Bridge talk - addressing the abysmal swamp of myths about guitar bridges

Bridge talk

Differences between guitar bridges is one of those topics that keeps conjuring up endless debates among players – what are the best materials – how does a trem affect to the sound – which bridge has the best sustain – is locking trem from the devil… and so on – an abysmal swamp of myths, assertions and opinions, often triggered by tradition or a piece of (dis)information one has heard from a friend or read online. The perspective I’m offering you is solely based on my own experience having made, repaired and played whole lotta guitars over the last decades. I’m not relying on what I’ve heard from someone, or what I’ve read from books. My approach could be described stone cold pragmatic. I’ll go through in this article a few common situations and I hope that reading this piece won’t drop you off more confused than you were before.

I’ll start from wraparound bridges for one particular reason: This story describes perfectly my approach to guitar design in general. Practical solutions. Nuts and bolts. Things that work. I was reluctant for a long time to offer wraparound bridges in any of my guitars. There were a couple of reasons why so. First – the traditional wraparound models are mounted with studs that need to have a pretty loose tolerance so there’s any room to balance the height of the low and high strings. This results usually that after adjustments the bridge sits in an angled position in the loose stud slots. Not cool. Secondly – I’ve seen guitars where the bushings of the wraparound bridge have given in, and the whole unit is leaning forward, or the bushings have started to crawl up from their holes. This can happen if the fit of the bushings is too loose – or simply if the body wood is soft (like mahogany or spanish cedar) and the wood compresses over time making the holes kind of oval shaped. After all, there is a constant force of about 60 kilograms pulling the wraparound bridge forward, so it’s no wonder that sometimes the wood gives in. To me, this has been a turnoff – I’ve felt it’s not designed right, and I’ve steered clear of it.

A few years back I started to design the Unicorn Supersonic guitar, and I was thinking that a wraparound bridge would be perfect for it – if only those drawbacks were solved somehow. The studs was an easy one – I was drawing a sort of a locking stud that would be easy to open, easy to tighten – and then I stumbled upon the locking stud Jason Schroeder had designed – it was like my drawing! So Jason got there first, and I ordered a few of those studs from Elizabeth (Jason’s wife, who runs the hardware biz). The bushings was however my main concern, and I started talking about it at my shop with one of my guys, Lari, who is a wizard with metal work. We came up with the idea to lock the bushings through the body – a really simple fix to a nasty problem – and yet we couldn’t find a similar solution done by anybody else. So Lari made the first prototypes in our shop basement with his 100 years old lathe – and it was the perfect solution. It wouldn’t work as an aftermarket part for vintage guitars (cause you need to drill a hole through the body!) but for our guitars this was exactly what we needed. To complete the equation we needed a great wraparound bridge that would have the right feel and that would fulfill our tight quality requirements. I asked about it from ABM and it turned out they were right in the middle of developing a new wraparound bridge. They sent me a prototype, which looked absolutely great. I pointed out a little shortcoming about the total height of the unit and to my amazement they were thankful for my feedback and improved the design in this regard before launching it. So now I had the ABM 3024 wraparound bridge locked in place with Schroeder studs, and the whole unit anchored to the body with our own Lock-Thru-Body bushings that eliminate even the slightest possibility that the unit would ever give in under string pressure. The most rock solid solution ever.

Why do some guitars have a “twangy” sound – that sharp, bright, percussive, mid-rangy, in-your-face type tone that works great to a wide variety of music, most often connected to t-style guitars. There are a number of factors contributing to this special tonal character – but not many come to think that one of the key reasons for the twangy sound is the traditional t-style bridge baseplate made of steel, that functions not only as the bridge, but also as a mounting ring for the bridge pickup. Steel is a magnetic material that changes the pickup magnetic field shape, emphasizing the characteristic edgy sound of this type guitars. When you change the bridge material to a non-magnetic material – for example brass or stainless steel – the sound of the guitar changes. One would say the sound improves – while another hears the alteration in a negative way. So there are no rights or wrongs here – it’s all a matter of personal preference. But – it is certainly useful to recognize the fact that a steel plate surrounding a pickup affects the pickup sound, because the magnetic flux is altered by the plate.

