Proper guitar setup can have a huge impact on your recording, as well as performance. With so many things going on, it's easy to overlook proper setup and intonation.
Easily the most overlooked aspect of properly recording guitars is the guitars proper set up and intonation. Bringing an entirely analog and often well played vintage instrument into the arena of perfect tuning should be easy. Having the guitars fit in correctly can be fast and efficient if you prepare the guitars ahead of time. More often than not a player may find that his roadworthy been with me everywhere guitar now seems to drift in and out of tune when recorded and mixed with other perfectly in tune instruments.
Spending any amount of time on trying to get the guitar right could easily be avoided if you follow a few steps for a perfect setup before starting. The first and most important is to use fresh strings and intonate the guitars bridge correctly and this will get us half way to harmony heaven. The rest of the setup relies on the guitars ability to have normal action. Note here that I am staying clear of the words “low” or “high” when referring to the height of the strings above the fretboard. Throughout time guitars players either like low action or high action, unfortunately the guitar dictates the action more so then the player. The guitar usually like normal action.
The best way to describe normal action is that the height of the strings at the nut stays fairly consistent to the 12th fret and beyond. It will rise slightly as the string gets closer to the bridge. If the strings are rising above the fretboard beyond the 12th fret too much you will have a problem with tuning.
A guitar string has the ability to change in pitch when we bend it. The smallest vibrato from your hand can cause and ocean of emotion and bring fans to their knees. That small change in pitch from us moving the string up and down is the fine nuance of the guitar. It is what often defines one player from the next.
Guitars strings are made to be bent. Some can bend one and half steps in tune. Pushing a string down from anything above normal action also bends the pitch. This is noticeable from the 12th fret and beyond. Often times a perfectly intonated guitar plays out of tune the farther up the neck you go. This is a sign of an improperly adjusted neck or improper string height. This is where a professional setup can help. Often getting a guitars action correct requires setting the neck bow to almost flat and adjusting the radius of the bridge to the necks radius and finally bringing the action into the correct normal position. If the guitar is not playing right after you have done your part and it still drifts in and out of tune or it does not sound in tune when fretting up the neck or worse yet it is buzzing or fretting out, it might be time to see a professional.
Never underestimate a professional set up and what a properly set up instrument can do for your track. Guitars are not digital electronics. They are as analog as it gets and mixing them into the modern world takes preparation and foresight.
Are guitar tuners accurate, can we rely on a Snark tuner on stage to tune our guitar? Most importantly Are their differences in all the tuners that are available for guitar. Can we record a track without autotune?
Lets start with the accuracy question. We know that A 440hz is a guitar standard tuning and that every tuner we use should be able to tune accurately to A 440. You can use any number as long as every instrument your playing with uses the same number.
So what is the difference. High end highly accurate tuners have a much finer adjustment while some of the cheaper clip on types are fairly accurate that do not have the precise fine detail in the display to convey it like the better ones have. If you are not sure this matters to you since the guitar sounds in tune to your ear and you have never had an issue before then you may be fine live or in a band situation but recording is another story.
Now faced with recording guitars with other instruments tuning becomes an issue. Just making a clip on headstock tuner light up correctly may not mean you are in tune with the rest of the room. Often times we find what separates some professional guitar players from the rest of us is there impeccable attention to tuning and intonation. Often when I see a guitar player adjusting and adjusting his guitar tuning and checking and checking it over agin I know I will have a great take that does not need auto-tune.
When a guitar player gets his intonation and tuning spot on it is inspiring. Throughout history guitar players have used tuners to eliminate any guesswork with tuning. While it is not always easy to get a guitar player to get his guitar in tune and it may be easier to autotune the track the amount of inspiration provided by a properly tuned guitar is irreplaceable. Setting the intonation with a highly accurate tuner like a Peterson is very easy and should be checked every string change as this may never change in theory but as I have learned small differences in strings brands as well as changing gauges can effect intonation. The guitars neck bow can affect intonation and change unexpectedly.
To check intonation:
A common technique in setting the intonation is checking the the note at the 12th fret & the harmonic at the 12th fret . In this method the “harmonic” of the 12th fret, is compared to the fretted string at the 12th fret, and saddle position is adjusted for perfect intonation:
First bring the string to perfect pitch by playing the harmonic of the string at the 12th fret and getting the tuner to sit stable at the correct pitch.
If you are using A 440 make sure it is dead on. Next check the note at the 12th fret. Push the note at the fret with normal playing pressure. This will be a slightly harder push than just touching the guitar at the 12th fret. If the note is not exactly the same as the open harmonic you will need to adjust the saddle of the bridge forward or backwards until the guitar is intonated.
• If the fretted note is flat compared to the harmonic, move the bridge saddle forward to shorten the string.
• If the fretted note is sharp compared to the harmonic, move the bridge saddle back to lengthen the string.
Finally, remember to have fun playing guitar,
Andy Green has been fixing guitars and anything music related for 30 plus years. From his beginnings in the 80's New York City music row to his current guitar repair facility in Hollywood Fl. Andy has built and repaired guitar and effects for everyone from top talents to young students.