Basic Intonation vs fret 1, 2, 3, etc

Tim E

TDPRI Member
Jun 29, 2018
The zero fret is theoretically a solution (best implemented in manufacturing rather than retrofitted), but it's curious that several zero fret guitars utilize a zero fret that's larger than the rest. Which kind of negates the biggest theoretical advantage they have. I'm guessing that designers of such instruments think players expect/prefer open strings to have higher action than the rest of the frets. Which is a little baffling to me, but whatever...

Compensated nuts are a thing people use and sometimes like, but they're really best if you are one of those people who prefer open strings to have higher action. If you like the action at the nut to be set as low as a fret, they offer no real advantage. Unless the nut isn't properly placed...

...which can be the case. I've occasionally seen a nut creep away from the fingerboard, which would exacerbate any sharp notes. There's also the possibility that the nut is set too close to the bridge overall, due to the fingerboard end being cut as if for a fret, where the theoretical placement of the nut doesn't take into account the kerf of the saw. This would be a pretty minuscule error, but the error would probably make it generally perform more in tune with the nut action being on the high side.

It is funny overall how common this problem is on guitars across a pretty wide spectrum of quality, price, and reputation. It always bugged the hell out of me how often this is done wrong.

Freeman Keller

Poster Extraordinaire
Aug 22, 2018
For the OP or any one else who really wants to understand why these things don't want to play in tune (and what can be done about it) I highly recommend Mark French's book on the Technology of the Guitar. Mark actually has two versions of the book, this one has a lot of math but its limited to high school level (no calc or differential equations).

His second book, Engineering the Guitar does go into college level math, French is a college professor. The Technology book also has a list of other readings if you want to get deeper into the subjects, but this is a good overview.


Friend of Leo's
Dec 20, 2011
Yep there's no fix, just workarounds.

James Taylor's workaround is to tune the guitar flat..


Aug 20, 2007
The B string is the worst culprit to me.
I solve this by tuning all other strings to pitch open and the b-string by pressing down the D/3e fret and tune to pitch.

That solves 98% for me on all my guitars. No cents or anything and easy to do by ear.
But I use that D note in many cowboy-chords. G, sometimes Em

Charlie Bernstein

Poster Extraordinaire
Apr 26, 2003
Augusta, Maine
A good question, and lots of good answers. I'll add this:

Naturally, you want good intonation. But remember a few things.

First, a tempered scale is never truly in tune. That's why a well-tuned piano's chords will make waves of sound. It is, literally, waves, millions of sound waves phasing in and out of each other.

You hear the same thing tuning a guitar, a sort of tremolo effect that slows as the note comes in tune. Compensated or adjustable bridges help eliminate out-of-phasiness, but it's always there — both because of the tempered scale problem and the issue that you've brought up.

But that's not the big thing.

The big thing is that part of what makes a guitar's sound is the fact that it's never quite in tune. Finger pressure and real-world physics stack the deck hopelessly against perfect intonation, and it's the imperfections that give guitar a human sound. Ever notice how contemporary pop songs are all sonically perfect and perfectly bland? It's because the notes are all digitally calibrated to be dead accurate — and dead dead.

Meanwhile, Gary Davis intentionally played out-of-tune, to great effect. I'd rather listen to him than perfectly-pitched Taylor Swift any day.

And if six strings aren't enough chaos, mandolin players have an old saying: You spend half your time tuning your mando, and half your time playing it out of tune.

Leo Kottke says he likes playing twelve-string because of the fundamental physical impossibility of getting strings that close together to cooperate. I'll add that that's what makes his music sound so lively.

So carry on your quest for perfect intonation — but know that, as the currently popular cliche goes, perfect can be the enemy of good!