In this article we will be discussing the electric guitar bridge, its history and the key points of its evolution. Now as you will see later in the video in the world of electric guitars we cannot dissociate the development of the bridge without addressing the tremolo or vibrato units, and as such we will talk about those units too.
Guitar bridges fall into three major archetypes:
1- Bridges where the strings attach at the bridge, that is hard fixed to the guitar top or body, either glued or screwed. This is the case of the classical and acoustic guitars, as well as the telecaster for example.
2- The strings attach to a floating tailpiece that attaches itself to the guitar at the end/tail of the body, while the bridge itself is a separate unit that can be fixed or floating on the instrument top. This is the archetype we see in archtop guitars for example, or the first Les Paul trapeze bridge.
3- This is a mix of the previous two. The strings attach to a separated element from the bridge, that is fixed to the instrument top or soundboard. The bridge can be floating or also hard fixed to the top. For example the traditional Portuguese violas use this combo, as does the famous TOM of the Les Paul guitar.
As we will see, a lot of the standard bridges we know are not so much complete innovations from the makers, as like everything else, evolutions and refinements from old solutions.
The industrial revolution saw innovations almost daily, and the guitar world was not that different, and by the end of the nineteenth century, early xx century a lot of patents related to guitars were being published, and some are of interest to our topic today as they are related to guitar bridges and tremolos.
From our research I would like to present a few examples that lay the foundations for the standard we all know today. Now I’m not saying that Leo Fender, Paul Bisgby or Ted Mccarty for example, used such patents as the base of their work, they might have never seen them, but we need to acknowledge their existence, even if just to realize that at times of industrial and technical evolution it's common having several different individuals arriving at a very similar answer to a problem at the same time frame.
That being said here are the patents I want you to see by chronological order:
1888 - G. W. Bowers
Now this is the oldest patent of the list, but is a really cool one, as it is in fact almost the same mechanism as the Fender hardtail bridges. The only thing missing is the height adjustments. It's a bridge that has individual saddles that can be adjusted to compensate for the string length with individual screws. Not as elegant has Fender design, but still quite impressive.
1891 - A. H. Hines published a combination of a tailpiece and bridge, similar to what would come out on the first Les Paul, the trapeze bridge.
1896 - H. Ahlstrand patents a stamped metal bridge
This bridge Is one of my favourites and is one that takes advantage of the industrial revolution of manufacturing and presents a sheet metal formed bridge, again very similar to the design of the fender hardtail bridges. But unlike the Bowers patent, this one is height adjustable but not string length adjustable. Still such a simplistic design that I just love it!
1898 - A. J. Forest patents a tremolo tailpiece unit
Now I constantly read that Kauffman patented the first tremolo, applying for the patent in 1928 and receiving it in 1929, but this is so far the oldest patent I’ve found to do such a thing. Like it says in the text :” is an attachment making it possible to readily produce a waving, vibrating, or tremulous tone”.
1898 - L. Utt designs a bridge with adjustable saddles
This is another hardtail style design. They are becoming more elegant, but still one adjustable in one direction, in this case the string length. Still rather cool in my book!
1904 - J. A. Burchit published yet another tremolo unit.
Speaking of cool patents, Burchit tremolo beats all by far. It reminds me of those old can opening mechanisms, but it still is a tremolo patent in 1904. And probably one of the most minimalistic ones.
1929 - C. O. Kauffmam The one patent so many times credited has the first vibrato system. Still is one cool design, and probably more thought out than previous patents.
1931 - J. A. Ryan b bender tremolo behind bridge unit
Here we have a compact behind the bridge unit, and its patent actually has several variations of the design. One of witch has the bridge integrated in the design, something we will have to wait until the Stratocaster to see done with commercial success.
Now one thing we see in common with all these patent designs is that they were created before the creation of the electric guitar, and history has told us the world of acoustic guitars didn't need these designs. But when electricity connects to wood and strings, variations of these patents will become standards for the next century!
Before we go on to the classics I just want to show you the simplest tremolo bridge I’ve seen so far, and its by Watts Roy, and my question is, I’m I brave enough to try this on an acoustic build?!
1950 - Leo Fender - Broadcaster
In 1950 the Fender Broadcaster reached the market with its ashtray bridge. This bridge is a very clever simplification of some of the mechanisms we saw previously on some patent designs. Here we have a bridge perfectly designed to fit a flat top guitar, with a minimal parts count and fully adjustable in intonation and height. Well almost fully adjusted as the fact that it only has three saddles, one for every two strings makes the intonation almost perfect. Nowadays we have versions with individual saddles, slanted barrel saddles to help with intonation and also more composed saddles that allow us to slant them at the desired angle. One of the elements that gives this bridge an elegant look on the guitar is the fact that it also houses the bridge pickup, making “bridge+pickup” a single unit and keeping the minimalist look we all love in the telecaster.
