First, let’s recap the prerequisites.
The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.
Remember to always check intonation and tuning with the guitar in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).
The basic theory is always this:
- Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
- Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
- If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little by turning the adjustment screw at the back of the bridge (counter-clockwise) using a flat or philips screwdriver (whatever is appropriate).
- If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw clockwise.
- Retune the open string and head right back to 1.
Now, if you have a Tele with a six-saddle bridge, just follow these guidelines for each string and you’re good to go.
The traditional, vintage-style Tele warrants some more discussion, though.
INTONATION ON A THREE-SADDLE TELECASTER
The three-saddle bridge is great. It’s a big part of that vintage Tele vibe. Don’t expect perfect intonation in every case, though.
Because each saddle intonates a pair of strings at the same time, these bridges can be a bit of a compromise.
The best approach is usually to balance out the differences.
For instance, you might end up with your 1st string slightly sharp while your 2nd string is slightly flat. Each may be out just a little but getting one perfect might actually pull the other one further out.
Setting a three-saddle bridge involves some experimentation to determine where the balance lies for each string pair. Give yourself some time to play around and get it right. It's a balancing act.
ERR BASED ON YOUR PLAYING
Depending on what you play most often, you might find the compromise above doesn’t quite suit. For instance, perhaps most of your chord work means a slightly sharp G string sounds bad for you. It might be possible that setting the G perfectly but pulling the D farther out is a good place for you.
Like I say, there’s some experimentation involved. Set things the way you think minimises any intonation issues on each string and then play it for a while. Don’t be afraid to tweak things if you need to.
INSTALL A SIX-SADDLE BRIDGE
There’s always the option of installing a more ‘modern’ six-saddle bridge. Then you can set the intonation for each string individually the same as you would for, say, a Strat.
Of course, you might not want to take from the look and vibe of your three-saddle bridge. In which case…
You can replace your regular old, straight saddles with pre-compensated saddles.
There are a number of different aftermarket saddles available that are either ‘angled’ or ‘notched’ to better match the compensation most players will need.
Your usual guitar-bits supplier should be able to help out or you can actually get a good selection from Amazon too.
Compensated saddles are still one-saddle-per-two-strings but they’ll usually give you better intonation than regular, straight saddles. They can’t be quite as accurate as a six-saddle bridge would be but, for keeping your Tele feeling Tele-ish, they’re a good solution.
TELECASTER INTONATION QUIRKS
As the saddles of three-saddle bridges move closer to the back of the bridge, the angle of the adjustment screw gets steeper. This can make it really awkward to turn the screw (because the slot’s beginning to point down towards the face of the guitar). If this happens, be careful—it’s easy to ruin the screw slots or scrape the guitar finish. If you have to, slacken off the strings to make the saddle easier to move. It’s a pain, but it’s better than damaging your guitar.
As with six-saddle bridges, a lot of back or forwards saddle movement can also do odd things to the action of each string. Before you start, make a note of each string’s action and re-check if you have to move the saddles by much.
A heavier gauge string (if you can handle it) might well get you better Tele intonation too. Bear it in mind and start strengthening those fingers.