When you think outside the box, you sometimes stumble upon surprising ideas. Even if this little story is not about a guitar bridge, it is bridge related, so here goes. Based on the aforementioned phenomenon (steel changes magnetic field), we have developed a specific little part called “twang ring”. It is a pickup ring we started first using in the Mojo King model. The idea was to find a solution to not lose the twang even if we install a vibrato bridge to a guitar. The twang ring works very nicely for this purpose – even though the vibrato does always alter the sound of a guitar as well – but more about that later. After making quite a few Mojo Kings, I asked myself: Since the twang ring works so well, why don’t we try it in other types of guitars as well? Since it adds “twang” to a Mojo King, how would it work for example in a humbucker equipped guitar? I was developing the Unicorn Supersonic model at the time, and that felt like the perfect guinea pig for the purpose. It worked beautifully, adding a unique edge to the humbucker sound. And as a nice “side effect”, we have now humbucker size twang rings available also for the Mojo model.

Before jumping to other bridge styles, there is one more common debate about t-style bridges, that I’d like to address. This has to do with the saddles: Should there be three of them like it used to originally be, or would six saddles (one of each string) be better? Reading the history, I’m assuming the original idea was just to make a very simple design – a combo that fixes the strings at the body end, mounts one of the pickups and allows to set the intonation approximately correct. The last mentioned feature sucks, though. You just can’t adjust intonation of six strings with three saddles that move back and forth. So in that regard, yes, six saddles is better. But changing this bridge design to six saddles, the sound changes as well – and certainly not for the better. The strings press the saddles downwards, and with three saddles the pressure is really strong, as the saddles are pressed down by two strings each. This way, the bridge is rock solid and so is the sound. With six saddles, however, the pressure per saddle is weaker, and the sound appears to lose some of its solidity. So now we’re back to three saddles. One way to fix the intonation is to file the saddles individually. This works fine, but if you change string gauge or brand, you might want to readjust. Trev Wilkinson has come up with an ingenious solution to this problem by developing his WT3 saddle that swivels around its axis, allowing precise intonation adjustment without compromising the string pressure at the saddles. To me, Trev’s solution is spot on the same wavelength with my thinking – a pragmatic solution to a pragmatic problem, without compromising the tone.

There is an endless debate going on also about saddle materials of various bridge types. Different materials all affect to the sound nuances slightly, but I’d like to look at this feature from the practical point of view as well, because the tonal differences are to my ears so very subtle, that the practical approach just makes more sense. Brass, for example, is a great saddle material for many types of bridges, because it is softer than the strings, but hard enough so the strings won’t dig into it if the angle of the string crossing the saddle is not too steep. The softness of brass is good also because the saddle slot edges are “gentle” to strings – which results in less string breakage at the saddles. Too soft materials, however, will cause trouble too. The strings may dig in to the saddles causing tuning problems, or the sound may be compromised – dampened high frequencies or too soft attack of the notes. In some applications, hardened steel works better than brass. For example, the non-locking Gotoh VSVG that we use a lot in the Vsop and Aeon models is a vibrato bridge evolved from a vintage s-style vibrato, eliminating some of its problems without compromising the classic sound. When the saddles are made of hardened steel, it is essential that the shaping of the saddle is spot on right – otherwise the hard saddle edges will snap off your strings, or cause unwanted noises. An important, yet often overlooked factor concerning saddles is the plating. For example, chrome-plating is super hard, and this can cause severe string breakage problems to a guitar. Especially if the saddles are made of a soft material (brass, or die-cast zinc) the strings may press in to the soft metal, but the hard chrome plating won’t give in, resulting in that the chrome breaks and leaves a razor sharp edge right under the strings. And then you’ll break strings over and over again… This is why I prefer in most cases saddles that are either non-plated or if plated, then it should be done with a softer metal such as nickel or gold. Chrome plating works in a saddle in my experience only when it’s applied on very hard metal and when the string passes the saddle in a very gradual angle – such as it does for example in the Gotoh GE1996 locking vibrato.

