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Setting Intonation on Your Bass Guitar
One of the biggest setbacks for fretted instruments is that the frets can’t move at all. Over time, or with new strings, you may notice that as you go higher on the neck, you get out of tune regardless of how meticulously you tuned each open string.
The quality of relatively correct tuning as you climb the neck is called intonation. It eventually goes out of whack as strings get dirty or the truss rod or neck start to require adjustment. You should also check your intonation every time you change strings, set action, or go to a permanent new tuning.
It’s never perfect
When you set your intonation, you’ll be setting your 12th fret to be exactly an octave of the open string. That doesn’t mean the other frets are in tune, however. There is literally nothing you can do about that. For the most part, that tuning will never be enough for anybody to notice anyway.
To change intonation, you’ll actually be changing the length of string between nut and bridge. This is done by moving each string’s saddle. The saddles are the bits in the bridge that hold each individual string. They create the other end of the section of string that’s allowed to vibrate. Moving them back and forth allows you to change the length of the vibrating string and get the 12th fret to be the exact midpoint between nut and bridge. You may need a Phillips screwdriver or an Allen wrench to adjust the screw that moves the saddle back and forth. Once you have your tools and a good tuner, tune your strings and we’ll get started.
Set the 12th fret
Once the open string is in tune, you’ll be looking at the 12th fret. You have to fret very lightly with no bending, then pluck the string. You should use a pick since they allow a more even tone with less phasing. It seems weird, but it does allow you slightly more accuracy.
Check your tuner as you pluck the string. It should be the same note but an octave higher than the open string. Most likely, it’s gonna be a little off. To get it right, you’ll have to move the saddle to change the length of the string. Move the saddle towards the nut to go higher in pitch and away from it to go lower. Once you make an adjustment, you’ll have to retune the string. I usually only turn the saddle screws about a quarter turn at a time between retunes. Eventually, with enough back and forth, you’ll have both the open string and the 12th fret in tune.
Repeat this for each string and then you’ll have a properly intonated bass. The other option is to pay someone to do it, but that costs money, and it’s not like you’re going to break the thing. You aren’t doing anything that can’t be reversed, so there isn’t anything to worry about. It’s a lot easier than it seems, but if you can’t figure it out, a pro can undo anything you messed up. Good luck, and happy playing!
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