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Tone Tips: Bridges

Published: Tue February 10, 2009  News Feed

An electric guitar’s bridge might seem like just another one of the fairly inconsequential details that make up its whole, but the type of bridge used plays an enormous part in shaping any guitar’s tone.


Gretsch G5235T Pro Jet with Bigsby vibrato

Even if you aren’t likely to radically alter the bridge on a guitar you already own, knowing a little bit about the characteristic sounds of different types of bridges will help you narrow down what you’re looking for the next time you’re out shopping for a new instrument.

Also, a better understanding of this simple but crucial component will help you avoid fighting against it — swapping pickups, string gauges and types, or effects and amplifiers even — in an endless quest to tweak an element of your tone that really can’t be changed, because it is set in stone at the bridge. There are too many bridge types to go into all of them here, so let’s concentrate on the range of designs that are commonly used on Gibson guitars (this is Gibson.com after all).

In the previous Gibson Tone Tips I discussed your guitar’s nut as one of the two “anchor points” that determine the speaking length of your string. The bridge is the other, and between them they delineate the active and inactive portions of the string. Even though the portion between bridge saddle and nut is the only part of the string that vibrates, the way that the “dead” string behind the saddle is anchored will still have an affect on your overall tone. For this reason, the bridge and tailpiece really need to be considered together, whether they are separate units or one in the same.

There are a few basic factors that work in partnership to determine how any bridge will perform. The material the saddles are made from, and the lightness or solidity of both the saddles’ mounting and the tailpiece are all critical factors here. More solid designs at both points are often considered tonally superior, but that’s not to say that certain lighter, more movable or even “floating” designs don’t have their good points. In general, the solid anchor and saddle lends a depth of resonance and excellent sustain to the guitar, but the lighter arrangement can contribute a certain percussive “zing” or an overall brightness that many players like to hear in their tone. Let’s look at some specific types:

Wraparound bridge

After a brief flirtation with a short-lived trapeze tailpiece design, Gibson’s first solidbody electric guitar, the Les Paul, used a bridge from 1953-’55 that has become known at the wraparound bridge (or “bar bridge”), also seen for longer periods of time on the Les Paul Jr., SG Jr., and some other models. It’s an extremely simple design, and although it offers limited intonation adjustment (next to none, really), it provides an extremely solid anchor point that contributes to great sustain and a warm, full tone.

Gretsch with wrap-around bridge

The Gretsch Junior Jet is a classic example of a wraparound bridge guitar.

The gentle curve of the top of the bar provides a break point for the strings that isn’t as sharp as some designs that would follow, so the notes emanating from this bridge sound a little rounder and furrier, a character that many players really enjoy. (Note that a compensated saddle ridge was added to the top of many later wraparound bridges, and this helped to improve intonation somewhat, as well as adding a little more definition to the tone.)

Tune-o-matic Bridge (or ABR-1) & Stopbar Tailpiece

Gibson’s next advance in bridge design arrived in 1954 in the form of the Tune-o-matic/ABR-1, which has usually been partnered on non-vibrato solidbody electrics with a stopbar tailpiece, which is really the same hunk of steel or aluminum as a wraparound bridge.

Vintage Les Paul-style

Les Paul-style guitars such as the Vintage V100 are classic examples of guitars with tune-o-matic

Used as a tailpiece, this unit again makes an extremely solid anchor point, and the Tune-o-matic likewise provides a solid and precise bridge and saddle unit. This arrangement gets a little more definition and clarity into the tone, for two reasons: the strings see a sharper break point over the sharper tops of the six individual saddles, which are likewise not coupled to the body quite as firmly and immediately as the simpler wraparound bridge. In addition to its tonal considerations, the Tune-o-matic also offers the flexibility of accurate intonation adjustment for individual strings.

Floating Bridge & Trapeze Tailpiece


Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin: classic archtop dsign with floating bridge and trapeze tailpiece

Most hollowbody electrics and many semi-hollows carry a “floating bridge”, that is, a bridge that is mounted on a wooden base (usually rosewood or ebony) and held against the guitar’s top by the pressure of the strings, rather than being permanently attached.

The hollow or semi-hollow nature of the guitars they appear on means they are also usually partnered with a trapeze tailpiece. The combination contributes to an appropriately round, warm tone that suits the nature of the guitars they are mounted on—the classic jazz set up, in other words, although such guitars have been used for rock and country, too.

The saddle atop such bridges was traditionally a one-piece wooden saddle, again made from rosewood or ebony, and further enhanced the warm, woody tone of these guitars. A Tune-o-matic bridge later appeared on the floating wood bridge bases of many Gibson models, and added a little more bite and definition to these guitars.

Vibrato Variations

The vibrato tailpieces commonly used on Gibson guitars serve to lighten the anchor point a little, and therefore alter the tones of the guitars they are mounted on (even when not in wobble action). Some players like this change in and of itself, while others feel it “thins out” their tone a little. On hollow, semi-hollow, or arched-top solidbody guitars, a Bigsby tailpiece mounted trapeze-style at the end of the guitar body—with or without further support mounts on the body top—is usually the unit of choice.

These tend to soften the resonance and sustain a little, while adding some snap and zing to the tone, the change being more dramatic with the Bigsby units mounted at the tail block only. Some SGs came with factory Bigsbys that mounted directly and solidly to the top of the guitar with four wood screws, and these provide a firmer anchor point than some of the other designs. Flat-bodied Gibson electrics often carry Maestro vibrato units, which get their action from a piece of U-shaped steel that acts as a spring.

Cool guitar model with Bigsby: Ibanez AFS75T Transparent Red

These also decouple the anchor points from the guitar’s body somewhat, and decrease tonal depth and resonance slightly—which again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending upon the sound you’re seeking. Vibrato tailpieces will be accompanied by Tune-o-matic, wraparound, or some other bridge types, and these will further alter the sonic results, as discussed above.

original article from Gibson.com

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