Electric Guitar Bridge Types: Which is Right for You?
Which Bridge is Best?
The type of bridge installed on your electric guitar has a huge impact on your instrument’s sound and performance. Whether you’re choosing a new guitar or upgrading one you already own, it’s important to understand the differences between the kinds of bridges out there on the market today.
Like many other aspects of a guitar’s design, there is no best answer here. Accomplished professional guitarists have employed a wide range of different bridges to get what they need out of their guitars. The decision is truly one of personal preference.
Some bridges are more associated with a particular genre of music. Therefore, a bridge that is perfect for one guitar player’s style and taste may be completely frustrating for another guitarist. Likewise, many guitar players choose to have several guitars, each with a different kind of bridge for a different situation or style of music.
This article is intended to help new and intermediate guitar players become familiar with the pros and cons of different electric guitar bridge types. By understanding what a type of bridge can do for your guitar, you can better decide which guitar you need, or which bridge to choose for an upgrade.
There are many options out there from many different manufacturers, but here we’ll look at the most popular and basic designs.
Hard-Tail Fixed Bridge
A fixed bridge is the simplest type of bridge to understand. The mechanism does not move and, once set up properly, requires minimal attention. This is as basic as it gets when it comes to an electric guitar bridge.
That said, it’s important to realize there are different kinds of fixed bridges. The first is a Fender-type bridge that consists of a plate screwed onto the body of the guitar with six adjustable saddles, one for each string. This kind of bridge is easy to manage, and even a newbie guitarist can learn to make adjustments to string height and intonation fairly easily.
This kind of bridge is often referred to as a “hard tail” and can be found on hard-tail Strats and similar guitars and some Telecasters. Note that traditionally designed Fender Telecasters feature a version of a hard-tail bridge which consists of three saddles rather than six, and a larger plate on which the bridge pickup is mounted.
This type of bridge is a good choice of beginners as they can avoid the hassle and maintenance that comes with more complicated bridges. A fixed bridge generally stays in tune well and, aside from a setup every now and then, needs no intervention from the player.
A Tune-o-matic bridge is another type of fixed bridge. Though many guitar companies now use both designs, we can attribute the hard-tail to Fender, and credit Gibson with the Tune-o-matic.
A Tune-o-matic bridge has individual saddles for string adjustments, but also a pair of posts on either side of the bridge that can be raised or lowered. The design provides a sharper string break when compared to a hard-tail bridge, and more intricate adjustments.
Typically, a Tune-o-matic bridge is accompanied by a “stop bar” tailpiece in which the strings are anchored. In this design, the entire mechanism exists on the top of the guitar. Evidence of the effectiveness of this bridge can be seen in the classic design of the Gibson Les Paul.
However, in recent years the concept of “string-through” bodies in conjunction with the Tune-o-matic has become more popular. Many players feel this leads to better sustain, though even the stop-bar design is pretty darn good in that department. Some great examples of the string-through design with the Tune-o-matic-type bridge can be seen in many Schecter guitars.
The Tune-o-matic design provides tuning stability and great sustain, and it too is a solid choice for a beginner. Like the hard-tail bridge, once it is setup it requires no further tinkering.
We can thank Fender for the design of the vintage-style and modern Synchronized Tremolo system, which traces its roots back to the dawn of the Fender Stratocaster. Like the hard-tail it incorporates six saddles with adjustments for each string, but the entire bridge itself can be manipulated with a tremolo arm.
The screws holding the bridge to the body (six for vintage designs and two for modern designs) act as a pivot point, and springs mounted inside the guitar body apply tension that counteracts the string tension. By pushing or pulling on the bar, and thereby increasing or decreasing tension on the strings, the player can change the pitch of the notes.
While we commonly call them "tremolo" bridges (because Leo did), technically that isn't correct. In music, the word tremolo indicates a rapid rise and fall in volume. The word we really want is vibrato, which describes a rapid rise and fall in pitch.
It really doesn't matter as the terms have pretty much become interchangeable when you are talking about bridges. Of course if you get confused you can just call it a whammy bar.
Whammy Bars and Tuning Issues
Now is probably a good time to talk about why guitars go out of tune. Much of it comes down to friction. For standard bridges, the points of friction are generally the nut and bridge saddles. In other words: Where the strings “break” close to their anchor points.
Even with a fixed-bridge guitar, strings go out of tune. Often this is because by bending a note, or just during the course of play, a string is pulled past one of those friction points and does not return to the same place it started. That changes the pitch of the string slightly, and makes the guitar go out of tune.
