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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Wed, 15 Nov 2017

I set the intonation on a Fender guitar for the first time

I've gone all this time being a guitar player and never before set the intonation on a guitar. It's mostly because my Gibson ES-175 has a wooden compensated bridge, and all you can do is move the whole thing forward or backward (and also side to side, but I digress). You don't generally do any intonation adjustments on acoustics, though luthiers can work a little magic with the nut and bridge saddle.

My 1979 Fender Lead I has a strong, thick neck that has never needed a truss rod adjustment, which is a good thing because getting to the truss-rod screw means loosening the neck from the body.

The Fender Lead's six-saddle hard-tail (meaning no tremolo) bridge is somewhat Strat-like, though it doesn't have springs between the intonation-adjustment screws and the individual bridge saddles. In lieu of those springs are nuts that hold the adjustment screws in place.

I had my little wrench to loosen the "lock" nuts, a Phillips screwdriver to turn the adjustment screws, and a clamp-on electronic tuner to check the pitches. I was set to go. I didn't even use an amp.

I've tried to set the intonation in the past, but I was never terribly successful. This time I used the cheap clamp-on tuner to compare the 12th-fret harmonic vs. the fretted note, and I went down the line and set all of the strings.

I also figured out that it's a lot easier to turn the screws (and you won't strip the heads) if you detune each string until it is slack before you make an adjustment at the bridge, then re-tuning the string to check how close you are to matching the pitches at the 12th fret. Words to live by: Don't adjust intonation at pitch!

Before yesterday, the guitar was out of tune as I played up the neck. Now that I have the intonation set, I will be playing it a lot more, and I might even "fill out" the extra Lead II pickguard I've had for years, turning the single (but super-versatile) humbucker Lead I guitar into a two-single-coil pickup Lead II-style guitar. With this change, the neck pickup sound should be closer to what I'm looking for, which is a jazz tone like Ed Bickert gets with his Telecaster. The hard-tail bridge of the Lead I, with the strings anchored through the back of the body, brings it closer to the Tele vibe. I wouldn't say that the Lead models sound like Strats or Teles (the Lead I sure doesn't), but I'll report back if I ever do swap out the pickguard and electronics for the Lead II-style setup.

Again, what I wanted to say was that after decades as a middling player, I never before did a full intonation setup. I really needed it and am too cheap to pay for it. So I'm glad I did it, and now I can really enjoy the Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings I've had on the guitar for some time. I have a couple more sets -- one pure nickel, the other nickel-coated steel -- in the wings, and I love the sound of this .011 set on the guitar.