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
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Kendall, owner of Bensonite, average guitarist