My first exposure to the guitar was hearing my dad play when I was a little kid. He played classical guitar and despite what he’d tell you he was quite good at it. He used to play for us when we were falling asleep in our beds, and my favorite song was “Afro Cuban lullaby”. I don’t think he realized at the time how much I loved hearing him play and how deeply that song affected me. Part of it was having that one on one time with my dad, but also it was my earliest memory of hearing a song and being completely absorbed in the experience. I suppose that was the beginning of my life long obsession with music and the guitar.
I didn’t start learning until I was 14. I had always been interested and on occasion fiddled around with my dads guitar, but it wasn’t until after my older brother started learning that I really got hooked. I remember the exact moment when it happened. I was standing in the doorway of his bedroom, watching him strum his old Sigma acoustic, when I was completely overcome with a desire to play. I remember thinking, if I could just sit and strum a guitar like that, nothing would make me happier. I soon started taking lessons from an older kid on my street and on my 15th birthday my parents helped me buy my first acoustic guitar. It was an Aria G420. A copy of a Gallagher made in Japan sometime in the mid 70s. I loved that guitar and loved learning to play. Even when I was just started out and could hardly even finger a basic chord I loved every minute of it. Now 25 years later I’m still just an average player. I’m not in a band and I almost never play outside of my house. I’m just a dorky dad who likes to rock out in his bedroom, and that feeling I had when I was 14 has still never left me. I’m just as obsessed with the guitar as I ever was, and sometimes when I’m not too exhausted at night I play Afro Cuban Lullaby for my own little kiddos. I hope it affects them they way it did me.
My first telecaster was a Squier Classic Vibe in butterscotch blonde. Being mainly an acoustic player I wasn’t sure if my interest in electric guitar would last, so I didn’t want to spend too much. The classic vibe series has a great reputation for quality and value so I decided to go for it. I found one in a local shop for a good deal and couldn’t have been more excited. The guys at the shop told me I could come back anytime and they’d adjust it as needed. I really liked the guitar but right away discovered it had intonation issues. Knowing almost nothing about how to fix it I took it back to the shop to see what they could do. (Unrelated to the story, but they seemed a little annoyed that I took them up on their offer and the owner reacted as if he was doing a me a personal favor or something...)
As he was looking it over on the bench I brought up the intonation issue. I said I knew it was a cheaper guitar but shouldn’t there be a way to get the intonation right? His response really surprised me. He told me: “you should lower your expectations”.
Now I didn’t know much back then, so I didn’t have much to say in response, but his answer didn’t sit well with me. What’s the point of a guitar that can’t play in tune? And it’s not like it was some cheap 50 dollar toy instrument from Walmart. These things were supposed to be great quality!
Well, as I came to learn in the following months and years, it wasn’t the guitar that was the problem, it was him. He didn’t bother to explain the inherent challenges with vintage style tele saddles and how to deal with them. He didn’t try to sell me on a proper set up. He didn’t tell me about compensated saddles or compensated nuts, or the advantages of a heavier string gauges and wound third strings. And it’s not like I was paying him for an education, but I would have gladly paid for new strings, new saddles, etc, if it would have fixed the problem.
I came away from that experience frustrated but determined to prove him wrong. I dug into online forums, articles, and videos in search of how to improve the guitar and quickly gained an education in DIY guitar tech work. I learned how to adjust the truss rod. I made my own compensated saddles (after destroying the stock saddles in my first attempt), carved my own bone nut, and eventually with the coaching of a friend (thank you Greg) I even learned how to level and crown my frets.
Looking back I’m glad that guy gave me bad service. Not only did it motivate me into what has become a fulfilling hobby(obsession) and a fun side business. But he also gave me a great idea for a brand slogan:
“Raise your expectations”
Traditional 3 barrel saddles can’t give you proper intonation. Proper intonation means every note on every string up and down the fret board is in tune (or close enough for the human ear that you can’t hear any problems).
Many factors contribute to a guitars intonation. For example; the quality of the nut slots, the placement and finish of the frets, the grip of the player, the age of the strings, the height of the strings off the fretboard (action), and my main topic today, bridge/saddle compensation.
Check the bridge on almost any guitar; the saddles aren’t arranged in a straight line perpendicular to the strings. Instead they’re slanted at an angle so the each saddle is a different distance from the nut. The point at which each string rests on the saddle determines the vibrating length (from nut to saddle) of each string. This length is critical, and it’s different for every string, here’s why:
Thickness and tightness being the same, a longer string will create a lower note than a shorter string. Pluck the low E string on your guitar and you get a low note, usually an E depending on your tuning. Now pluck it again while fretting the 12th fret and you get an E one octave higher. The reason the note is higher is because you have shortened the vibrating length of the string. Shorter strings maker higher notes.
But what if the saddle is adjusted so it’s 1/8th an inch further from the fret board? You’ve now increased the vibrating length, which will lower the pitch and now that same 12th fret is giving you a very flat sounding E. Because remember, it is the vibrating length (fret to saddle) of the string, not the fret itself, that produces the note.
Now, when your string lengths are only slightly off your notes might sound just fine in the first or second position, but as you play further up the neck your notes (and especially your chords) can start to sound slightly off.
So having your intonation set correctly means getting each saddle in the right spot, so that the vibrating length determined by each fret is as accurate as possible, giving you the most in tune notes up and down the neck.
So what about a vintage style telecaster?
Once you understand everything I’ve explained above, take a look at a vintage style telecaster bridge. Instead of 6 individual saddles, or a slanted 1 piece saddle like an acoustic, it has 3 straight cylinder shaped “barrel” saddles with 2 strings on each barrel.
See the problem here? Each string needs its own specific length, but on these 3 barrel saddles the two strings on each saddle will always be exactly the same length. So if you adjust the first saddle just right for the E string, the A string will off, and then if you fix the A string the E will be off. At best you can compromise with each saddle and go for a somewhat in between position, so both strings are only slightly out of tune. No thank you.
This is where compensated saddles come in. They have the same look and feel of traditional vintage saddles, but the contact points are slightly shifted to compensate for the intonation problem.
For your EA saddle the E contact point is shifted back, and the A contact point is shifted forward. Same for the BE saddle. The DG is reversed due to the transition from the wound D to the unwound G. These offset contact points are very subtle but it makes all the difference.
With compensated saddles and a good setup you can achieve “perfect” intonation (and again, by perfect I mean close enough that your ears wont hear the problem anymore) and still have a guitar that looks, sounds, and feels like a vintage telecaster.
There are all kinds of compensated saddles out there that work just fine. I make a set that I believe is superior to other designs both in the accuracy of the offsets, as well as the more comfortable feel under the hand. But whether you buy from me or someone else, consider setting up your tele with compensated saddles so it can intonate properly and sound as good as possible.
Thanks for reading, have a great day