Let’s move on to a few different trem bridges – or as they should correctly be called: vibrato bridges. First the classics. Generally speaking – all s-style vibrato bridges and its descendants require a chunk of wood to be routed off from the back of the body, allowing to mount the springs that act as a counter-force to the string pull. This mechanism changes the sound of any guitar for a couple of reasons: 1) part of the wood is routed off , 2) spring mechanism makes a “reverbish” sound when hitting the strings, 3) the bridge moves along with the strings vibration, and gives in when bending strings – and so on. All this is perceived by the player as a natural part of the classic “s-style guitar sound”.  Many prefer the vintage s-style vibrato bridge in their guitar. There are some sensible reasons why it is so – but partly it’s the common myth about the old way being better because… well, it’s old. The original s-style vibrato mounts to the guitar body with six wood screws. One might think that this is oldfashioned and outdated, but I confess that I’m one of those guys who favors the wood screw mounting method in many applications. Why? Because this is the only approach where the baseplate front edge rests – and is pressed against – on top of the guitar, allowing the energy transmit from a wider, more solid area of the bridge to the body. When the bridge is made with high precision of premium materials, the guitar will keep its tuning very well – as long as the rest of the guitar is set up to par with the bridge. There are a couple of other details I’m not so much in favor regarding the vintage style vibrato. I don’t like slack in the vibrato arm – that’s one of the many reasons we use mostly the VSVG model by Gotoh/Wilkinson. Also, the string spacing of the vintage bridge is too wide, resulting in that the strings are unnecessarily close to the fretboard edges. Another reason for me to use VSVG (or other models with improved string spacing).

Some players prefer however a non-locking vibrato with two posts and knife edge movement. Even if it would feel counterintuitive to some, this approach actually requires even higher precision from the rest of the guitar in order to maintain the tuning in a satisfactory way. It is because the knife edge makes the vibrato more sensitive, just like a locking trem. In other words – when you play, the bridge moves more even if you wouldn’t touch the vibrato arm. Another example demonstrating the sensitivity is the fact that when you rest your picking hand on the bridge, a knife edge type vibrato goes easier out of tune (cause your hand presses the bridge) than a vibrato mounted with six screws. But – when the player acknowledges all this, learns to deal with it and when the guitar is made well and set up expertly, a non-locking knife edge vibrato is certainly a great device that can add greatly to the expression range of the player. For example, the Gotoh 510 series offers a few outstanding pieces of equipment that work well and sound fantastic. I like especially the way Gotoh has solved the vibrato arm mounting – none of their VSVG, 510 or locking vibrato arms have slack, and they’re easy to adjust to any player’s taste. Might feel like a small detail but from thepractical point of view this makes a world of difference as compared to most other vibratos.

A locking vibrato has a very specific role to play in a guitar. There is no other vibrato that holds the tuning as well under such heavy duty use as many shredders tend to need for their music. Floyd Rose is in this category the benchmark product that others are usually compared with. Unfortunately the quality of Original Floyd Rose has spiralled down over the years, and it makes no sense to me to install it to my guitars. The only exception would be 7-stringed guitars, as my favorite part is only available 6-stringed. Talking about favorites – among the available locking vibratos my number one choice has been for a long time the Gotoh GE1996. We’ve installed it to most of the Hellcat guitars ever built, and it is a wonderful example of japanese design and engineering precision. I’m totally on the same page with their thinking – they’ve studied carefully the market leader part, eliminated all the weak spots of it – and designed simply a better product in many respects. The knife edge of the bridge, and the corresponding studs are an important factor in a locking vibrato, in order for the device to keep tuning well. Floyd Rose (and many others) have approached this detail in attempt to eliminate friction by choosing a hard material and shaping the knife edge sharp. In theory, this would be the best solution to the problem – and a brand new Floyd vibrato does keep the tuning extremely well. But then life steps in. The pressure caused by strings is pretty tough, and after a year or so (depending on the player) of extensive vibrato usage, the knife edges (and the corresponding stud slots) will be worn down, and the tuning capabilities have gotten worse – and they just keep getting worse until you replace the worn down parts. Gotoh has taken another approach. The GE1996 knife edge isn’t exactly a knife edge at all. It has a tiny radius to it – matched with corresponding radius in the studs. This means, that the Gotoh vibrato has slightly more friction than a brand new Floyd vibrato would have – but at the same time, the Gotoh part is extremely durable. The knife edges won’t wear down at all in the way Floyd parts will. The new Gotoh part keeps the tuning with 99,9% precision – and the situation won’t get worse in time. It is the best locking trem available – a part you can rely on. Another point worth mentioning is the way the vibrato arm mounts to the body of the vibrato. In a Floyd vibrato the arm used to be snug fit without much slack, but these days their tolerances have gotten looser, and the arm feels wobbly even when brand new. Another word of critic points to the nut that fastens the arm to the body – when you use the arm, the nut keeps opening by itself. In the Gotoh device they’ve used their proprietary mechanism to fix the arm – the same one they use in the 510 non-locking vibratos. You push the arm in to a snug nylon bushing in the body of the vibrato – the arm has an inner threading that acts as a height adjustment for the arm – and you can adjust the tightness of the arm by a little set-screw. A perfectly functioning part, that can take heavy dives up and down for years and years.

