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Learning the different aspects of the guitar’s construction can be crucial in understanding how the instrument works. Some playing techniques actually incorporate such facets, with the guitar’s bridge being one such facet.
Have you heard the bridge being mentioned, but felt as if you didn’t know exactly what it referred to? You’ve come to the right place, as this article will explore the importance of the guitar’s bridge.
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Where Can The Guitar Bridge Be Found And What Does It Do?
To understand what the bridge actually is, it’s first important to actually be able to locate it on a guitar. No matter what guitar you look at, the bridge can always be found on the guitar’s body.
Locating this is relatively easy as it is usually where the ends of the strings are closest. In a way, while the bridge is located opposite the guitar’s headstock, its function is almost identical.
For the most part, the bridge is actually just an endpoint for the strings. More often than not, you’ll restring a guitar by feeding the strings at the bridge/saddle first.
If you’re confused about what a bridge and a saddle are, you can be assured that it’s actually quite simple. To illustrate this, it’s best to use another example that you can probably easily locate: the headstock.
By looking at the headstock, you’ll primarily notice (aside from its shape and the tuners) that it has a nut. The nut essentially holds the strings in place at one end of the guitar’s neck.
For a string to properly vibrate and not move around during play, it needs to be secured at both ends. The bridge acts as the home for the string saddle(s), which, like the nut, hold the strings in place.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “scale length” being mentioned in relation to a guitar’s construction. This effectively refers to the strings’ length between both the guitar’s nut and the guitar’s saddle.
The bridge actually refers to the baseplate upon which the string saddle is attached. However, on most occasions, people say the term “bridge” to encompass both the bridge and saddle as one unit.
Are There Any Differences Between Bridges Found On Acoustic And Electric Guitars?
Now that you know what a guitar bridge is and where it’s located, you’re probably wondering about the different kinds. As acoustic and electric guitars differ in design, you’re not wrong for assuming that the bridges are also different.
In fact, you’ll eventually come to find that there are many different bridge variations when it comes to electric guitars. Fear not, as you’ll come to have a working understanding of how each bridge works.
Acoustic Guitar Bridges
Most acoustic guitars are going to have a similar concept when it comes to the bridge being used. Typically, this will consist of a wooden baseplate made from the same material as the fretboard.
Some of the common materials being used for bridge baseplates include:
Acoustic guitar bridge baseplates can differ wildly in shape due to manufacturer aesthetic designs. But, despite the differences, they all share similarities in general form.
These baseplates are usually fairly wide and encompass more space than what the strings actually use in overall width. Of course, this is done to provide stability, as glue is usually the only thing securing the baseplate in place.
Another thing you’ll notice between different acoustic guitar bridge baseplates is that it has a raised center section. This elevates the strings slightly while also providing further stability due to its winged design.
On this (usually) wooden baseplate, you’ll find a string saddle that usually (but not always) comes as one piece. This saddle is usually “compensated” for string height and is made of a durable, yet pliable, material for setup purposes.
Sometimes, you will find a split-saddle being used, which features 2 or 3 miniature saddles. This differs from manufacturer to manufacturer but can help with a more accurate guitar setup.
The reason for this material selection is that, quite often, like the nut, they need to be filed down. Luthiers and techs file the saddle-specific measurements for string height and intonation, achieving optimal playing conditions.
Traditionally, both the nut and the saddle of the guitar were made of animal bone. This was chosen for its duration of string resonance without necessarily coloring the tone of the strings.
Today, bone is still used, but more often than not, you’ll find that different materials are far more common. Most of these synthetic materials are designed to emulate the characteristics of bone, while often being more inexpensive.
Some of the most common materials you might encounter include:
More often than not, both the nut and the saddle are made of the same (or complementary if not) materials. This is done so that each “anchor” point at the ends of the vibrating strings vibrates consistently.
As you probably notice, the bridge is placed below the soundhole, allowing the strings to vibrate above. Here, the bridge is designed to transmit the string vibrations for resonance through the acoustic guitar’s top.
