4 Ways To Ruin Your Intonation When Playing Guitar (And How to Avoid Them)

Have you ever just tuned your guitar just to realize that it sounds out of tune? I bet you have. First of all, you have to make sure your guitar´s intonation is set up properly from the start (If you don´t know how to do this, let your local guitar shop set it up for you and then learn to do it yourself). If the intonation has been set up properly and the guitar still sounds out of tune after tuning it, the reason is that you are not intonating the notes properly.

What does that mean? The term intonation refers to playing a note at it´s designated pitch without altering it (raising it except when pushing down on a floating tremolo) and thus making it sound out of tune.

First of all, understand that a guitar is never perfectly in tune all over the fretboard – it´s a trade off. If we wanted the guitar to be perfectly in tune, each fretwire would need to be broken up into smaller sub-divisions for each string. In regards to intonating notes, the guitar can be quite frustrating when starting out, because there are quite a few ways we can mess things up and sound out of tune.

Here are 4 ways that ruin the intonation of a note:

Example 1: Fretting the note too hard (especially with larger fretwire)

Example 1 shows the note pressed out of tune by applying way too much force to the string. Remember – the note only has to touch the fretwire NOT the wood of the fretboard.

If your guitar has big frets, you can easily push the notes out of tune.








Example 2: Pulling or pushing the note upwards or downwards

It can also easily happen that we push or pull a note a tiny bit without actually noticing it. In Example 2, I´m pulling the string only a tiny amount down to floor, but this is enough to make the note sound out of tune. To make sure you are not doing this, use a small make-up mirror in your practice space and watch your left hand closely.








Example 3: Picking the note too hard

You can also ruin your intonation by picking way too hard with your right hand. When doing this you are also bending the string, just with the other hand this time. You can have a hard attack, but you have to find the right amount of force to prevent this.








Example 4: Pressing down on a floating Tremolo 

Your guitar might have a tremolo system to vibrate notes and this opens many additional phrasing possibilities, but it can also be tricky to not mess up the intonation by accident. When playing a guitar with a tremolo system, be careful not to put any amount of pressure on the bridge with your right hand. Make sure it only rests very lightly on the bridge. It´s good to play a note and press down on purpose.








It´s a good practice to take a few minutes each day to practice intonating notes correctly until it becomes second nature to you.  Here´s an exercise for this:

  • Take a note and play it (while making sure you avoid the 4 ways of ruining its intonation)
  • Apply one of the four ways on purpose and MAKE IT SOUND out of tune.
  • Repeat the process many times
  • Cycle through all the ways you can mess up the intonation

This exercise will help you raise your awareness of when you actually play a note out of tune and once you have awareness of the problem you can fix it.

About the author:

Derk Stiepelmann is a professional musician and guitar instructor living in Dortmund, Germany. If you are looking for guitar lessons in Dortmund, you can contact him by clicking the linked text!