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Fixing the Intonation on a Martin

Discussion in 'Acoustic Heaven' started by Rayf_Brogan, Jun 5, 2018.

  1. Rayf_Brogan

    Rayf_Brogan Tele-Meister

    Dec 14, 2017
    I bought a used Martin D-15 off ebay and while it plays and sounds amazing, the intonation is terrible. I'm not sure how I didn't notice it right away, but essentially, you can have all the chords sound good enough except an open E, or the E sounds right and everything else is sour. There was a crack in the neck around the first fret, but it was repaired and looks & feels fine. The intonation up the guitar neck is fine, but the low E, G & B strings are all sharp on the first 2 frets.

    I brought the guitar to my local shop and asked them to lower the action a bit and fix the intonation. Well, they dropped the action way down and as far as I can tell, didn't do anything to the intonation.

    I have practically no experience with an acoustic. Can this typically be fixed with a new nut & saddle, or am I sinking money into a guitar that's not worth it?
    JL_LI likes this.
  2. JCW1024

    JCW1024 Tele-Meister

    Oct 12, 2010
    Definitely worth it to fix -- D-15 is a nice all-solid-wood guitar. Is the saddle compensated? If the previous owner dropped an uncompensated one in, that could throw it off. Also make sure it has fresh strings and the screws and nuts holding the tuners are all tight. Neck crack that was glued but isn't actually fully stable could also cause issues, as could worn frets or a worn nut.
    Rayf_Brogan, wmsimpson and studio1087 like this.
  3. corliss1

    corliss1 Friend of Leo's Platinum Supporter

    Sep 13, 2008
    Lansing, MI
    If all they did was drop the action they didn't really do a setup. Might need to get more specific with them, or find a new shop to go to.
    Rayf_Brogan and nojazzhere like this.
  4. wmsimpson

    wmsimpson Tele-Holic

    Sep 29, 2009
    I would bet the the nut slots are too high.
  5. stormin1155

    stormin1155 Tele-Meister

    Sep 26, 2010
    There could be a couple things going on, one being the nut cut wrong as wmsimpson suggested. Along with that, you may be pressing on the strings too hard when fretting them, pulling them out of tune. This is not uncommon, particularly since you are not familiar with the guitar or acoustics in general. Try tuning it then fretting the strings with the lightest touch you can and see if it still goes sharp. I have one guitar that I'm always pulling the strings sharp.... nothing wrong with the guitar, I just need to learn to play with a lighter touch.
    Rayf_Brogan likes this.
  6. philosofriend

    philosofriend Tele-Holic

    Oct 28, 2015
    First check the height of the nut slots. Fret each string at the third fret and see how high the string is above the first fret. If you are a bluegrass player and want the open chords as loud as practical the height should be as high as a thick business card. If you want the action nice and easy, the clearance should be as low as very close to none (but then later as the nut wears it will start to buzz, fiddling with nuts goes along with loving low action).

    If the nut is OK, then the nut needs to be moved closer to the first fret. Find a repairman who has done this before, don't let them learn on your guitar. I do this job freehand now with a brand new hacksaw blade, removing the wood on the end of the fretboard about the width of the blade. This requires very steady nerves. This job can make a guitar so much more fun to play!

    Rarely does a guitar require more than one of these cuts. Incidentally, all the repairmen trained to install the Buzz Feitan Tuning System are trained to do this job before doing any other work on the guitar. Sometimes an odd overhanging nut is installed, but I find it easier to just shorten the fretboard.
    studio1087 and Rayf_Brogan like this.
  7. Tonetele

    Tonetele Poster Extraordinaire

    Jun 2, 2009
    South Australia
    I agree that the nut slots might be too high but are you sure you haven't got upward neck bow. It seems to me that is a distinct possibility given that the first fret and open E chords ( and others as you say) are affected.
    Rayf_Brogan likes this.
  8. Charlie Bernstein

    Charlie Bernstein Poster Extraordinaire

    Apr 26, 2003
    Augusta, Maine
    The guitar may well need some work. One possibility no one has mentioned is that the bridge might be in the wrong place. Yours wouldn't be the first Martin to have that problem. It's worth checking bridge placement while you're checking everything else. If the bridge isn't placed correctly, nothing will make it sound right.

    And yes, a compensated saddle might help, but it shouldn't be necessary. I've had Gibsons, Martins, and Guilds, and they all sounded great without compensated saddles.

    Also, keep in mind that no guitar is ever exactly in tune. Set-up, compensation, action - everything is a compromise to make the instrument sound sort of in tune for everything and not exactly in tune for anything.

    What sounds right is largely a matter of taste. Some players always tune the B-string lower than a store-bought tuner thinks is right. There's an old story about a player who, to be helpful, once tuned Gary Davis's guitar while Davis was on a break. In the second set, Davis started a song, played a few bars, stopped to untune the guitar, and then started the song over.

    It sounded right to him - and no one has ever sounded better than Davis!
    black_doug, Rayf_Brogan and Stubee like this.
  9. Rayf_Brogan

    Rayf_Brogan Tele-Meister

    Dec 14, 2017
    Thanks everyone. The action was really high when I got the guitar. The original nut & saddle hadn't been messed with, but the guy that worked on the guitar took the nut and saddle way down to the point where it's not nearly as loud as it was when I first got the guitar. Lesson learned, I'll be more vocal next time rather than just ask for lower action.