Because the acoustic guitar is a sort of natural amplifier box, the string vibration emits through the soundhole. Like the nut/saddle combination, manufacturers lean toward consistency by using the same fretboard material for the bridge.
Of course, this is not all that you will find on the bridge of an acoustic guitar. The last thing you’ll find here is the string pegs, which effectively hold the string ends in place.
There are holes drilled into the baseplate into which the ball end of the strings is fed. Once the ball end is in the hole, a string peg is placed into the hole, securing the string.
These string pegs have a recessed groove that cradles the string and acts as a stop for the ball end. This allows the pegs to be pressed in completely, holding the string in by natural tension against the ball end.
As far as string peg materials go, you’ll typically find plastic being used more than anything else. However, some manufacturers do opt for different materials, which usually appear on higher-end models.
Electric Guitar Bridges
While acoustic guitar bridges are fairly similar, electric guitar bridges have far more variation. In fact, some guitars have specific bridges that have become hallmark features of those specific models.
If you’re planning on buying an electric guitar, it’s best to know what kind of bridge it has. You could be in for more than you bargained for, which could be either good/bad depending on your preferences.
Fortunately, the different variations are all relatively similar and you’ll eventually see how they are all related.
Tune-O-Matic bridges (sometimes referred to as “ABR”) are a sort of distant cousin to what is found with acoustics. This design is most commonly found on guitars made by Gibson and Epiphone, with variations used by other manufacturers.
Like the bridges found on acoustic guitars, the Tune-O-Matic has its own string saddle. However, each string has its own individual saddle, each of which has an adjustable screw for intonation purposes.
What makes this wholly different is that the string bridge itself is actually removed from the baseplate. Instead, the bridge is actually placed on a set of adjustable poles located closer to the bridge pickup.
These pole pieces raise the bridge higher than the baseplate, creating an optimal break angle for the strings. In a way, this design replicates what you’ll find being used on instruments in the violin family.
When adjusting the string height, you’ll essentially only be adjusting these 2 pole pieces. In other words, each string’s height cannot be adjusted individually.
Because the baseplate functions to hold the strings, it is most commonly referred to here as a “stop bar”. When re-stringing, you’ll feed the strings in through the bottom of the stop bar, which stops against the ball ends.
The stop bar attaches to a set of posts, with string tension being the only thing holding it in place. Should you remove all of the strings, be aware that it could fall off and damage your guitar’s finish.
Tune-O-Matic bridges are fairly simplistic in design but can be a massive headache for a beginner. The bridge itself can fall off the posts when the guitar is without strings.
What usually happens is that the bridge then gets put on backward as it’s hard to really tell the difference. This then immediately results in a lackluster setup with intonation issues.
If you’re not careful when cleaning a de-strung guitar, you can accidentally adjust the height of the bridge posts. As you can guess, this will also result in a lackluster setup and you might never know what happened.
However, these issues are usually due to operator error as the bridge works quite well as it was intended. But, admittedly, some guitarists can wreck their guitars due to years of poor setups.
A common problem is that, over time, the bridge posts can actually get bent due to improper string tension. For that reason, it’s best to get a professional setup if you’re unsure of how to do it yourself.
Block-Saddle Fixed Bridges
Fixed saddles are probably the closest relative to the acoustic, usually featuring a fixed baseplate with individual string saddles. Depending on the guitar, the baseplate can differ greatly in size, with some saddles resembling the aforementioned ABR design.
But, more often than not, fixed bridges will typically have what’s known as a “block-saddle” design. These are essentially individual string saddles that have independently adjustable screws for intonation and string height.
The design of the saddles can differ depending on the design but all function primarily the same.
Have you ever heard of a Bigsby and always wondered what it was? The Bigsby is just one design of a guitar bridge that can be manipulated for expressive pitch-shifting.
Usually, this will feature an arm of sorts that the guitarist can grab and push. This results in the pitch descending, as the bridge itself is actually being lifted from its original position.
The specifics of the bridge design can differ depending on the model, but usually feature ABR or block-saddle designs.
Tremolo bridges are actually quite similar to that of the vibrato. In fact, some people (and manufacturers) mistakenly call the vibrato a tremolo bridge.
