Any guitarist looking to master their instrument needs to have a solid understanding of the hardware that makes their guitar tick. One of the best places to start is at the saddle and bridge!
The guitar saddle and bridge are two really important pieces of hardware responsible for everything from tone to playability and even amplification.
With a variety of styles and some key differences to be aware of, let’s take a look at what makes the saddle and bridge so important.
Table of Contents
- Wait a minute… they’re not the same?
- The Bridge – Overview
- Types of Electric Guitar Bridges
- The Saddle – Overview
- Types of Guitar Saddles
- Acoustic Guitar Saddles
Wait a minute… they’re not the same?
A mistake a lot of beginner guitarists tend to make when starting out is referring to the bridge and saddle interchangeably like they are the same thing. They are not.
When guitarists talk about the bridge, they are usually referring to the large wooden or steel part attached to the body that’s holding all your strings in place. The bridge houses things like your blocks and saddles and is responsible for taking the string vibrations and running them through the guitar’s body.
Meanwhile, the saddle, while being part of the bridge mechanism, is a separate piece, responsible for keeping your strings tense and held up. It’s one of the two main contact points the string has with your guitar, the other being the nut slot near the headstock.
The Bridge – Overview
Like we touched on before, the bridge has the all-important job of taking the string vibrations and transferring them into the main body of the guitar, amplifying them.
Acoustic Guitar Bridge
The bridge on an acoustic guitar acts as the main transmitter of sound from the strings to the soundboard. Tonewoods like rosewood and ebony are popular choices for bridges because of their denseness and high energy transfer.
Electric Guitar Bridge
Because the electric guitar uses pickups to amplify sound, the bridge plays a slightly different but by no means lesser role. The bridge on an electric guitar is still responsible for helping to transfer the sound into the pickups but where it really shines is in the addition of a tremolo system.
Types of Electric Guitar Bridges
Electric guitar bridges can be separated into two distinct categories, fixed bridges, and tremolo bridges, with most popular guitars on the market today using one of the following types of bridge:
The fixed bridge gets its name from being stuck, or “fixed”, to the body of the guitar and because of this, the fixed bridge benefits from greater tuning stability than other styles of electric guitar bridge.
A fixed bridge also benefits from a better transfer of vibrations to the body of the guitar and has become a popular choice for hollow or semi-hollow body electric guitars. Popular types of fixed bridges include Hardtail bridges, Wraparound bridges, and Tune-O-Matic bridges.
Tremolo bridges on the other hand get their name from the “tremolo” effect you can achieve while using these bridges. Also known as “Vibrato” bridges for the vibrato sound you can get when using a whammy or Bigsby bar to bend all the notes simultaneously and change their pitch.
There are two main types of tremolo bridge system: floating and non-floating bridges. If you’re after something that will give you the most extreme changes in pitch, a floating tremolo is the way to go, while a non-floating tremolo will give you greater sustain and more tuning stability.
The Saddle – Overview
When people refer to the saddle they are talking about that mechanism responsible for holding the strings up and taught over the body of your guitar. An acoustic guitar saddle is usually made from a single piece of plastic or bone, while an electric guitar saddle is made from individual metal “teeth”.
What Does a Saddle Do?
Like the bridge, the saddle also plays a role in transferring vibrations from the strings onto the soundboard. But, where the saddle is unique is in its impact on tone, intonation, and action.
In acoustic guitars, the material used to make the saddle can have a noticeable impact on tone. Saddles made from bone are said to give a fuller and richer sound than their plastic counterparts because of their better energy-transferring properties.
The saddle is also responsible for keeping your guitar properly intonated. Adjusting the height of the saddle will affect the tightness and length of the strings and change the guitar’s overall pitch accuracy.
The action of your guitar is almost entirely controlled by your saddles and can have a huge impact on tone and playability. On both acoustic and electric guitars, you can adjust the height of your strings at the saddle, changing the force needed to “bottom out” your string and change its pitch.
Types of Guitar Saddles
There are three main types of guitar saddles you should look out for, straight or ‘uncompensated’ saddles, compensated saddles, and adjustable saddles.
Compensated and uncompensated saddles are used on acoustic guitars and are made from one single piece of material. They are sometimes glued down and can’t be individually adjusted.
Meanwhile, you can probably guess what an adjustable saddle is like… used in electric guitars, these saddles look like little metal “teeth” and benefit from being (mostly) independently adjustable.
Acoustic Guitar Saddles
Straight, or ‘uncompensated’ saddles are a single piece of straight material with no grooves or cut-outs that hold the strings tense over the body of the guitar.
Straight saddles have long been a popular choice for classical guitars because of nylons tendency to hold intonation better than steel strings. Tradition also plays a big part, as classical guitars have always used uncompensated saddles.
While a compensated saddle may look similar to an uncompensated one, it has a slight variation that makes all the difference to the overall sound and playability of the guitar.
Compensated saddles have a small cut-out usually nearer the higher strings. This is to adjust for changes in intonation because of different string thicknesses in a steel-string acoustic guitar. Having a compensated saddle will make sure your higher strings sound in tune when playing notes higher up on the fretboard.
As we discussed before, electric guitar saddles are a little bit different from acoustic guitar saddles. The biggest difference is its customizability. An electric guitar saddle can individually adjust each string’s height and distance to create a unique and fine-tuned playing experience.
Not all adjustable saddles are the same though and while most can be individually adjusted, there are some, like the original Fender Telecaster saddles, that are a little less customizable because of their three-saddled design.
I won’t lie to you… I was already a ten-year veteran of the guitar when I learned to differentiate between these two mechanisms.
If you’ve been talking about your bridge when you should have been saying saddle, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
The best thing you can do is move on, educate yourself, and get right back to playing!