It's not a Tune-ah!
March 11, 2009 6:34 AM   Subscribe

What would cause my electric guitar’s high E string to fool my tuners?

I have a Mexi-Strat that plays pretty well but I can’t get the high-E string to tune properly with a tuner. My ears aren’t that good so I pretty much always use a tuner to tune the thing. All the other strings tune fine, but when the tuner shows the E string as “in tune” it’s actually sharp by maybe a quarter tone when I compare it to the B string. Even with my poor ears it’s obvious to me that it’s way off. The facts:

It’s not the tuner. I’ve tried three different tuners (a POD, a Mac, and a Boss Tuner) and it’s always the same. These same tuners work fine on my acoustics.

Switching pickups doesn’t seem to help, nor does adjusting the volume or tone.

It’s not the B string that’s out of tune. If I compare B to G it’s fine. It’s definitely the E string that is off. The low E string tunes fine.

It’s not the intonation. I’m tuning the string open. I don’t think it’s a matter of it needing a setup.

It’s not a matter of being in tune at the attack and then getting out of tune a second later. It’s out of tune from the get-go and stays there.

New strings or old stings, the problem is the same.

It's not the cables (I've used different ones) and there are no pedals or other devices in the chain. Just guitar, cable, tuner.

All other aspects of the guitar seem fine. It's not damaged, at least externally. It plays well, it sounds good when it is actually in tune.

Really, it seems like it’s not a physical thing at all, but somehow the frequency is getting higher within the electronics, if that makes sense.
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's the intonation.
posted by peewinkle at 6:40 AM on March 11, 2009

Best answer: How do you compare it with the B string--by fretting the B string on the 5th fret? The open E string is fine, it's the fretted string that's out of tune. It's the intonation.
posted by Khalad at 6:47 AM on March 11, 2009

It's hard to say, if your ear is as bad as you say and we can't hear the instrument. Can you make a recording? A slow sweep, letting the strings ring, low to high, followed by the B and G together, then the B and high E, and finally the low and high Es (all open). (I know you say it's not, but I'm guessing it's actually the B string, the intonation, or both.)
posted by uncleozzy at 6:49 AM on March 11, 2009

Best answer: Thirding
posted by bitdamaged at 6:49 AM on March 11, 2009

Your intonation is off. I had a guitar with this problem all over and it turned out the neck was warping something awful.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:55 AM on March 11, 2009

Response by poster: How do you compare it with the B string--by fretting the B string on the 5th fret? The open E string is fine, it's the fretted string that's out of tune. It's the intonation.

Yes. However, when I do get the E sting in proper tune (using my ear, which in this case works better than the tuner) then both the open string and 5th fret (and all the other frets) sound fine.

Given the consensus so far, I'm leaning towards the intonation, but it doesn't really make sense to me.

Would it be that off on the fifth fret? It's not a subtle thing, it's WAY off. Why would the guitar sound ok once I do get the string in tune (compared to B) at the fifth fret? Would an intonation problem be THAT drastic, and only on a single string?

And my ears are such that I've never really been able to consistently tune a guitar by ear, but I usually know when it's NOT in tune, and in this case I can get that one string pretty close by ear. I also have access to a very accurate tuner, my musician wife, if need be.

I'm at work right now. If I get a chance tonight I'll double check these things and possibly make a recording as well.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by bondcliff at 7:05 AM on March 11, 2009

Not hijacking the question, but does anyone have any more information other than "intonation"? For example... what to do about it?
posted by jhighmore at 8:43 AM on March 11, 2009

Response by poster: Not hijacking the question, but does anyone have any more information other than "intonation"? For example... what to do about it?

It needs to be set-up by a competent technician or luthier. This involves adjusting the neck, adjusting the saddles, etc. Almost any music shop can do it. I have a book called "How to Make Your Electric Guitar Sound Great", or something like that, that was recommended on MeFi, but I still don't feel qualified to do it myself. I attempted to true a bike wheel once and the results were disastrous. I expect attempting my own setup would be a similar experience.
posted by bondcliff at 8:58 AM on March 11, 2009

Just brainstorming here, but it could have something to do with the pickup pole piece on the high E?
Maybe it's off center, or too high or too low, or out of whack in some other way and it's not picking up a decent signal?
How does it sound through your amp?
Intonation could certainly be off, but even if it is, common sense says that the open string will still be able to be accurately tuned.
posted by dan g. at 9:05 AM on March 11, 2009

Intonation means how close each note on the fretboard is to being perfectly in tune. A guitar's intonation is determined by the layout of the frets (which you can't change) and the placement of the saddle (which you can adjust easily on an electric guitar).

If the intonation is on, the 12th-fret harmonic will match the fretted 12th string. If the fretted note is higher than the harmonic, the string length is too short, so you need to adjust the saddle away from the nut. If it's lower than the harmonic, the string is too long, so adjust the saddle toward the nut.

There's a lot more to setup than intonation, but given that on most electric guitars you can set the intonation of each string individually, it's not too hard to have pretty good intonation.