    I still can't figure out how they let the intonation go like this. My tele is slightly off between the G & B strings, but I can live with that. In this case, it's not even close.

    I'm going to look for another luthier in the area and have him play the guitar in front of me so I can make sure they understand the problem. I'm thinking a compensated saddle could fix it, or at least bring it closer to normal. It is a sweet sounding guitar and I do enjoy playing it. First time I've ever said that about an acoustic.
    corliss1 likes this.
  10. Obsessed

    Obsessed Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    Nov 21, 2012
    I'm kinda surprised at the speculations here. For sure any of them could be correct, but if everything looks good and it plays well, just make or have a compensated saddle built. Then with the intonation correct, you can start looking at other issues. Compensated saddles are there for a reason and the guitar could have easily been off from an intonation standpoint from the factory.
    Rayf_Brogan likes this.
  11. newminglewoodblue

    newminglewoodblue Tele-Meister

    Nov 16, 2016
    Southern California
    This leads me to believe you might need a neck reset. Do you have a pic of how high the saddle is? I believe martins are built with a compensated saddle. Another candidate is bad nut. Have you spoke with the repair person? They may very well say, "oh heck bring her back & let us look again" without imposing another minimum bench charge.

    Good luck. You should also consult for advice, the Martin board will want to see pictures.
    Rayf_Brogan likes this.
  12. FMA

    FMA Poster Extraordinaire

    Apr 29, 2003
    As with all questions regarding acoustic guitars and setups, visit Frank Ford's site,, and browse. He has addressed this question. The guy knows his stuff. In spades.
    Buckocaster51 and DougM like this.
  13. beninma

    beninma Tele-Afflicted Silver Supporter

    Mar 17, 2017
    How old is it and does it already have a compensated saddle? Most new Martins do unless they're one of the "authentic" models that mimics an older model year that predates compensated saddles.

    The current D-15M lists as shipping with a compensated saddle.
  14. MilwMark

    MilwMark Poster Extraordinaire Ad Free Member

    Apr 29, 2013
    near Arnold's
    Find another shop. The summary seems to be:

    - Cracked neck that has been repaired.
    - Intonation fine up the neck but out in first two or three frets?
    - Now, action that is way too low

    You need to find someone you trust - if they can't explain (while you are there) what is going on (or at least a good theory), and how and to what degree they will fix it, and what that will cost, go elsewhere.

    Too bad the other shop lowered the action way too much without addressing the actual issue. Hopefully it's an easy fix.

    I've yet to pick up a modern Martin that didn't have an intonated bridge (and that wasn't already perfectly intonated).
  15. Buckocaster51

    Buckocaster51 Super Moderator Staff Member Ad Free Member

    Jan 6, 2005
    Iowa USA
    Admin Post
    There you go. Probably the first thing to check
  16. Rayf_Brogan

    Rayf_Brogan Tele-Meister

    Dec 14, 2017
    That's pretty much the story. They've done good work in the past, but it's been pretty standard electric work. I figure adjusting the saddle on an acoustic is a little more involved but they chopped the saddle and nut down and there's not much left to work with. If they got the intonation right, I'd be very happy, but I'd rather play an acoustic with higher action and good intonation than the other way around. I probably should have brought it back, but I thought I could live with it and too much time has passed.

    It's a 2005 D15. I'm pretty sure the saddle is not compensated. I think I'll take it to another guy and call it an early Father's day present to myself.
  17. LudwigvonBirk

    LudwigvonBirk Tele-Holic

    Aug 26, 2017
    IMO I'd focus on the nut. Getting the nut just right is a very subtle art, and it can take a lot of time and customer-luthier back and forth to get it right (and can therefore be expensive).

    Fwiw I have a 1950 D-28 that is crazy battle-scarred but plays like a dream. I'm a lefty and the guitar is a righty, the bridge is an original righty (so, saddle is righty too). I invested $300 in the lefty nutwork 20 years ago from a true expert and it was totally worth it even though I was scraping by at the time. Haven't had to touch anything since, it intonates beautifully from open all the way up.

    That said, as we know there's tons of things going on, neck geometry, saddle, nut, frets, cracks, strings, player. As a lefty in particular I always wind up asking myself "can I adapt to this?" and most of the time (*not always) I wind up at yes, I can adapt myself to the instrument.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2018
  18. MilwMark

    MilwMark Poster Extraordinaire Ad Free Member

    Apr 29, 2013
    near Arnold's
    That hasn’t been my experience. Pretty straightforward for a decent tech, for me.
    Charlie Bernstein likes this.
  19. Charlie Bernstein

    Charlie Bernstein Poster Extraordinaire

    Apr 26, 2003
    Augusta, Maine
    So, Rayf, have you solved it yet? Progress report, please!
  20. studio1087

    studio1087 Telefied Silver Supporter

    May 10, 2003
    Near Milwaukee
    A good luthier will make a new bone nut and bridge and install them for under $100.

    I had bone work done on my D15 over 20 years ago. It rings like bells. Perfect intonation.

    Beautiful guitar. It would be worth it.

    You could order a new Tusq nut and saddle and do it yourself. A set would be about $35 and they make great stuff. I'm partial to bone.

    Their pins with shell work are beautiful (FWIW)
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