You can see how this problem is exacerbated by a bridge system that purposefully manipulates string tension, potentially to a wide degree. The Fender design has improved over the years to where, during normal use, tuning is fairly stable. But if you plan to own a guitar with this kind of bridge be prepared to do a little tinkering to keep it in tip-top shape.
Players such as Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen made full use of the pitch-bending possibilities of the Fender-style system. Even today, there are some guys who have mastered the art of setting up the string pull and eliminating the friction so they can whammy to their hearts content without going out of tune.
For beginners and intermediate players there is a steep learning curve to getting to that point, so if wicked dive bombs and guitar tricks are what you want you might need to consider a more advanced bridge.
The Floyd Rose Double-Locking bridge was a ground-breaking design that emerged during the golden age of shred back in the ‘80s. It continues to be the top option for many metal guitarists and shredders today.
The basics of the Floyd Rose (and licensed models) are similar to the Fender design in that the string tension is countered by a set of springs within the guitar body, and a pivot fulcrum is used to manipulate the pitch of the strings. However, there are some key differences when it comes to managing the aforementioned issues with friction.
Floyd Rose systems incorporate a locking nut in place of a standard nut. Three clamps sandwich the strings and do not allow them to move, which eliminates one major source of friction that leads to going out of tune.
The bridge mechanism itself also “locks” the strings and allows a slow break over the saddles (less friction). Therefore, the Floyd Rose design allows you to increase and decrease string tension severely without having to retune your guitar every time you use the whammy bar.
Do Floyd-Rose equipped guitars ever go out of tune? Of course, but, when set up properly and in the hands of a veteran guitarist who knows how to make the right adjustments, they are fairly solid.
The down side is that, for beginners, the Floyd Rose system is complex when it comes to maintenance and even changing strings. You need to understand how to make all the little tweaks to your setup to keep things humming, or else you could end up frustrated.
Other Excellent Guitar Bridges
This article is meant to cover the types of guitar bridges on the market today, but there are some designs specific to certain brands. These are a few of the more important bridge designs out there you might encounter:
The most notable double-locking bridge system besides the Floyd Rose is the Ibanez Edge system. The design is similar, but the specific model is associated only with Ibanez guitars. Ibanez instruments such as the RG and S Series guitars feature Edge bridges, and there are various models of the Edge.
The Ibanez Zero Resistance tremolo is similar but relies on a ball bearing and stop rod and operates flush to the guitar body. All in all, if you are interested in an Ibanez guitar it ought to give you some confidence to know their in-house hardware is top-notch.
Kahler bridges were hot back in the ‘80s, but gradually disappeared. Don’t worry, they’re back, and the Kahler design offers an interesting alternative to the fulcrum-based design found in the tremolos mentioned above. Instead of a fulcrum, Kahler tremolos operate by a cam system which alters the tension on the string.
They do not need to be routed through the body, and the entire bridge does not move when in operation. Kahlers are beginning to regain popularity and many guitarists love them as aftermarket upgrades.
Wilkinson tremolos are similar in design to the classic 2-point synchronized Fender tremolo, and many players see them as an upgrade. Others are tempted to compare them to a Floyd Rose, but they do not provide the same tuning stability. Still, combined with locking tuners and/or a roller nut, a Wilkinson tremolo can make a nice compromise between the classic Fender design and a more high-maintenance Floyd.
I can’t write an article about guitar bridges without mentioning Bigsby vibratos! These types of bridges are predominantly found on hollow and semi-hollow bodied guitars, though they turn up on arch-top designs like the Les Paul as well. Bigsby bridges are simple, vintage designs. They are certainly for light-duty, and not the choice of most rock or metal players, but many musicians still love them for their elegance and simplicity.
Schecter Guitars on Adjusting Different Guitar Bridge Types
How to Choose the Right Bridge for You
Hopefully you have a better understanding of the different types of electric guitar bridges and what they can do for you and your sound. If you are still unsure of which bridge is best suited for your style and experience here are a few more pointers.
If you are a beginner, there is nothing wrong with a fixed bridge. You may feel like you need the flexibility of a whammy bar, but really stop and consider if the extra hassle is worth it. Complex bridges require maintenance and tinkering, so don’t get in over your head if you are still learning to play your first chords.
If you plan on using several alternative tunings, consider skipping a locking tremolo. You’ll need to grab a wrench and unlock the strings every time you want to change your tuning. A fixed or Fender-style bridge will likely be more useful to you.
Remember that fixed bridges, particularly those with string-through bodies, tend to have better sustain than floating bridges.
Finally, don’t fear the whammy. If you really want a Floyd Rose or other complex system, or even if you think you want to learn to set up a Fender bridge so it doesn’t go out of tune when you go all Hendrix on it, go for it.
Good luck choosing the best bridge for you electric guitar!