The Intonation of the Gods – The “Schoenberg Set-up” Part Two

In the last post I talked about on problem with getting good intonation for fingerstyle on acoustic guitar.  Lacking this, a fingerstyle player will never be able to get the full enjoyment and personal expression that comes from playing.  

Enter the Schoenberg set-up. Eric Schoenberg began playing ragtime fingerpicking guitar in the late 1950s. This interest became a lifelong one (dare I say it? An obsession.) Schoenberg heard fingerstyle music and the sound of the guitar in a very particular way and this led him to work with a number of world-class luthiers to develop his own limited-edition line of guitars. Along the way he worked out how to set up a guitar to optimize it for fingerstyle. Eric’s set-up begins with a perfectly straight neck; this is the only reason his tech will touch the truss-rod (that mysterious thingy behind that little plate, or on Martins, inside the sound-hole.) Next, they look at the saddle, at the height at treble and bass strings, and at where the saddle splits the string. Minute adjustments here for each string are crucial to good intonation; filing the saddle so that each string hits a fraction of an inch forward or back makes all the difference. The nut is also examined very closely, lowering or raising the individual notches for each string to exact heights for the specific gauge of string.

Amazingly, all this science is applied for fifty bucks. The technician, James Hipps, is the kind of guy who inspires the confidence surgeons need to get parents to hand their children over to him. I wanted to be careful not to ask too many dumb question so he wouldn’t get annoyed with me, but apparently, at Schoenberg’s they suffer fools gladly. Thanks to James, I finally understand better what brings out my style, lets me get the most out of my instrument and most importantly, I like having exceptionally playing guitars.

On my Gibson J-185, James dialed it in perfectly, ending up somewhere a little above 3/32″ on the high E and hovering near 4/32″ on the low. That has always been a great handling axe, so no big surprise, but it has never felt so good. The Intonation of the Gods. Also cutting a new saddle and making it higher brought out a lot more of the guitar’s tone; not only does it ‘feel’ better when fretting it, it sounds better!

My Gibson L4a is a more problematic guitar. Without going into it, it’s been back to Montana twice. When I first took it to James, it had come back from Gibson without any real explanation of what they had done to deal with the difficulty I was having getting the playability right, and still seemed wrong. James took one look at it and said it needed a neck reset, beyond the price of a set up. Back to Montana. This time James was able to work on the guitar and get it much closer to what I need. Because I play in several tunings as well as standard (and sometimes forget and leave the guitar detuned overnight–not good!) I ended up having him optimize the guitar for neither standard or open tuning but to ‘split the difference’. In reality, I can’t hear that it is slightly out of intonation in both tunings, as opposed to being perfect in one or the other. As a working musician who needs to have less gear on stage at times, I need a guitar that serves both purposes. One day I hope to be able to have a guitar just set up for open tuning. James had to lower the saddle from how it had come back from Gibson, but to keep the tone, he made sure to deepen the slot behind the saddle where the string enters the body, to insure that it had as much of a sharp angle to the bend in the string as possible. The angle of this bend in the string behind the saddle determines an amazing amount of tone, and the saddle must be high enough to allow for enough of an angle. If the saddle is too low and the string just kind of slopes over the saddle, bye bye tone. We ended up with a little higher action than on the other Gibson. If I wanted a little lower action without lowering the saddle too much, the bridge would have to be sanded down, and this is an additional cost. I decided to leave it where it is and play it for a while and see if I need to go further.

It does seem that guitars are not all created equal, so not every guitar could ever be set-up to the level needed for fingerstyle. My J-185 is simply a better instrument than the L4. Obviously, higher end guitars are more likely to be able to get there, due to millimeters of difference resulting from the greater care in making them. Still, there’s always that individual, more affordable piece that has what it takes.

Ultimately, this more precise standard of intonation is not as much of an issue to a lead player, or a rhythm guitarist. It is when you are placing an important bass pedal note on a higher fret and playing a counterpoint melody over it, that perfect intonation is crucial. When it is wrong, not only does the music sound a little sour, but you are robbed of all the sympathetic overtones between strings that occur on a precisely set-up instrument.

So this is a serious job James Hipps and Eric Schoenberg have–fighting for our right to guitars with good intonation.

About Mokai

Fingerpicking Fool

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One Response to The Intonation of the Gods – The “Schoenberg Set-up” Part Two

  1. acousticBliss December 30, 2009 at 3:04 PM #

    Many guitarists may never have realized how important this issue is–it was news to me. I imagine lots of them getting frustrated not knowing why they can’t get the sound they are after, thinking that they aren’t as good as they might actually be. I hope lots of them find this post and get their guitars set up properly. Great blog post!

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