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If you’re just learning to play guitar, the terms people use can really confuse you at first, especially when some people are unclear in how they use them.
Take two common, related parts, the guitar saddle vs. the bridge: What’s the difference?
The bridge of a guitar is the point where the strings cross before they are attached, either through the body, through the bridge itself, or with a tailpiece. The saddle is the point where the strings actually come to rest and the saddle is usually part of the bridge.
Guitar terminology can get quite confusing at times, so let’s go over the basics of a guitar bridge vs. a saddle, as well as how both of those can affect the tone of a guitar.
What Is A Bridge On A Guitar?
Every functional guitar has a bridge, but they can be very, very different in shape and material. The bridge and the nut are the two parts of the guitar that determine the scale length, which in turn dictates the fret spacing for proper intonation up and down the neck.
Most acoustic guitars have a wooden bridge that is glued to the soundboard, with modern steel string acoustics running the strings through holes in the bridge, holding them in place with tapered pins.
Classical guitars, by contrast, normally run the strings through the bridge and are then tied in place or held with a ball end.
Many archtop guitars, whether acoustic or electric, use a floating bridge instead of one that’s glued in place. The bottom of the bridge is carved to match the curves of the top and sits firmly in place, held there by the tension of the strings.
Some archtop guitars, especially semi-hollow guitars like the ES-355TD favored by blues legend B.B. King, use a different kind of bridge, one that is anchored into place with posts into the top of the instrument.
One of the most common bridges on such guitars, along with many solidbody guitars, such as Les Pauls, have a Tune-O-Matic bridge.
In others, such as nearly the entire Fender guitar line, strings pass over or through the bridge and then through the body to secure them, but some similar bridges can have strings loaded from the top, instead of the back, of the guitar.
What Is A Saddle On A Guitar?
In each of those cases, the bridge refers to either the base or the overall collection of parts, but the saddle is the thing that actually ends up deciding the string length.
In the case of an acoustic guitar, the saddle is normally a strip of a hard material — often bone or plastic today, but ivory was common in the past — that the strings touch, giving them their final length.
Some saddles are slanted, while others have notches cut for compensation to ensure the guitar plays in tune.
Some archtops use a bridge made from hard wood on a floating base, while others use Tune-O-Matic bridge on a floating base. The wood bridges are often a combination bridge and saddle, with cuts for compensation.
The Tune-O-Matic bridges use individual saddles that the strings pass over on the way to a floating or stop bar tailpiece.
Fender bridges vary, but usually the strings pass over or through the saddle and then are secured at the base of the bridge, in the tremolo system, or in ferrules installed in the rear of the body.
Does A Guitar Bridge Affect Tone?
If you were to ask 20 famous, technically skilled guitarists which bridge offers the best tone, you’d probably get at least 20 different answers.
If you had the ability to ask those same guitarists the same question at a different point in time, you’d probably get at least 20 more.
All of that is to say the tone of a guitar is a highly personal thing. Some players hear — or think they hear, at least — subtle differences that others don’t notice at all.
In general, the main way a bridge can affect the tone of a guitar is when things aren’t properly set up. If a bridge is loose, you’d be likely to hear buzzing sounds or rattles, for example.
Does A Guitar Saddle Affect Tone?
Saddle material is something that many players also think can have an impact on the sound of an instrument.
This video looks at whether nut and saddle material change the tone of an acoustic guitar.
Some players believe that different materials, from bone to fossilized ivory to newer synthetic materials like Tusq, can make an acoustic guitar produce warmer or cooler overtones, for example.
For electrics, there are even more options out there, as this video, looking just at one brand’s offerings for Jazzmaster bridge saddles, shows.
Most electric guitars today are made with bridge saddles made from some kind of steel, usually stainless steel, but brass was popular in the past.
There have been a number of options that have sprung up on the market, however. Many companies offer premium stainless steel replacement bridge saddles, as well as ones made from brass and, in some cases, from phosphor bronze.
As with acoustic guitar nut and saddle materials, some players believe that certain materials offer warmer or cooler overtones and slightly more or less sustain than others.
Should You Upgrade Your Bridge Saddle?
As with any kind of upgrade that has to do with tone, you are going to need to do some homework for yourself as to whether it makes sense to switch out your bridge saddles, and whether you’ll be able to hear any kind of difference if you did.
One option for enhancing tone with new bridge saddles is more complicated, but also probably more versatile.
There are several brands, including well-known companies like Fishman, that offer electric guitar bridges with built-in piezo pickups.
While the bridges look like standard Fender or Tune-O-Matic bridges, they have individual saddles with a piezo pickup underneath, similar to the way such pickups are installed under the saddle of an acoustic guitar.
Unlike putting new saddles into a bridge, which is mostly a straightforward, if very precise, task, installing such an acoustic/electric bridge is probably best left to a professional.
Not only will it require work to install the bridge, but you also need to make provisions for the wiring, as well as find a place for new controls to be installed.
While you might notice more sustain or a slightly warmer sound with a different material for the bridge saddles, a new bridge would expand your sonic palette, regardless of any other tonal changes that might happen.
So, there you have it!
Hopefully, now you have a better idea of what the differences between a bridge and a saddle are and how they can affect tone. Perhaps this article is the excuse you were looking for to upgrade your bridge.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.