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Of all the hardware components that make up an electric guitar, few have more of an influence on playability than the guitar’s bridge and tailpiece (if your guitar happens to include a two-piece bridge).
When you consider tuning stability, action, intonation, and scale length, the bridge plays an essential role.
In the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at electric guitar bridge design and the types of bridges you are most likely to encounter when choosing a DIY guitar kit. We’ll also explain the key differences and why some bridge designs are better suited to particular styles of music than others.
So if you’re keen to learn more about guitar bridge design, stay tuned!
If you are new to guitar, the bridge is the metallic component, fixed to the guitar body, located toward the bottom of the guitar.
It’s the component the strings ends pass through when you’re installing new strings.
The strings of the guitar span the distance between the nut (the bone or synthetic component at the end of your guitar’s neck) and the bridge.
In the case of an acoustic guitar, the bridge enables the vibrations from the strings to be transferred to the larger surface area of the guitar’s body resulting in the projection of sound.
In the case of the electric guitar, the vibrations from the strings create a disturbance to the electromagnetic field created by the pickups which are then converted to an electrical signal resulting in sound.
Provided the tension on the strings is consistent, aspects such as pitch, sustain, and tone remains consistent, in line with the force being applied, provided all other aspects remain equal.
As the bridge is the last point of contact for the strings it plays an essential role in maintaining string tension. In simple terms, if your bridge isn’t structurally sound, your guitar will be virtually unplayable.
Recommended: Everything you ever wanted to know about Guitar Strings
While there are various subcategories of bridge design, electric guitar bridges can be placed into two distinct categories, hardtail or tremolo.
A hardtail aka fixed bridge as the name implies, is fixed to the guitar body. It doesn’t move, and is unable to alter the pitch of the notes being played.
A tremolo bridge (pictured on the right in the image above) allows the guitarist to alter the pitch of the notes played by using a tremolo bar to pitch the bridge forward (lowering the pitch) or backward (increasing the pitch).
Shouldn’t Tremolo Bridges be called Vibrato Bridges?
Technically they should.
When Leo Fender first developed the ‘synchronised tremolo’ in 1954 the name, more or less stuck. This, despite the fact that using a tremolo bar adjusts pitch which is known as vibrato, whereas tremolo adjusts dynamic range e.g. the difference between the lowest and highest point of volume.
If you are unfamiliar with tremolo bridges (aka floating bridges), the video below shows a young Eddie Van Halen using his tremolo (other names include whammy bar, or tremolo bar) to produce sounds that would otherwise be impossible using a hardtail bridge.
While Eddie’s playing was considered revolutionary due to his use of two-handed tapping, he was also a pioneer of many of the whammy bar techniques hard rock and metal guitarists of that era used extensively.
The primary purpose of a tremolo bridge is to adjust the pitch of the notes being played, either up or down. This requires the ability to manipulate the tension on the guitar strings.
In the case of a tremolo bridge, this is done by designing a bridge that can be pitched forward or back to loosen or increase tension on the strings. As a result tremolo bridges are usually fixed to the guitar on the front-facing edge with the remaining area of the bridge floating above the guitar body.
This type of design does, however, create problems when it comes to tuning stability. To address this, the majority of tremolo bridges function by using a spring (or springs) to maintain tension on the bridge (allowing the guitar to return to tune after the tremolo bar is released), while counteracting the movement of the bridge as controlled by the tremolo bar.
Despite this fact, hardtail bridges are considered superior with regard to tuning stability, however, the trade-off is they do not allow the string tension to be adjusted.
If you plan on buying a guitar with a tremolo system (particularly if you plan to use it excessively) or are replacing a hardtail bridge for a tremolo system, it’s a good idea to get your guitar professionally set up or learn how to do this yourself.
Perhaps the most recognizable tremolo bridge of all is the Fender® Synchronised Tremolo bridge, otherwise known as the Strat® trem.
Fender® developed the synchronized tremolo system in 1954. The front of the bridge is fixed to the body using 6 screws. The rest of the top face of the bridge floats above the body thanks to the cavity aka the trem cavity.
The block (the heavy block of steel fixed to the underside of the top plate of the bridge) sits inside the cavity and provides the mass required to adjust the tension on the strings when manipulated with the tremolo bar.
Between 3 and 5 springs are inserted by hooks to holes drilled into the bottom of the block and fixed to the guitar body at the front of the cavity to maintain constant tension on the bridge and strings. Changing the number of springs or loosening the screw the springs are fixed to reduces or increases tension on the bridge.
Modern Stratocasters® feature a 2 screw tremolo system. Because the bridge is mounted on two screws as opposed to 6, as a result, it's a far more sensitive tremolo system e.g. it takes less energy to alter the pitch being played.
Created by Paul Bigsby, owner of the Bigsby Electric Guitar Company® in 1951 the Bigsby tremolo system uses just the one mainspring and utilizes a two-bar system. The first bar (the tension bar) is fixed and provides tension for the strings.
The second bar (roller bar) is where the tremolo bar attaches. Pushing on the roller bar indirectly through manipulating the tremolo arm changes the pitch of the strings.
Bigsby tremolo systems are a lot more subtle than many other tremolo bridge systems and won’t provide as much pitch adjustment e.g. half to one semitone. As a result, this style of bridge is considered as a way to color your playing rather than drastically adjust the pitch being played.
They are commonly seen on Gretsch® style guitars and are considered an important element of rockabilly.
While not seen as regularly as the previously mentioned synchronized tremolo system the Jazzmaster bridge is another tremolo bridge system designed by Fender® guitars.
