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I like to play in drop-D, for a variety of reasons mostly involving the use of a low drone string, simplicity of fingering certain chord-shapes quickly, and I like some of the interesting possibilities with regard to open strings and minimal fingering, especially high up the neck. I play largely by ear, and like to improvise a lot, so it's really important the intonation is very accurate. Even though other people might not hear the difference, a little bit off and it gets confusing as to where to go next, and isn't pleasing when you go to let something really stand out and it's just wrong to my ears.

On my electric I have adjusters for intonation, it's 24 frets, easy to play, and sounds great. But it's not always convenient, or easily portable, and it's precious to me. My acoustics are, well, cheap. I've tried lots of things, but always seem to be a few cents sharp at the 7th fret on a drop-D 6th string when tuned accurately with open strings. Or tuned accurately at the 7th fret, flattish when open.

I've tried modelling a saddle that mimicks the positioning on my electric, adjusting the nut, even using screws, toothpicks, or anything about the right size and shape to wedge in there, on either end, to get the intonation right. I've come a lot closer, but still a bit off, which drives me nuts.

Anyone out there with experience adjusting intonation on an acoustic guitar for drop-D tuning who might have a word of advice that doesn't involve spending a bunch of money?

  • Is your lowest string intonated correctly when tuned to E? Have you tried a slightly thicker string for the low string? – Todd Wilcox Nov 10 '17 at 12:57
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    @ToddWilcox - you beat me to it ! Putting a different gauge string that intonates with the existing saddle seems a sensible thing to do. It will also match the tensions of the other strings better. – Tim Nov 10 '17 at 13:01
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    Putting a slightly thicker string on for the D tuning, if the string has the same elasticity as the thinner one and all else remains the same, will not change the intonation at all- only changing the playing length and/or the frets will do that. But it will improve the tension and is a good idea in any case. – Scott Wallace Nov 12 '17 at 11:39
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The problem is that if your bottom string is in tune on the frets when tuned to E, it's simply going to play sharp when tuned down. Unfortunately, you either need a D-string which is a bit more elastic (so it goes up less when stretched) than your E-string, or you need to compensate the nut and/or the bridge-shortening the string length at the nut, or lengthening it at the bridge, or both. Or you could lower the string in the nut and/or bridge. All of this will of course adversely affect the intonation of the string when tuned back up to E, and lowering may cause buzzing.

If you have a guitar you want permanently for drop tuning, you could conceivably do the compensation yourself: shortening the mensur (the acoustic length) of the bottom string a couple of millimeters at the nut and lengthening it at the bridge (assuming you have enough material there) should do the trick. You have to be pretty good with a file, though. Don't try it on an expensive instrument.

Good luck.

edited for accuracy. Sorry, must have been half asleep: you of course need to shorten the string length at the nut if you want it to not play so sharp on the frets.

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    Adjusting the nut will only affect the open string's pitch. From 1st fret on, no difference. – Tim Nov 10 '17 at 13:03
  • Yes. I can get it to be very accurate all up the neck, by making a custom saddle or extension just on the low D string-- essentially lengthening the string and adjusting intonation on the frets; but then when it's open it is almost a quarter-tone low (≈15-20 cents). Works great for bar chords, but sounds wobbly when the string is open, say if you strike an open D or D minor chord. Since I like to take advantage of the low open D, and also play all the way up the neck, this a problem. Definitely does not give the effect I'm looking for when I go to ring a low open D, or use it as a drone. – jdmayfield Nov 10 '17 at 18:01
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    Tim- if you adjust the nut without retuning the open string, you are correct. But if you tune the open string up to pitch after adjusting the nut, it will now play higher or lower on all the frets, depending on whether you made its open length longer or shorter. I do it all the time on vielles with all gut strings, where the intonation problems between strings on the frets are much more acute than on guitars with modern strings, and thus must be compensated at both nut and bridge. – Scott Wallace Nov 10 '17 at 20:40
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    @jdmayfield- sorry, as I said in my edit, I made a mistake in my answer. If you shorten the D string at the nut (by extending the nut downward) this can compensate (at least approximately) for the drop tuning. The difficulty is, you must do this without raising the string above where it was, or that will cancel out your compensation. Depending on how the nut is made, you might be able to glue a bit of plastic (or bone or whatever) to it that shortens the D string a bit without lifting it. It should be possible to get pretty good intonation this way. – Scott Wallace Nov 10 '17 at 21:08
  • Nice, @Scott. I think that's probably it. Shorting via the nut hasn't worked yet because it's raising it a tad. But if I sort of mute it with my fingernail just below instead, it does seem to get the right open pitch. I do need to switch to a thicker string as Todd and Tim mentioned, as well. So really all of the above are good answers. I think it will need a pretty good jump in guage to compensate properly. Hopefully pick one up next few days. Thanks guys! I'll try it out and post an update when I get a chance. – jdmayfield Nov 11 '17 at 21:53

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