My banjo on the other hand . . .
posted by fogovonslack at 9:07 AM on March 11, 2009

If the tuner says that that open string is an E, either you have an E, or you need a new tuner. Intonation hasn't anything to do with open strings. And no electrical problem will alter the pitch of your notes. (unless it's a whammy pedal)

On the other hand, if you had an intonation problem that shifts you off by 1/4 of a tone as low as the 5th fret, setup would be badly needed. Every guitar is more or less out of tune, by design, and intonation progressively fails as you go up the fretboard. At the 5th fret, it should be well below 1/4 of a tone.

Line up the neck with your eyes: do you notice warping in directions other than the usual light 'bow' towards the strings?

If you fret the B string at the 5th fret, what does the tuner say? With a phillips screwdriver and fogovonslack's instructions, setting up intonation is really a matter of minutes. (pro tip: don't lay the guitar on a table, keep it as if you were playing it)
posted by _dario at 9:54 AM on March 11, 2009

Intonation is much easier than truing a wheel, and likely it will be just the saddles that need to be adjusted. An easy test for intonation is to compare the string's pitch with its 12th fret harmonic, per fogovonslack.
posted by rhizome at 10:08 AM on March 11, 2009

It's not the intonation (of the E string), if by "intonation" you mean the setting of the bridge saddle to adjust the length of the string. That will NOT make a string out of tune, it will only make the fretted notes on the same string out of tune with eachother.

If you want to check the intonation of the B string, tune it with the tuner to B, then fret at the fifith fret and check it against what the tuner thinks is an E. if it's off, the intunation of your B string is off. Way off. Way way off.
posted by stubby phillips at 10:18 AM on March 11, 2009

Try a few things:

1) Can you tune the string OK acoustically, using the mic on your tuner rather than plugging in? If so, there may be an issue with the electronics in your guitar. They won't change the pitch of the note but could be adding some coloration or overtones that are confusing the tuner.

2) Try tuning the string using the twelfth fret harmonic. It is possible that your nut is out of whack (too round perhaps), and as the string vibrates up and down the actual length of the string is changing slightly.

Report back whether you can successfully tune with either of the above methods.

Lastly, I recommend you learn to tune by ear. Tune one string with your tuner (e.g., your A string), then bring the rest in tune with it. Improving your ability to perceive differences/changes in pitch affects your playing and musicianship in many subtle ways.
posted by SNACKeR at 10:34 AM on March 11, 2009

Based on what you're describing, it almost sounds like a ghost tone or some weird harmonic that's ringing out. I have a Japanese Telecaster and the high E does that when I'm playing it unplugged.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:37 AM on March 11, 2009

To elaborate: a ghost tone as I know it and have heard it, is like a second note or tone that you can hear running concurrently with a plucked note. On my Telecaster, if I fret the G at the 12 fret I can hear it really well. On my high E, I can hear it well if I pick the note open. I think it has to do with the frequencies colliding with the other parts of the guitar ie., a loose volume knob, a bridge piece, a pickup screw. When I use a strobe tuner on the high E, it jumps all over the place so I just ball park it, plug in and go.

In your case, I think that may be the issue. On a strat you've got the whammy bar, trem block and a lot of other parts for sound to bounce off of. If you get a good setup, $20-30$, usually they'll find these things and tighten them up.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:55 AM on March 11, 2009

Best answer: It *could* be some kind of harmonic. I. E. Something horribly wrong with your pickup that is causing a harmonic to be more audible to the tuner than the "main" tone. Or something else vibrating and producing a tone as Kevin says.

Switch pickups, try tuning via microphone, and if that doesn't fix it...

It's the intonation.

You might want to try comparing your high E string to the G string at the 9th fret, or the D string at the 14th - both the same E. If you get better results, your B string's intonation is probably the issue. Worse results, ALL of the strings need adjusting.

Get your BEST tuner (probably the Boss) and adjust the saddle screw until the fretted note at the 12th is a perfect octave above the open string, or compare it to the harmonic at the 12th fret as others have said.
posted by mmoncur at 8:14 PM on March 11, 2009

Response by poster: Follow up:

It was the intonation. I always thought intonation was a much more subtle thing. Being as off as it was at the fifth fret, and I mean way, way off, I simply assumed it had to be off when open.

I attempted to adjust it myself but I just couldn’t get anywhere with it. It was then that I noticed the tremolo was all out of whack, the strings were pulling it up about ¼ inch. I put two and two together and realized at some point I changed the strings and accidentally went to a higher gauge.

So I took it to My Guy. By My Guy, I mean my banjo teacher who is also a master luthier. He fixed an acoustic guitar I had that the Snotty Local High End Acoustic MUSIC Instrument EMPORIUM That Shall Remain Nameless told me wasn’t worth repairing. He fixed it up real good and made it sound awesome. Anyway, I took the strat to him and he did a complete setup, filed the fret ends, adjusted the neck, tweaked the thingimajigger, and basically made it sound as perfect as it can sound. I always underestimated what a good setup can do.

So thanks, everyone.
posted by bondcliff at 8:08 AM on March 24, 2009

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