We asked "Bendmaster of the Telecaster" Jerry Donahue to share some of his secrets for setting up a Telecaster® bridge and keeping it properly intonated (Jerry demonstrates this technique in his clinics).
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! [Editor's note: The Fender® Custom Shop Jerry Donahue model and "JD" Tele® use the three vintage brass saddles].
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 adjusent (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!
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 42 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 to the Telecaster®. 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 adjusents to the Strats®!!
Remember, life is about compromise. Check it out!" - Jerry Donahue