The biggest difference is that, when manipulated, tremolo bridges can usually produce a pitch shifted up or down. But, for all intents and purposes, this mis-labeling usually refers to the actual design of the bridge itself.
These typically reflect the design of the fixed block-saddle design on the face of the guitar. However, the bridge is actually much deeper and sits in a cavity that extends the width of the body.
At the back of the body is a recessed area that features an adjustable screw and a set of springs. These springs hold the tension between the screw and the bridge.
When manipulating the arm of the tremolo, the springs stretch, returning to the original position (and thus, original tuning). The baseplate also usually has a 2-point or 6-point fulcrum of screws against which the baseplate moves when manipulated.
Tremolo bridges can be incredibly fun, but they can be a nightmare for somebody who is uncomfortable making setup adjustments. They can be prone to tuning instability, and changing strings could require the tremolo and spring tension to be reset.
You can prevent this by placing a block between the bridge and the body cavity at the back of the guitar. This will hold the bridge in optimum location when you remove the strings (and the tension holding it in place).
Locking tremolos are very similar to regular tremolo bridges, with one major exception. If you took the name as a clue, you’re right in thinking that a locking mechanism has been applied.
This is actually a twofold locking mechanism, with locks located at the bridge and the headstock. More often than not, a locking nut is used, but locking tuners can also suffice.
The point of this is to minimize tuning instability when using the tremolo. These are the most ideal for extreme manipulations, often referred to as “dive bombs”.
There are a number of different locking tremolos on the market, some of which are proprietary to specific guitar brands. However, the Floyd Rose is perhaps the most famous and recognizable locking tremolo in history.
Any locking tremolo worth its salt will allow pitch shifting up and down, consistently returning to the original pitch.
What’s The Difference Between Fixed And Floating Bridges?
When you’re browsing guitar shops, you’ll undoubtedly encounter the term “fixed” and “floating” when referring to the bridge. This just refers to whether or not the guitar has a tremolo (floating) or not (fixed).
Having this distinction makes it easy to categorize guitars by general features. It helps save time as a filter selection when you’re browsing the massive number of guitars available on the market.
Can Bridges Be Swapped For Other Bridges?
If you casually browse around at different guitar shops, you may notice individual bridges being sold. This might prompt you to wonder if you can swap out the bridge on your guitar for another bridge.
The bridge that you can swap for usually has to be of a similar design as what’s currently in use. This is primarily because each guitar generally has a unique setup when it comes to the bridge itself.
For instance, you likely won’t be putting a Tune-o-Matic bridge on a Stratocaster. The Stratocaster does not have pole pieces for both the bridge and the stop bar to be attached.
Could you modify your Stratocaster to be able to have such a bridge? Sure, but it’s likely to end up being an abomination that you aren’t particularly proud of.
Similarly, you’re not going to be using an electric guitar bridge on an acoustic guitar. The result just does not produce a sound that resembles what the acoustic guitar is known for.
When it comes to acoustic guitars, you’re more likely to have to change the saddle than the bridge itself. However, a replacement bridge baseplate, saddle, and pegs can all be purchased in needed.
With that being said, there are guitars that have fan communities based around specific bridges being used. The Fender Telecaster might be the most iconic, with debates raging on about the best bridge/saddle design.
Similarly, the Fender Jazzmaster is notorious for having a lackluster bridge. Many opt to upgrade with a Fender Mustang bridge, or bridges made by proprietary aftermarket companies.
In these instances, it can’t hurt to experiment around if you’re curious about how it will change your playing experience. Just make sure that the screw holes match your guitar’s screw holes if you’re afraid of using a drill.
Some modifications even allow for a Bigsby vibrato to be attached without having to drill any holes at all.
What Is A Guitar Bridge, Final Thoughts
While the guitar bridge is relatively simplistic, it actually has quite a bit of importance in the guitar’s playability. It’s the primary location that controls both the string height and intonation.
But it also goes far beyond that, sometimes adding a degree of expression that cannot be achieved by other means. For many guitars, the bridge being used is actually a facet that people seek out specifically for its attributes.
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