The roots of tune-o-matic style electric guitar bridge lay deep in the history of archtop jazz guitars and the bowed instrument family. When you look at the Duke or Unicorn from side perspective, you notice that the body, neck, headstock, bridge and tailpiece form a similarly angled shape as in a violin. This construction contributes to the sound of the guitar tremendously, as the strings pull the tailpiece forward and press the bridge downwards, tightly against the top of the instrument. I’ve used many tune-o-matic variants and brands over the years, and seen new products pop up with great little improvements and become successful fast – and then the production quantities have been scaled up like crazy  – followed by the quality spiralling down as crazy. Even if the tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece appear like pretty simple parts, there are a number of details that can go (and usually do go) wrong if the design is not perfect, and the build quality isn’t up to par with the design. Most cheaper (and some expensive) tune-o-matic frames are die-cast zinc. This metal alloy is not very strong, and the usual problem is that the frame gives in under the pressure of strings – and when that happens, the radius of the bridge doesn’t match the fretboard radius anymore – which naturally causes a problem to set up the guitar right. TonePros used to make a good die-cast tune-o-matic, but quite recently we noticed the quality is not the same anymore – the metal is not as strong as it was, and there was other problems as well. The old stock parts we have are like from a different planet as compared to a newer batch. So we had no other option but to change brand. Now we’re installing ABM tune-o-matic to most Dukes and Unicorns we make. This is a small factory in Germany, that doesn’t offer any die-cast metal parts. Every frame and saddle part is milled from solid metal. The tune-o-matic we use is milled from bell brass – great sound, and super rigid construction that will not give in under pressure. The ABM tailpiece we use is milled from aluminium – lightweight, and contributes beautifully to the tonal character of our guitars. The build quality of these parts is superb. The saddles sit in the bridge frame nice and tight without slack to any direction. A nice touch in the ABM tune-o-matic is the fact that they have rounded off the saddle inserts so that they feel comfortable when resting your palm on the bridge. This is a detail rarely to be seen in a bridge made by milling.

One aspect that many players seem to be confused about is the height adjustment of stop tailpiece. The most common myth is that the tailpiece must be screwed all the way down, or otherwise the sustain of the guitar will be sacrificed. Another popular belief is that the best sound comes from installing the strings to the tailpiece in a “top wrap style”. Jimmy Page used to do like this in order to make the string angle more gradual – which helps not break strings and to keep the tuning better. Well, guess what? Jimmy (and/or his technician) was correct in setting the angle more gradual – but he could’ve as well just raised the tailpiece higher. I mean, it is adjustable. If you adjust it too high, the pressure at the bridge will be too weak – or if you adjust it too low, the angle will be too steep and your strings will bottom out at the back edge of the bridge, adding one more friction point to the strings (bad for tuning stability) – and you’ll be breaking more strings cause the angle is unnecessarily steep. The strings pull the tailpiece forward with about 60 kg force (10-46 gauge strings) – that is enough pressure to make the tailpiece construction rock solid without any lock screws or other snake oil improvements. With this force pulling forward, it’s meaningless if the tailpiece studs are screwed all the way down or adjusted high enough to clear the strings from the bridge edge. They’re solid either way. So I would simply adjust the tailpiece as it was meant to be adjusted. The only sensible reason to screw the studs down and top wrap the strings over the tailpiece is that Jimmy Page did it like that. I can accept this, cause I’m a big fan. Hats off to Jimmy.

