Guitar Bridges: The What And The Why
Guitars are stringed instruments, and as with all instruments that utilize strings, there has to be a fixing point for them. These points are called bridges and they come in several forms and shapes. Generally speaking, there are two major types of bridges: fixed bridges and moving bridges (the latter generally but erroneously called tremolos). Let’s take a look at the different types of bridges and what kind of unique feature they have.
Fixed bridges are common amongst acoustic guitars, semi-acoustic guitars and many solid body guitars. They all share a common thread in their design, being that the tension of the string isn’t momentarily changeable halfway during playing. That is the unique feature of tremolo systems. Fixed bridges can be very complicated designs, but can also be very simple. I will go through several of them, going from very simple to something more complicated.
This design uses a metal bar that’s fixed to the body. The string passes through the bar, wraps around the top and goes its way to the nut over the fretboard. This design has no means of intonation and no means of individual string height adjustments. Only general string height can be adjusted. The major benefit of this design is that it’s so incredibly easy to manufacture and maintain.
Telecaster ‘Ash Tray’ Bridge
This design is a bit more complicated than the wraparound bridge. The string goes through the back of the body and protrudes at the top, through the bridge and passes the saddle itself. The saddle is that barrel shaped piece of brass. This design uses three barrels as saddles, two strings go over each barrel. This design allows for some individual string height adjustments and broad intonation. Unfortunately, a guitar with this bridge can’t be intonated properly since you can only intonate two strings simultaneously in stead of each string individually, which is the preferred way. This design also knows some ‘complications’, being one saddle for each string, giving the same general tonal characteristics but with individual intonation capabilities. A bridge of this type with a steel plate and brass saddles is known for having a bright, twangy sound.
Tune – 0 – Matic/Stop tail combination
This design was introduced in 1954 on the Gibson Les Paul Custom and in 1955 on the Les Paul Goldtop and is identified by a two-piece design. The string is anchored in one position (which can be a stop tail, but could also be the body itself) and passes the bridge. Each string can be intonated individually, but the height of the strings can only be adjusted for all the strings simultaneously; no individual adjustments. This bridge design is known for having great sustain.
This bridge is a very complicated design. It has individual string adjustments for intonation and string height. Because each string is separated from the others, the idea is that you get less cross over of the signals, resulting in a more clear, defined sound. The drawback of this design is that it isn’t easily retrofitted on existing guitars. The benefits are incredible sustain, ease of playability and, in my opinion, unique looks.
Tremolo bridges, or tremolo units, or just tremolos, are bridge designs which allow the player to relieve the tension on the strings (or, in some designs, increase the tension) by pulling or pushing a special bar. By releasing the bar, the bridge goes back to it’s original position (or at least, is supposed to go to its original position!) thus resulting in the same string tension (and the same pitch) as before. There are several designs out there, but I will discuss the four most used systems. Interestingly, the term ‘Tremolo’ is wrong. Tremolo means a change of intensity (change in volume) and ‘ Vibrato’ means a change of pitch. Leo Fender swapped the names consequently. He names his ‘Tremolo unit’ a ‘ Vibrato’ on his amps, and the ‘Vibrato unit’ on his guitars were to be called ‘Tremolo’.
This system was designed by Paul Bigsby. The strings clamp down and run over a Tune O Matic style bridge (sometimes equipped with roller saddles to decrease wear on the strings). This bridge sacrifices a bit of sustain and tightness compared with a stop tail, but fortunately, swapping a Bigsby for a Tune O Matic is easily doable. This tremolo design doesn’t have a lot of travel: a third is the deepest most players can go. Some can go a bit deeper, but generally speaking, that’s it. But be frank: who cares?! In my opinion, the Bigsby system just looks amazing!
Fender Six-Screw Vintage-Style ‘Synchronized’ Tremolo
This is the godfather of most tremolo systems that are being used to this day. This design holds the strings in the system itself and counters the string tension via a set of springs that are anchored at the bottom of the guitar. This general design was also being used by Wilkinson, Floyd Rose, Hipshot and many, many other tremolos. The vintage-style trem has some unique features. One of the more unique aspects is the saddle design. Most bridges use die cast saddles or similar, but this bridge uses saddles that are just a bent piece of metal. The bridge is being held in place by six screws. Later versions use a fulcrum design with two fixed points to the body. The less friction points, the easier the bridge returns to its original position.
This bridge is a modern take on the vintage six-screw bridge. It has just a two-piece fulcrum design but with fully adjustable saddles. This bridge does not lock the strings at the bridge, contrary to the Floyd Rose design. The Wilkinson can be (almost) as stable as the Floyd Rose, though, albeit with a bit less travel.
Floyd Rose Double Locking Tremolo
This bridge was designed in the seventies by Floyd Rose, who grew weary of his guitars going out of tune. To negate the issue he designed a way to lock the strings at the nut and the bridge, and after many years of research and prototypes, he came up with this design. Soon, the heavy metal scene of the 80s would adopt this bridge for unparalleled musical expression. The Floyd Rose got quite a bad reputation over the years, which is very undeserved in my opinion. The better units out there, like Gotoh and the Original Floyd Rose, use hardened knife edges for the fulcrum and use steel, aluminium or brass sustain blocks. Setting up a Floyd Rose can be a bit daunting, too, but a properly set up Floyd Rose of good quality will endure for decades.
Kahler Cam-Operated Trem
This design is extremely versatile. You can adjust string height, string spacing and intonation for each string individually. In stead of using a fulcrum design, this tremolo system uses a cam. The springs aren’t attached to the body but to the unit itself. The feel is completely unique: very soft and flexible. The range is approximately the same as with the Floyd Rose. Why this tremolo design isn’t being used more often is a mystery to me. Perhaps because the biggest drawback is that you can’t easily retrofit your guitar with this system, where a Floyd drops in easier with many other designs.
The choice of what bridge to get depends on the guitar and the style you wish to play. Playing country with a Floyd Rose can be considered useful if you don’t want to use a B-Bender for some tweaks, but is generally a bit cumbersome because doing double stops can be a bit difficult due to the floating nature of the Floyd Rose. On the other hand, having a wraparound bridge for playing symphonic metal can be difficult too, because you don’t have the fine intonation you need to play difficult progressions in tune.