If you are like me and like to play all over the fretboard on your acoustic. The saddle on your acoustic has a large influence on the ‘playability’ and ‘tone’ more than you think!
The saddle has the final say on string height and contributes to the tone depending on its material.
So what are differences between a compensated and uncompensated saddle?
A compensated saddle includes ‘grooves’ or ‘notches’ where the high E, B and G strings rest. This adjusts the length of the string ‘compensating’ for accurate ‘intonation’ so the guitar sounds in tune with notes played higher up the fretboard. A non-compensated excludes any grooves and is flat across the surface.
Now you understand the factual differences. Here are some interesting functions of the saddle and why both types are used on various acoustics…
Other Purposes of a Saddle?
As we know a correctly set saddle will ensure the best intonation and providing your acoustic with the best playability and sound. It also sets the height of the action, dictating the pressure required to fret notes and chords.
A higher string height allows the strings to resonate more but making the guitar harder to play requiring more pressure to fret notes.
Whereas, a lower action is easier to play promoting a more ‘lead friendly’ guitar. Personally, I like the action lower than usual on my acoustics mainly because I like to play single note lead lines just as much as standard chords.
What About Tone?
The other purpose of the saddle is to take the vibrations from the bridge and transfer them to the top wood of the guitar. Therefore, no matter how resonant the wood is, the saddle needs to be able to transfer the vibrations to help the sound resonate.
This depends on the saddle material and the set-up which I discuss further down the post.
Why Use a Compensated Saddle?
The most common type of saddle is known as a compensated saddle (picture below). It is designed to provide the most accurate intonation and ensure the guitar is in tune along the fretboard and produce the correctly pitched note.
This type of saddle will have a raised end or grooves (usually for the B string) that provide the best intonation for the best tone and accurate pitch.
The reason most guitarists say a compensated saddle is a ‘must’ for accurate intonation with standard and other tunings is for a few reasons.
The 12th fret of the guitar is halfway between the saddle and nut of the guitar. When the 12th fret is pressed the string is stretched causing the pitch to go sharp.
The grooves or raised edges where the strings rest, act as ‘compensation’ to lower or raise the height and break angle of the strings. Shortening the strings will sharpen the pitch whereas lengthening the strings will flatten the pitch.
For example, if the fretted note on the 12th fret is a sharper pitch to the harmonic note the intonation needs to be adjusted.
This is why most acoustic will vary in saddle design as a compensated saddle does not fit all guitars as each guitar have different playing conditions as the design is to accommodate for the variation in:
- Scale length – a longer scale length needs to raise the pitch at the 12th fret
- Gauge length
- Nut design
This is why players modify their saddles by filing them down to adjust the height or grooves to fine-tune the intonation.
People will also file underneath the saddle to lower the overall height of the strings. This means that you will have to have a custom saddle fitted to optimize the playability and intonation depending on the above factors.
Why use an Uncompensated Saddle?
An uncompensated or (non-compensated) is a straight saddle absent of any grooves or raised edges.
This is typically found in classic style guitars the reason being that the guitar was set up in a way that a compensated saddle was not required. As not all guitars need compensating (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it).
This setup can work fine for the average player, who doesn’t play much on the higher frets or play lead lines. Meaning it won’t make much difference to players who just play first position chords.
Older guitars have straight saddles and classic guitars, it seems nylon strings seem to hold intonation better than steel. A straight saddle that is correctly sloped will do fine for most players but something to be aware of when purchasing an acoustic.
Which Saddle is Best?
Usually, the manufacturer will decide whether the guitar would benefit from either a compensated or uncompensated saddle to improve intonation and playability.
I’d usually recommend the saddle that the manufacturer installed as stock. However, if you are having intonation problems then it’s worth having an experienced guitar tech to look and adjust.
Keep in mind, that over time the saddle can wear down and cause problems with intonation so a simple replacement can be an easy fix.
It’s worth noting, a compromised saddle will add accuracy to the intonation. But be aware, other factors come into play. with the accuracy of the intonation such as string height, angle of the bridge, and the nut.
Secondly, depending on your specific genre of music and guitarist you are, will determine the type of saddle you will need.
How to Replace a Saddle
The saddle material is usually an overlooked feature on an acoustic but does play an important role when it comes to hearing differences in tone.
The ‘density’ of the material affects the resonance in sound as the vibrations travel from the strings to the top wood and sound hole.
The ‘hardness’ of the material, also has an influence on how well the saddle ‘transfers energy’ through the guitar. Translating to how much dynamic tone the guitar ‘sustains’.
A softer material will ‘absorb‘ the vibrations which will negatively impact on the ‘resonance’, whereas a harder material will allow the sound to ‘transfer’ more effectively.
The most commonly used saddle material is animal bone. Normally as standard with acoustics priced around the mid to high-end bracket.
Bone is the most popular choice for saddles which comes down to the material being one of the hardest which is best for sound and vibration transfer.
Bone is the best material which increases the dynamics and loudness of the guitar as the material is the densest.
Bone also offers the most when it comes to durability. As the material is less likely to wear meaning it holds the guitar’s intonation better, which is why it’s the most popular choice for acoustic saddles.
This material comes with a higher cost to other saddles as they average around $15-$30 depending on the brand you go with.
The step down from bone would be a synthetic plastic material, which is not as effective as animal bone which comes down to a lack of material density. Some examples of these are…
However, some players prefer synthetic material as it allows the strings to slide around easier which allows the guitar to stay in tune longer.
You will lose volume with synthetic plastics but not as much tonally compared to a plastic saddle which comes as standard on dirt cheap acoustics.
Not much to say here, this material usually comes as stock with cheap acoustics so replacing a saddle with a better material such as bone will definitely improve the playability and tone.