Deciphering Telecaster Saddles

Although I love the new Squire Classic Vibe 60s Telecaster Thinline guitar I recently purchased, it’s my first Telecaster. Owning it has introduced me to the conundrum of Telecaster saddles. I’ve owned Stratocasters and ES-335 style guitars, both of which allow the intonation of individual strings to be adjusted. I own acoustic and hollow-body guitars with compensated but non-adjustable saddles. Vintage designed Telecaster bridges are in between, having three brass barrels for saddles that only allow pairs of strings to be adjusted. 

Non-adjustable compensated archtop saddle
Adjustable saddles on 335-style guitar.

Intonation

If you don’t know what intonation is, why it is important, or how to adjust it, here are some references you can read.

Telecaster Saddle Designs

Above diagrams, left to right: Vintage barrel saddle, Angled barrel saddle, milled offset design on top, and milled offset design that is reversible.

Vintage

Each of three brass barrel saddles has height adjustments on each end and a length adjustment for intonation through the center. The saddles are, in theory, perpendicular to the strings. The strings go over the tops of the saddles without any notches to keep them in place. Tension alone holds them.

My Squire came with a variation of the vintage design, but instead of raw brass the saddles were chromed and instead of un-notched, the saddles had machined grooves to hold the strings in place.

Squier Classic Vibe Saddles with string grooves, not quite vintage design.

Intonation is a problem with this design because each pair of strings must be adjusted together leaving you to compromise the intonation between the two strings that share the saddle.

Angled

Some guitarists bent the intonation screws so the saddles could be angled and give adjacent strings different lengths. There are now commercially available barrel saddles that are made so the adjustment screw is angled through the barrel body. Tim Lerch, a jazz guitarist who plays Telecasters, recommends Glendale angled, compensated Telecaster saddles.

Fender angled compensated saddles (from Amazon.com)

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Offset Saddle Contact Point

Another design offsets the contact points for the strings so one is closer to the bridge and the other closer to the nut. The Wilkinson set is like this. Because there are a top and bottom, you cannot rotate the saddle on the adjusting screw to flip the orientation. If flipped so the adjusting screw enters the opposite side of the saddle, the orientation of the offsets is not changed. This is the design used by Wilkinson.

Wilkinson saddles on my Tele.

Wilkinson Compensated Telecaster saddles from Amazon.com

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Offset Grooved Saddles

This is much like the above, except deep grooves are machined into the saddles to keep the strings in place. The string’s contact points are offset from each other for each saddle. There are two designs of seen for this. 

One design has string grooves on the top of the saddles. As above, there is an up and a down orientation. The left and right offsets cannot be changed by any combination of flipping.

Gotoh compensated Telecaster saddles with string grooves

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Bensnonite saddles through Reverb.com seem nice and worth checking out. You have to choose the appropriate model based on whether you use a wound 3rd string or plain. Beware that the adjustment screw on Bensonite and several other saddles designed for American Fender Telecasters are a 6-32 thread size which translates to about 3.51mm diameter. My imported Squire Telecaster uses a metric M3-0.5mm thread and the American-sized screws are too large to fit the holes in my bridge. My choices are to enlarge the holes in my bridge, buy a new bridge, or use saddles with M3-0.5mm bolts.

Bensonite saddles

The other variation can be used with either side facing up. When rotated about the adjusting screw (flipping the left side to the right) the pair of offsets are switched on the string closest to the bridge is now farthest. You can get these from Philadelphia Luthier Tools & Supplies.

Individually Adjustable Saddles

If your Telecaster didn’t come with individually adjustable saddles for intonation, upgrading to 6-saddles is more involved than swapping out your current set. You’ll need a new bridge. However, Fender does make and sell some Telecasters with six adjustable saddles and there are after market upgrades that can be installed if you want to do some major changes.

Individually adjustable string intonation saddles

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Fender also makes a 3-barrel saddle which are individually adjustable for each string. I don’t know how well these work.

3 Barrel adjustable intonation from Fender

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Other options

Although plain brass is vintage in a Tele saddle, there are more choices that each have an effect on your tone if you’re interested. Saddles can be found in aluminum, stainless steel, chrome (steel or brass?), titanium, and from Graphtech, Tusq-XL. The shape of the saddle feet and height of the adjusting screws are also things that might concern you. If you like to rest your hand on the saddle for palm-muting, you probably would prefer short height adjusting screws that won’t poke you.

Wound vs Plain 3rd String and Telecaster Saddle Arrangement.

Compensated Saddle arrangements.

The four diagrams above are hypothetical and stylized to show how compensation might be set on a Telecaster. The top two diagrams aren’t possible as shown with a three-barrel bridge. The top left is how wound bottoms and plain tops might be compensated. The top right diagram shows how this changes if you have a wound 3rd string as many jazz guitarists favor. How do you achieve this with three barrels when the strings must be adjusted in pairs?

The bottom left diagram is how the saddles would probably be adjusted with a plain 3rd string. Notice the middle two strings have the offset (the part of the saddle the string sits on) reversed from the outer two pairs. If you have a wound string, the bottom right diagram is probably closer to how your saddles should look.

There probably aren’t that many Telecaster players who use a wound 3rd string. Most compensated Telecaster saddle sets are designed for 3 wound strings and 3 plain strings. But if you play jazz on a Telecaster and like a wound 3rd, you need to make sure your saddles can accommodate your preference. Some are sets are reversible, some are not. Some companies make different sets for a wound 3rd and others only made saddles that will compensate a plain 3rd.

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