Point of Contact Part II: The Bridge
Image by Music Radar.
Hello fellow gear heads and guitar enthusiasts!
I wanted to add to another installment of my blog Tone Talk with a follow-up in the Point of Guitar Contact series. This sequel is about understanding the importance your guitar’s bridge is to your overall guitar tone. You might be like I was when I started learning to play guitar and think that the bridge is just a convenient place to rest your picking hand while you play the instrument. I never gave much thought to the importance of materials, placement, and all the physics in general that go on in making a bridge work for a particular instrument. But it’s true, guitar bridges can either help or hurt your playing, and understanding why can help you in your quest for great guitar tone.
What’s Point of Contact Mean on a Guitar?
Point of contact is guitar tech slang for where your strings actually intersect physically with the instrument. There are three contact points where the string touches the instrument: The Bridge (where the string is strung through the instrument), The Nut (where the string passes through the carved slot on a nut on it’s way to the tuning post to be tied), and The Fingerboard (where in pushing down on a string your finger makes the string make contact with the fingerboard wood and create a pitch). By ensuring that each of these contact points are of superior quality materials, and mathematically allowing the string to have the proper tension, you will have great guitar tone! If any of these contact points on the instrument are out of whack, you are effectively robbing yourself of the tone your guitar can make when playing.
How Your Guitar Bridge Actually Works!
So now that we know your guitar bridge is an important tone aspect, the question still remains… what exactly does it do???! Is there a difference between acoustic or electric?
Your guitar bridge essentially acts as a transmitter of your guitar string’s vibrational energy. When you pluck a guitar string at tension it makes a relatively weak sound. By stringing a guitar string through a bridge, the bridge transmits (or amplifies) this weak string sound into something you can hear through the air. Every stringed instrument produces sound through the energy of their strings vibrating. However, the strings need their sound vibrations transferred to a much larger surface area to help audibly transmit the sound waves through the air so we can hear them. If you didn’t have a bridge on your instrument, your strings would probably sound much more like stretched rubber bands being plucked instead of a musical instrument!
Positioning a bridge on a guitar is also paramount in getting the best tonal response from an instrument. Bridges are traditionally placed perpendicularly to the strings towards the bottom of the guitar. Bridges are also placed on a much larger surface, i.e. the guitar body, to translate the vibrations from the strings, through the bridge, to the body to give more surface amplification to the notes you play! Originally on acoustic instruments, bridges were made out of wood as a bookend visually to the instrument, however modern guitars also have used plastic, nylon, metal, or calfskin. As long as the material can vibrate along with the string it can technically work as a bridge!
Acoustic Bridges vs Electric Bridges
Bridges are usually made of a single piece of material that fits between the string and the body of the instrument itself. However, some bridges have an extra piece of material added for the strings to sit on called a saddle. On acoustic guitars, the saddle is made of a material harder than the bridge to help with sound transference like ivory, bone, or metal. Acoustic saddles can have slight grooves carved into them on the treble side so the strings can have a dedicated place to sit on them. Each type of material for acoustic bridges have their pros and cons as to why players prefer them, but in my opinion, nothing beats a bone saddle for an acoustic guitar. Just like having a bone nut made for your guitar, a bone saddle will add increased resonance, sustain, and better note clarity to your instrument.
Image by The Twelfth Fret.
Electric guitar bridges are a slightly different animal than acoustic guitar bridges. Typically, electric guitar bridges are divided into two camps: Tremolo and Non-Tremolo (also lovingly referred to as the “Hardtail” guitars). Traditionally the bridges in most modern electric guitars are made of metal, but some older electric guitar styles still have wooden bridges like acoustics.
For the Tremolo styled bridges, they have a metal bridge with separate metal saddles for each string. Tremolo styled bridges are identified by their use of a tremolo arm, or whammy bar on the instrument, that allows for the tension of the string to change at the bridge when you exert pressure on the bar. This can raise or lower your guitar’s pitch depending on how it is setup. Jimi Hendrix was in my mind the definitive player who mastered the whammy bar to great effect. You can always hear Jimi use his to manipulate feedback pitch in his playing!
For Non-Tremolo styled bridges the string is simply strung through the instrument at a fixed point, and players do not have the ability to control the tension of the strings with a whammy bar. This looks essentially like the back of the Fender Telecaster where you feed the string from the back of the guitar through the front of the bridge. Non-Tremolo guitars also have a little more mass to them because the cavity wasn’t carved out to outfit the guitar with tremolo springs on the back to adjust the tension. Typically, Non-Tremolo bridges also provide the best tuning stability because you aren’t always moving the pitch with the whammy bar.
Closing Thoughts: For an electric guitar, you essentially want your bridge to be as solid as possible. This helps affect how stable the tone from your instrument is, as well as aids in overall sustain and the feel of how the guitar plays. With metal bridges there are many types of material such as brass, stamped steel, diecast metal, threaded steel, notched steel, chrome plated steel, nickel plated aluminum all sound different. Changing from one material to another will affect your sound. The bridge also sets the tension for the entire guitar, which can affect how your instrument feels. The string height, as well as the intonation of the instrument, is determined at the bridge so if you don’t get it right you won’t be playing in tune anytime soon! Also, different style bridges can change the feel of a guitar. Strat styled vibrato units, and Bigsby bridges result in less tension making it easier to bend strings than Stoptail Les Paul bridges, or Telecaster bridges.
KEEP ON PLAYING-AM