For those looking to buy a new guitar, there are a lot of factors that should impact your decision. The biggest factor is usually the guitar quality.
There’s a secret to testing a new guitar’s quality that will save you a lot of regret down the road. This is especially true for beginner guitars.
The problem is most people test a guitar by playing a few chords to make sure they like the sound. The look of the guitar is also important to most, of course.
This is helpful, no doubt. But, as you play the guitar, one thing is going to make a huge difference in your satisfaction. This one thing is the guitar’s intonation.
Testing a guitar’s intonation, and therefore the guitar quality, is actually quite simple. The intonation of a guitar describes its ability to stay in tune across every note along the fretboard. If a note on the 12th fret is out of tune, that indicates a flaw in either the manufacture or configuration of the guitar.
The Secret Test for Guitar Quality
There are two ways to perform this test of guitar quality while you’re out at the guitar store looking around:
- Using a Guitar Tuner: Take a good guitar tuner with you to the guitar store. When you find a guitar you like, make sure that it is exactly in tune. Once you are satisfied that each open note is precisely correct, test the octave of each string by pressing firmly on the 12th fret to make sure it also plays in tune. Although to the ear it may sound the same, a tuner will tell you whether it is off a hair or not. Slight deviations aren’t terrible and should be expected in cheaper guitars, but if the difference is great you should consider either buying a different guitar or asking the store to reconfigure the guitar.
- Using Harmonics: If you don’t have a tuner handy there is another way for you to test the intonation of a guitar using harmonics. Lightly touch a string right at the 12th fret and then pluck that string. This will create what is known as a “harmonic.” The moment it is plucked, pull your left finger away from the string. You should hear a soft ring. It may take some practice but it shouldn’t be too hard to learn. Test the intonation of the guitar by matching the harmonic of the string to the actual note (your finger depressed on the 12th fret). They should sound identical in pitch, otherwise you should probably start looking at different guitar.
So there you go! It seems simple but it’s absolutely necessary. If you’re looking for a new electric guitar or new acoustic guitar and the guitar fails this test, I can guarantee you months or years down the road as you’re playing with other people you’ll be endlessly frustrated by how your guitar sounds “out of tune” even though it’s perfectly tuned up.