How Do You Adjust The Intonation On A Stratocaster?

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

Intonation is one of the significant maintenance necessary not just for a Stratocaster but basically for every guitar. 

In this article, I will explain what intonation is and how to adjust it. I will also talk about general tips to keep your Stratocaster in tune.

What Is Intonation?

Intonation refers to the extent of your Stratocaster being in tune no matter which length of the fretboard you play. 

Even though your strings sound perfectly fine, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are properly intonated. You will know if your Stratocaster’s intonation is off if you play it and notice that it increasingly becomes out of tune the further up the fretboard you play.

So, how would you know if your Stratocaster is properly intonated? Well, if all of the open strings and every note play at their correct pitches no matter which frets you play them in, that’s when you know your Stratocaster’s intonation is set up correctly. 

Although this effect is frequently mild rather than dramatic, intonation mismatches are nevertheless perceptible enough to be bothersome and thus necessitate correction.

No matter how renowned and expensive Stratocasters are, they will sound off-key if they aren’t properly intonated.  

How To Check Your Stratocaster’s Intonation

Before you start adjusting the intonation, it’s essential to check if your Stratocaster is really out of tune. You don’t want to tweak it if it sounds perfectly intonated because you’ll be wasting time and creating unnecessary problems.

So, to check your guitar’s intonation, follow the steps below:

  1. Make sure your guitar is tuned before you check for intonation. You can do this manually or with a tuner. But don’t remove the tuner yet; you’ll still need it in the following steps. 
  2. Play the natural harmonic on the Stratocaster’s 12th fret. By “natural harmonic,” this is when you place your fingers directly above the low E string on the 12th fret. Then, lightly press the low E string, but make sure it does NOT touch the fret—a light touch is all you need.  
  3. With your tuner still on, pluck the string where your finger is touching. It should still be in tune according to your tuner. If it’s not, then you would have to adjust the string until it’s precisely tuned.
  4. After the “natural harmonic” trick, and your strings are still tuned, it’s time to repeat the process again. But this time, the string should be touching the fret. So, press the low E string until it presses down against the fret (like how you naturally tune a string). When you pluck, you should hear a sound. 
  5. With your tuner, check if the string is in tune (mostly, tuners turn green if the string is tuned or the tuning pegs are aligned to the correct line). If not, make the necessary adjustments to make sure that it’s precisely in tune. Remember to apply the “natural harmonic” trick again when you re-tune.
  6. If both the natural harmonic and the string-pressing-against-the-fret are in the correct tune based on your tuner, that’s how you know that the intonation for that string (in this case, low E string) is accurate. 
  7. Do the process for the remaining strings. One properly intonated string does not mean that every other string is intonated as well.

How To Adjust Intonation On A Stratocaster

Once you do the procedure above and realize that your Stratocaster is not intonated properly, follow the instructions below to adjust the intonation.

The Stratocaster’s intonation can be altered by adjusting the length of the string—either by lengthening or shortening it. The simplest way to achieve this is to change the position of your Stratocaster’s bridge. 

If the sound produced by pressing down on the fret is sharper than that from the “natural harmonic,” slightly lengthen the string to arrive at the same tune by turning the screw of the Strat in a clockwise direction. This will lower the pitch of the note. 

Note: Before lengthening the string, make sure to loosen the tension so your strings won’t snap.

On the other hand, if the sound is flatter than that from what’s produced by the “natural harmonic,” slightly shorten the string by turning the screw of the Strat counter-clockwise until they are the same tune. This will increase the pitch of the note. Take note that the “natural harmonic” is our reference here. 

Let’s say all of your strings sound flat or sharp. In this case, instead of rotating the screws one by one, you can simply adjust the position of the bridge, as this will also adjust the entire string. But it doesn’t mean that all strings will also be appropriately intonated. You may eventually have to lengthen or shorten the strings individually.

General Tips To Maintain Correct Intonation

  1. Using a bad-quality tuner will make the difference between a perfectly intonated guitar and an out-of-tune one. Invest in a good-quality tuner because this will make the job much easier. There is no perfectly intonated guitar because every instrument has its flaw. You might find the 12th fret perfectly intonated while other frets are not. But a good tuner will allow you to reach a precise stage of intonation that can make your guitar sound properly tuned. 
  2. Replace your strings on a regular basis or whenever they need newer ones, as they will eventually wear down. Poor-quality strings can also be the leading reason for intonation problems.
  3. Keep your guitar in a case when you’re not using it. Protect it at all costs. 

Key Takeaway

Intonation tells a lot about whether or not your Stratocaster is in tune. Even though the strings sound perfectly fine, it’s not automatically equivalent to being properly intonated.

Since it controls the accuracy of pitch throughout the fretboard, your Stratocaster’s intonation needs to be maintained. Nothing is more annoying than trying to play in front of an audience while your guitar is out of tune.

In other cases, tuning issues are primarily caused by poor intonation. So, to prevent that, you should regularly check if your Stratocaster is precisely intonated by following the steps and instructions listed above.