Among the most frequently asked questions I get is this: “Does Bigsby affect to the sound of the guitar?”. The answer is: “Yes – it affects the sound and the feel of the guitar a lot.”. There’s no way around it – Bigsby is super cool. It looks awesome in the same way as old American cars or motorbikes do. For some, this is the primary reason why they want Bigsby in their guitar. And it’s ok! I can understand that. In rock music, the appearances matter a great deal. Truth be said, other than the looks, Bigsby can be a challenging piece of equipment, but when thought out and set up well, it will stay in tune reasonably well and you won’t lose very much of the full potential of your guitar sound on the way. See, the tune-o-matic style bridge with stop tailpiece is a kind of combo that really gives you the maximum potential of that particular guitar tone – and when you replace the stop tailpiece with Bigsby, the construction changes, and it is inevitable that some of that solidity of sound will be gone. In exchange you get the vibrato and a slightly different sounding guitar. Once again – there is no right or wrong here – it is all about personal preference. And don’t get me wrong – I love old American cars and motorbikes too!

The low frequencies make a bass guitar vibrate a lot. This vibration needs to be kept under control in some ways, cause otherwise there would be a lot of fret buzz, problems with tuning, and even trouble keeping the instrument in one piece. It’s like old Harley Davidson bikes – the engine is bolted right onto the frame of the bike without suspension of any kind. The motor shakes the whole bike so much that one would think a magnetic rear fender should be an obligatory feature… to collect all the fallen parts! Cool bikes, none the less. Back to bass bridges… It is essential in any musical instrument, that the energy of the strings is not “wasted” in wrong type of vibration – but in a bass guitar this is even more serious business. So when I went shopping for the ideal bridge for my Steam bass, my main priority was to find a solid bridge that is capable in transfering as much vibrations as possible from the strings to the body of the instrument. Heavy mass is not the solution, because if the bridge is too massive, it may be solid all right, but doesn’t transfer the sound to the body. The musically inspiring and responsive solutions are not often the most heavyweight and sturdy ones. If one seeks sensitivity, the same laws apply as with any musical instrument. A great classical guitar top and bracing, for example, are made so delicate that they just about hold together without collapsing. The result is a sensitive guitar – and the skill of the luthier is measured in how well can he/she find the optimal balance between musicality and durability.

Back to the bass – I was working closely together with my friend Markus Setzer on my design, and I listened closely to his experiences and analysis on what makes a great, transparent sounding bass – which was exactly what I wanted. And then it dawned on me – the vintage t-style bridge design philosophy would be my solution. I would need to find a simple, lightweight bridge in which each saddle would be shared by two strings. This way the pressure of the strings would be massive, eliminating the possibility that the bridge parts would start moving around when played, and instead, the vibrations would transmit from strings to the body. I was certain we have to make such a bridge by ourselves, but to my great relief and amazement I found the Gotoh WB2P designed by Trev Wilkinson. Our paths have crossed before and so they did again. I like the way Trev thinks. This particular bridge has the exact features I had listed: Lightweight construction, each saddle shared by two strings – and Trev had even adapted the ingenious swiveling axis design from his t-style WT3 bridge as well. At the time of its launch, this bridge was perhaps too unconventional for most, and maybe the bass builders didn’t somehow realize how great it was – and so Gotoh discontinued offering it in their catalogue. But I’m the obstinate type. I went to Gotoh and asked if they would be willing to make the part for me. They did, as long as I would buy enough so it makes sense to them. And so we have ended up at this point of time as the exclusive bass maker using the WB2P bridge – even though Trev Wilkinson didn’t most certainly plan it that way.