Function of the Bridge and Tailpiece
The bridge and tailpiece of your guitar plays a major role in it’s tone and playability. In part four, the headstock and the nut, I discussed a few different options on tuners and nuts. The bridge and the tailpiece of the guitar form the body-end of the string’s anchors, holding the string tight enough to vibrate at the proper frequency. The bridge and tailpiece may be two separate components of your guitar, they may be integrated into a single component, or may have only a bridge (with the tailpiece integrated into the design of the body).
The tailpiece is the anchor that holds the body-end of the string, allowing you to apply tension at the tuners so the string will vibrate at the proper frequency. If your guitar has a tailpiece that is a separate component from the bridge, you must ensure that the tailpiece is securely fixed to the body in order to maintain proper tuning and maximize sustain. Your guitar may have the tailpiece integrated into a wraparound bridge or utilize ferrules to allow the strings to pass through the body.
Many players prefer a fixed bridge for it’s simplicity and improved sustain. Because the fixed bridge is anchored directly to the body, either by screws or posts embedded in the body, the bridge does not absorb much energy from the strings. Since the only moving mechanical parts of a fixed bridge are the bridge saddles, notes will last, or sustain, longer than on a floating bridge. It also allows the string vibration to pick up some resonant frequencies from the body, which may vary based on the body wood.
Most fixed bridges have a low profile, as seen in the picture to the left, which does not require a large angle between the neck and the body in order to keep the strings aligned with the surface of the frets. Fixed bridges may be top loading or feed the strings through the body. Top loading bridges anchor the strings at the back of the bridge and effectively have a built-in stop. Through-body bridges incorporate ferrules in the rear of the body to feed the strings when loading them. This configuration takes full advantage of any addition your selection of body wood makes to your tone.
Tuneomatic bridges are higher profile bridges that more resemble violin construction. The bridges are anchored in the body using studs or posts which hold the bridge at it’s two ends. A tuneomatic bridge will give you the best possible sustain because it loses very little energy directly and because of the break angle over the bridge and to the tailpiece.
The high profile requires an angled-back neck (the neck, not just the headstock) in order to keep the strings parallel to the frets. If the neck is not angled, the height of the strings over the frets, or the action, would increase moving away from the nut to the bridge. Because of the height of the bridge in relation to the body, some players initially feel a difference if they are accustomed to playing a low profile bridge, but the difference is usually negligible after a bit of playing. Most tuneomatic bridges use a tailpiece to anchor the strings, but they may also utilize through body ferrules or a vibrato (a tailpiece which allows the player to change the string tension and therefore alter the pitch of the note) to hold the body ends of the strings.
The final large category of bridges allow the player to move the bridge, producing a change in string tension. A tremolo bridge is mounted on a fulcrum and includes springs to return your strings to proper tension during use. Commonly referred to as a whammy bar, the tremolo bridge is as iconic to popular music as the guitars that feature it. Using a tremolo bridge will impact your guitar’s sustain, but gives you the ability to play bluesy, warbling tones or completely dive-bomb until your strings are slack (if equipped with a locking nut).
Next, your guitar’s pickups
Continuing the discussion, check back soon for information on the most influential component of your guitar’s tone, the pickups. I’ll try to explain the construction of a good pickup and how the type and placement of your pickups have a greater effect than the marketing department that advertises them.