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

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.

Wraparound

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.

2 Tek

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

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’.

Bigsby

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.

Wilkinson

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.

About Orpheo

Orpheo is a long-time member of the Seymour Duncan forum with an interest in the technical side of luthery and pickups and plays jazz, blues, rock and metal on predominantly carved top single cutaway guitars.
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  • y’all aren’t very bright, huh?

    Heyyyyyy now I feel this article unfairly discriminates against intonatable wraparound bridges. They exist!

    http://bcrich.com/models/guitars/Stealth/Stealth-Chuck-Schuldiner-Tribute/images/glamimg/full/CSTSO_glamour_02.jpg

    ps. if my account name is still showing as an insult against peoples’ intelligence, that was supposed to be changed. I was using that nick while being a jerk on a different website. The intelligence of Duncan and Duncan users is, of course, unimpeachable.

  • eviltobz

    no love for the awesomeness that is the transtrem or the newfangled evertune bridge either. i’ve no experience with the latter although the idea is intriguing, but the transtrem is very cool indeed, just a shame it’s so expensive.

    most of my floyds are set up for dive only, so the setup is far less daunting but retain the tuning stability when divebombing that the vintage style lacks. suits me, and that eddie bloke too ;)

    oh, and there is the strat fixed bridge type as well, “bridging” that middle ground between the tele and vintage trem.

    • sangap

      can’t blame the author, can’t possibly mention/have had experience with every bridge out there :) TT sure is awesome, however i consider the TT (and S-Trem) as being somewhat lumped in the cam-operated’s category. plus many think/thought TTs only work exclusively with Steinberger headlesses so yeah easy to see why..

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jakob-Thorin/100001660008468 Jakob Thorin

    A sentiment is that the reason Kahlers are not more popular is because EVH didn’t play them.

  • Cygnus

    I have one of the original Kahlers from the 80′s. It cost about 3 times that of a Floyd Rose. It is a better design than the F.R. except the strings dont clamp in and the ball windings rub on your hands in you rest your palm on the bridge.

  • Johann

    Is there a point writing an article about stuff people already know of. Cmon…fixed bridge, tremolo, FR, unless you are talking to a 5 year old learning to get around guitar, but you are not. Orpheo, I really think you should write about stuff more useful to us blog readers. I have been watching you man. Furthermore, many times you are misinformed. Your information is false/ not accurate.

    • Johann

      I mean, this article and many of the stuff written by Orpheo can be easily found in Wikipedia, About.com and other sources online. Why not write something very specific, technical.

  • BlackAngusYoung

    I was hoping for more info about the pros/cons of each type for different styles of music.

    What about the Stetsbar? Is that not well-known enough to consider yet? Seems like a cool design but I haven’t seen too much info from experienced users.

  • orpheo

    Johann, not everybody is so deeply lectured in guitar bridges and designs. I really wish to dive deeper in more complex matters, I really do, but I fear that I go way beyond the scope of the blog if I do. I have made articles that are really tech-heavy but I was asked to to tone it down. I have a nice article coming up that aims at plainly explaining why an octave has twelve notes, and about basic harmony. I can make it more worth your while by making a nice article about counterpoint, with sheet music to complete the picture, if that’s complicated enough? But what kind of topics would you like to see, if I may be so bold in asking?

    About the transtrem and the evertune: walk in a general guitar store; you won’t see them, at least, not widely spread, nor would you see the intonatable wrap around bridge a lot, too. They are spreading, though. I can’t mention everything, can I? I have to keep it as complete as possible yet brief as possible, too. I am sorry if I offended people by omitting their favorite design.

    About the kahler. Eddie van Halen popularized the floyd rose design, amongst other players. Installing a floyd rose unit is much easier, by the way, than a kahler unit. I fear that the popularity of Eddie van Halen cannot be underestimated. He popularized so much and brought so many features into the general domain, it’s astounding. Two hand tapping, floyd roses, dive bombing, the ‘humbucker in bridge position’ on a strat; stuff that was seen, albeit rarely, before him but regularly after him.

    About the stetsbar: that’s a design that falls outside the scope of what I was aiming at: describing the most common bridge designs out there. The stetsbar is popular and works fine for small dives, but it isn’t found on the majority of guitars.

    The fixed bridge design of the hardtail strat is like the tele hardtail bridge; again, this article is mostly about the major designs, not the small ones, sorry.

    I can explain in detail the tonal features if you wish, but for every example I give, you guys can give me 10 counter examples. Besides, I do not think that one bridge design has to be limited to a specific style or suited for a specific style.

  • orpheo

    Oh, and before you go on a rant on why I added the 2-tek: I like that bridge, I felt it to be strange, quirky and unique. Sorry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001080372658 Jake Strickland

    I have found the USA made PRS trem bridge to be the best in my personal opinion. The quality of the material used in the manufacturing process seems to give the system a lot of sustain and clarity. Mine has worked well since 1992. I can’t complain. My Fender vintage, not so much.