June 27th, 2010
A nice article on intonation.
Intonation, as taken from the definition of Wikipedia, states: “Intonation, in music, is a musician’s realization of pitch accuracy, or the pitch accuracy of a musical instrument.” Having what is known as “bad intonation” means that the musician is playing or singing out of tune. Intonation can also refer to tuning.
When it comes to stringed instruments, intonation matters a lot more than with other musical instruments. Since majority of stringed instruments are unfretted, the note can easily go out of tune in the event that a finger is too high or too low, even if it is less than an inch. In order to have good intonation, a musician needs to have years of practice and experience, which makes this the most difficult part of mastering a stringed instrument.
There are some individuals, more commonly guitar players, who often ask me if there is a ukulele which has superb intonation but costs little, I always tell them the same thing over and over again: “Forget it…”
Despite the majority of ukulele fretboards manufactured today being cut precisely by computer-guided laser cutters, issues sometimes exist in relation to the free string configuration of the ukulele, which is extremely short, and makes perfect intonation quite hard to attain. Also, ukulele strings which were made from plastic materials like nylon are not very precisely constructed as compared to their steel counterparts – those which are usually installed on banjos, mandolins and the ever popular guitar. Strings made of plastic tend to expand and eventually become flat, making them quite hard to use during the initial stages of use. And if that’s not enough, getting the right intonation greatly depends on the skills and experience of the musician. Intonation will also change in relation to the key played.
Ukuleles have long been known as the instrument of “innocent merriment”, period. They provide hours of fun and enjoyment with every use, although they can’t be considered as acoustic physics laboratories having small sound chambers.
With guitars, most people will usually invest a lot of money making modifications in order to have better intonation, and the ukulele not much that different. Even if the ukulele you are looking at right now is said to have the “prefect intonation”, chances are there is something fishy about it.
If its the intonation of your ukulele that is giving you headaches, it may be a good idea to purchase strings of better quality such as well-known brands Worth and Aquila. You may be surprised on the really big difference this change will give.
Intonation can also be achieved based on how relevant the note played is to the pitch as the musician moves up the fingerboard. In order to check the set-up of your ukulele, the 12th fret needs to sound exactly the same when played on an open string at a higher octave. For example, open A string first course 440Hz, 12th fret 880Hz). Playing a 12th fret harmonic and comparing it with a fretted 12 fret note is also a good way of checking your ukulele. A good instrument will always be able hit each note played exactly to the required frequency. Example is G=392 Hz, C=261.6 Hz, E=329.6 Hz, etc.
When constructing a good instrument, intonation is always an integral part of its overall quality. Playability is also another important factor considered by musicians. How do we actually acquire that much needed intonation? Most people will tell you that it is just as simple as making the measurement from the 12th fret doubled, but the truth is, it just does not work. Always keep in mind that the instrument you are using contracts and expand, and that wood also breathes. The playing style of a musician can greatly influence the intonation of a instrument – someone who strums hard and bends the strings too much when playing the instrument makes more of a noise rather than music. On the other hand, a good musician will do the exact opposite and you feel like the instrument and the musician playing as one.