This style of bridge is more sophisticated than the standard synchronized bridge designs seen on Fender Stratocasters® but unlike the synchronized bridge also has a tendency to pop strings, causing some players to make adjustments including deepening the grooves the strings sit within to prevent this from occurring.
As the Jazzmaster, as the name implies, was designed specifically for jazz guitarists who at the time mostly used thicker, flat wound strings this was less of a problem. However, the Jazzmaster became a favorite amongst alt-rock acts including Nirvana and as a result, modern guitarists often make adjustments to counter this issue.
The bridge requires a cavity for the inner workings of the system and because of this allows greater pitch adjustment than the previously mentioned Bigsby bridge. Another distinguishing feature is the length of the tremolo arm which allows players to play chords with the bar in hand, allowing a surf rock sound.
The last tremolo bridge on our list is also the most extreme. Primarily used in hard rock and metal, the Floyd Rose® tremolo bridge system offers a much larger range with regard to altering the pitch of the notes being played.
This ushered in a range of new techniques and sounds that helped define hard rock and metal, particularly in the '80s during the era of shred guitar, typified by extraordinary skills of guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.
This type of bridge requires a cavity on top of the guitar to allow the bridge to be recessed into the guitar body to avoid coming into contact with the picking hand. It also requires a whole-body cavity to allow for the springs to provide consistent tension on the strings.
Variations of this type of bridge exist e.g. Kahler which requires no routing or cavity on the underside of the guitar.
Designed to prevent tuning issues, the Floyd Rose® floating tremolo system features a locking nut. This secures the strings at the nut and means the strings are unable to move through the nut slots, as they are fixed in place and provide better tuning stability.
However, as you might imagine locking the nut makes tuning using the tuners rather difficult, unless the locking nut is loosened. To counter this issue Floyd Rose added fine tuners on the bridge itself to allow for small adjustments.
While fixed bridges don’t allow the same level of functionality as a tremolo bridge. Many guitarists, (including myself) prefer a fixed design.
Hardtail or fixed bridges come in either string through (the strings run through the body from top to bottom, also known as wraparound) or are top-loading, meaning the ends of the strings are locked in place at the rear of the bridge rather than in ferrules on the underside of the guitar body.
String-through guitars are credited with better tuning stability and generally offer better sustain due to the body absorbing much of the vibration from the strings. This is often employed in bass guitar design also due to the even higher tension demands placed on the bridge due to the heavier gauge strings.
Fixed bridges, while not as varied as tremolo bridges also come in a number of different designs which I have listed below.
Not a lot has changed with regard to the design of the popular Fender Telecaster®. However, the bridge has subtly evolved over time.
Originally featuring a flat plate design which also is home to the bridge pickup, three adjustable saddles, and a string-through-body. The Fender® Telecaster bridge on more recent models features six adjustable saddles (as pictured above) and depending on the specific model utilizes a string-through design (American Telecaster®) or top-loading bridge (Fender Squier Affinity Series).
Credited with a ‘twangy’ tone synonymous with country music, the bridge by virtue of the bridge pickup being included in the design contributes to the inherent ‘twanginess’ associated with the Fender Telecaster®.
The Tune-O-matic® bridge is seen on Gibson® guitars predominantly, including the Gibson Les Paul®, Explorer®, and ES335®.
Featuring a stop tail and bridge combination. The strings are anchored in place to the tailpiece. The design offers a lot of room for adjustment e.g. individual saddle adjustment, to help with the guitars' intonation. Action can also be adjusted using two adjustable screws.
The tailpiece can also be adjusted which alters the break angle of the strings from the bridge to the tailpiece which can also have an impact on the tone and sustain.
The bridge is curved to match the radius of the neck. And, while the saddles are unable to be adjusted individually for height, individual string height is less of an issue as adjusting the two anchoring screws maintains the height of the individual screws in relation to the neck profile.
Archtop guitars typically feature a bridge and trapeze tailpiece also, but unlike the Tune-O-Matic, the trapeze tailpiece is fixed to the tail block at the bottom of the guitar.
The bridge is not directly fixed to the body and will move when tension is taken away from the strings e.g. when changing strings.
This style of bridge is mostly seen on hollow-body guitars. The reason for this is simple, a stop bar can't be fixed, as the tension would be too great for the veneer of timber the bridge would usually fix to, being a hollow body guitar.
Another reason this design is so effective for hollow-body guitars is archtop guitars serve as both electric guitars and semi-acoustic guitars. As a result, the soundboard or top of the guitar isn’t terribly well suited to fixings and should be able to freely vibrate, much like an acoustic guitar.
As you can see, the electric guitar bridge design is far more sophisticated than most people probably realize. And, while there are variations, in the case of DIY kit guitars the bridges listed above are the most likely you will encounter.
In the majority of cases, the choice of the bridge goes hand in hand with the design considerations of the guitar and is complementary to the tone and design of the guitar.
Keep in mind, however, much like electric guitar pickups, the bridge is just one component. And, while bridge design plays a significant role in terms of playability electric guitars are designed holistically and much of what we take for granted in regard to design has been carefully considered for maximum benefit, both tonally and from a playability perspective.
Retrofitting certain types of bridges to guitars that really aren’t designed for their use e.g. installing a Floyd Rose® on a Telecaster®, for example, can be detrimental.
If this wasn’t the case we would have seen far more changes with regard to electric guitar design since the golden days of the early '50s. But, considering how little some of the more well-known models including the Les Paul®, Stratocaster®, and Telecaster® have changed over the years it stands to reason that those early innovators got a lot right with the electric guitar.