CLAIMS to have terrible technique.
     
  15. BS, I do what you do as far as stretching the strings is concerned and comparing the 12th fret fretted note with the 12th fret harmonic. I also compare the 19th fret fretted note with the 19th fret harmonic. If I can't get complete agreement, I split the difference. I learned this from an old BP magazine article by Rick Turner. It makes a surprising difference.

    There's no doubt that ham-fisted players have intonation problems. Assuming a right handed player, hard hitting right hand technique will cause the player to be sharp and pressing the string too hard with the left hand, so that it contacts the fingerboard, also results in the player being sharp. The problem is magnified as the fret size increases.
     
  16. BurningSkies

    BurningSkies CRAZY BALDHEAD

    Feb 20, 2005
    Seweracuse, NY
    If you do it at the 19th, does the tuning down the neck, say between 1st and 5th suffer?
     
  17. You would think it might, but the bass seems to play in tune better everywhere. I really notice it when I'm doubling the guitar player's lines.
     
  18. Great piece Skies - it oughta be stuck to the top of the forum for guys that are serious about their setups and for the rest of the members to see how serious one CAN be with their setups. I always figured that good imitation can lead to quick learning in a lot of areas and if you were to emulate the pros that are sticklers for perfect setups, even if you insist on doing it before you understand all of the principles, you'll be miles ahead.

    I want to share my technique of string stretching. I don't know where I picked it up or if I invented it but I've been told by others that have tried it that it works great. I tune the string up until it can hold it's own tension between the bridge and nut. Then I grasp the string with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands spaced about 6" apart, down near the bridge. Then I seesaw my hands back and forth as I move up along the string keeping my fingers spaced the 6". By pushing and pulling like to maximum tension like this, I think it seats in the windings alongside each other a little better and makes a little more initial flexibility. Of course it's also stretching the string. Then I tune up and go.
     
  19. pkr2

    pkr2

    Apr 28, 2000
    coastal N.C.
    That method would probably equalize the tensions between the bridge/nut and the working part of the string.

    I'll definitely give that method a try.

    I dont mean to hijack the thread but am I the only one that would like to see more of this kind of discussion?

    I would love to hear some different views on how to properly fit a nut. In another thread, of course.
     
  20. Blues Cat

    Blues Cat Supporting Member

    May 28, 2005
    Katy, Tx
    Don't forget also you can strobe your guitar/bass using the fifth fret capo, 17th fret harmonic. This helps even the intonation out the entire length of the neck also factoring in the space between the last fret & the bridge.
    Also especially on bass, do 3rd fret/15th fret, 5th/17th. 7th/19th & split the difference.