Jerry Donahue On Telecaster-Style Bridge Intonation

Posted on by Peter

jerry donahue

We asked “Bendmaster of the Telecaster” Jerry Donahue to share some of his secrets for setting up a Telecaster-style bridge and keeping it properly intonated. Jerry demonstrates this technique in his clinics, and it certainly applies to his Fret-King Black Label ‘JD’ Jerry Donahue signature guitar with his signature APTL-3DJ pickup. Take it away, Jerry!

“Attention all current and would-be Tele slingers! You needn’t resort to six individual bridge saddles to improve your intonation. The original Broadcaster design called for three brass saddles and that’s still the best design today. The larger saddles mean more mass, providing greater output, sustain and tone. Also, with two strings per saddle, you have twice the string pressure against the body!

Now, on to intonation: until fairly recently, I felt that a guitar couldn’t really play in tune unless each string’s 12th fret harmonic and 12th fret note had the exact same reading on the electric tuner. And of course, they never do on a three-saddle bridge. I finally settled on a technique that not only deals with this problem but, to my delight, addresses other inherent problems also. Here it is:

Adjust the middle saddle’s intonation screw so that the “D” string’s 12th fret note reads slightly flat of the 12th fret harmonic on your tuner. Then, check out the “G” string’s 12th fretted note. This note should be only marginally sharp of the harmonic. Are you with me? Now tune your guitar, with the open “G” string reading somewhere between A440 and A439 (so that the 12th fretted note is at A440). Tune the other strings as one would normally. Final adjusments can be made by ear when you compare first position E major and E minor chords. The E major’s G# note (third string, 1st fret) should no longer seem sharp in the chord; and the open “G” string should still be perceptively in tune within the E minor chord.

Here’s another for instance: An “A” chord barred at the fifth fret sounds fine. But when the nearest “E” is played (5th string, 7th fret/ 4th string, 6th fret/ 3rd string, 4th fret/ 2nd string, 5th fret), it typically sounds “off.” The major third is the culprit (4th string, 6th fret): it typically sounds sharp. But with my adjustment (the 4th string’s 12th fretted note being slightly flat) the problem no longer exists. There is a small margin of error here, which actually works to the guitarist’s advantage!

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Occasionally, depending on the guage of your strings and the force of your picking hand, it might also serve you to marginally flatten the low E string. I do this as I use a .042 and like to hit it fairly hard sometimes. Trust your own ears, though, as each instrument tends to be different, too.

A final qualification in adopting all the aforementioned technique: A piano tuner may use an electronic tuner as a point of reference. But if he tuned the entire keyboard to be “perfect,” it would sound awful. The bottom keys actually must be tuned sharp and the high ones tuned flat. This is the only way the human brain will perceive the piano to be in tune. It’s essentially the same concept I’ve applied here. I really like this method. Once I adopted it, my Tele’s sounded noticeably more in tune than my Strats (across all of the chord shapes) …so I’ve since made the same adjustments to the Strats!

Remember, life is about compromise. Check it out!” – Jerry Donahue

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Written on July 8, 2015, by Peter

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  • Will Kupers

    I don’t get it. G-string at 440 ? Better use a Wilkinson Adjustable Compensated Bridge for Tele and you have a perfect intonation on a 3 saddle bridge.

    • wyclif

      There is high-quality bridge and saddle hardware available now that, when installed, removes the need to “stretch tune” or temper the tuning of a classic three-barrel bridge Telecaster. If you’re playing a wide variety of styles (not only rock or country, where “close enough” is good enough) or with many instruments in a band, it’s essential to be able to properly intonate the guitar so you can play in tune, and you can’t really do that with stock Fender saddles.

      Personal anecdote, but the best single Telecaster upgrade I’ve ever done is installing one of those Callaham bridges (the “Vintage T” model with the cutout lower lip and the polished, compensated saddles):

      http://www.callahamguitars.com/brdge_T.htm

      It’s an outstanding, rock-solid, quality piece of hardware compared to the stock Fender Tele bridges. The steel is thicker and everything is cold-rolled and polished, and best of all it’s precision enough that the bridge plate is flatter than the stock Fender part and will install completely flush with the body.

      Another great thing about them is that they are completely drop-in, no drilling required at all if you don’t put in the two little upper screws. I don’t think that’s necessary because it’s super solid with only the seven standard screws and I didn’t want to drill any holes, which is good if you want to sell the guitar and reinstall the original Fender bridge (the guitar pictured below isn’t mine; photo shows the little screws installed).

      You can adjust the height of the saddle with complete accuracy, and use custom height and length screws so if you do palm muting and play near the saddle the screw ends won’t irritate your picking hand. The strings will not touch the height adjustment screws, which always annoyed me about Fender vintage saddles. The cutaway lip is also a very nice feature if you alternate pick the high E string close to the bridge.

      The Callaham bridge is everything the original Fender Tele three-barrel bridge should have been. It makes intonating the Tele a dream, while maintaining all the good things about a trad three-barrel bridge. If you have a vintage-style blackguard or sunburst Tele, it doesn’t radically change the look of your guitar and only the most extreme guitar nerds are going to be able to tell the difference by looking.

  • Will Kupers

    I don’t get it. G-string at 440 ? Better use a Wilkinson Adjustable Compensated Bridge for Tele and you have a perfect intonation on a 3 saddle bridge.

  • Greg Gottsacker

    I wouldn’t begin to question Jerry Donahue, but the first thing I do with a Tele is toss the three saddle bridge and replace it with a six. I use Teles for alternate tunings and you can’t get ’em right with the stock bridges. If I had to do one in a standard tuning I’d be more inclined to try either a Wilkinson or another six saddle to get the job done. With a strobe tuner you can get them nearly perfect with a six and the tone you get is fantastic.

  • Greg Gottsacker

    I wouldn’t begin to question Jerry Donahue, but the first thing I do with a Tele is toss the three saddle bridge and replace it with a six. I use Teles for alternate tunings and you can’t get ’em right with the stock bridges. If I had to do one in a standard tuning I’d be more inclined to try either a Wilkinson or another six saddle to get the job done. With a strobe tuner you can get them nearly perfect with a six and the tone you get is fantastic.