1951- Paul Bigsby
It was around this time, in 1951 that Paul Bigsby designed his first tremolo unit, named B6, and shortly after would design a unit specific for the telecaster guitars. Now this was available only for a short period of time, until the Stratocaster was released, as the story is that Paul was not happy with Leo, as he claimed that Leo stole his headstock design. We cannot see any similarity!!
The original B6 design had a problem, when the player used the tremolo the string break angles would go from good to bad. Bigsby addressed this issue with the model B7, which featured a second roller bar and thus achieved proper string break angles all the time. Paul sold the company to Ted Mccarty, and after this Bigsby tremolos catered to fender instruments started to appear on the market again.
The Bigsby unit is probably one of the most visually iconic pieces of hardware for the guitar. Some love it, some hate it, but we all recognize it!
1953 - T. M. Maccarty
It was not long after the Telecaster hitting the market that another iconic guitar, and maybe the most iconic of all, the Les Paul made its appearance.
The first version of the guitar had a combined unit of tailpiece and bridge, a more elegant version of the one we saw previously on the patents. But it had two major problems. First the strings wrapped around in the bridge from under the bridge and that would make the palm muting difficult, and second the bridge could easily be knocked out of tune.
So the first answer Gibson provided was the next archetype bridge, the Wrap-around bridge.
This unit can have a minimal intonation adjustment, but it's a very solid bridge, with minimal parts count. Today it is still used by some makers and in the parts market.
Soon after, in 1955, Gibson would evolve that design to what we know today as the Tune-O-Matic bridge. This fixed all the issues of the two previous models, allowing for perfect intonation and palm muting. The design relies on a bridge that sits on two posts and can be height adjusted and the individual saddles can be intonated. The strings attach to the tailpiece a few centimetres behind the bridge providing proper string break angle. This design is sturdy and reliable and still very popular today. It’s also perfect for instruments with a carve top like the Les Paul as it requires some neck break angle.
S. Melita and others had patent designs that had similar bridges to the one Gibson used (without the tailpiece) but Ted Maccarty really designed an elegant and functional bridge we still use today. Due to the popularity of the Les Paul model we have today after market options to replace the tailpiece for a tremolo, like the one provided by Goeldo, the Les Trem II.
1954 - Leo Fender - The Stratocaster
The next guitar model to be released by Fender became one of the two most iconic guitars in the world, in pair with the Gibson Les Paul. In terms of the bridge, this guitar brough the floating tremolo integration on the bridge itself, making everything a single unit and working perfectly if properly setted, like all tremolos and guitar hardware in general!
According to the Fender website the design was inspired by a gram scale, and the first prototype had a fixed bridge and the strings moved over rollers. But the bad sound this prototype produced made Leo change the design and the final version has the entire bridge assembly moving together. In the first version to reach the market the bridge was attached to the body using six screws, and the screw holes were countersink on both sides thus creating a knife-like edge allowing the bridge assembly to rock back and forth.
In the back the whole assembly is anchored with springs, initially 3, but soon after up to five, that attach the inertia block to an adjustable anchor plate.
Also compared to the Telecaster another major improvement were the individual saddles, allowing for the best possible intonation and string height. Finally so many previous ideas come to realization in a single well designed unit that changed music.
Like other fender instruments, for example the jazzmaster it was released with a chrome bridge cover that players would just remove as it effectively prevented the players from palm muting. This is an interesting fact for me as a designer, as it shows that a designer only “owns” his creation until they are released to the world, and after that the user is King!
This archetype of tremolo is probably the most used in the world today, with slight variations and claimed improvements from many guitar brands and after market hardware companies.
1957 - Leo Fender - Jazzmaster
This guitar presents us with a completely different tremolo system for Fender. The bridge is of the floating type, with two poles to adjust height, and the saddles are threaded rods.
The tremolo itself sits apart from the bridge, and has only one centre spring. The tremolo cavity is then covered with a flat chrome metal tailpiece, and like we saw before the bridge was released with also a chrome cover.
This type of tremolo has a very vintage visual vibe due to the big chrome rounded surfaces, but soon after the release of the Jazzmaster some problems would arise. Players started to shift from the higher gauge strings, 12’s or more, into lighter string gauges. This produced two major problems with this tremolo. First it started to show tunning stability problems with the reduced string tensions. Second, and also related to the reduced string tension the lighter strings would pop from the proper position on the saddle, affecting tuning and playability.
Aftermarket brands saw the opportunity to provide players with a fix and so they did, Like the famous Mastery bridges, with redesign saddles amongst other details.
1967 - V. Gambella - Danelectro Sitar
Developed in the 60’s, and patent received in 1969, the Danelectro sitar bridge was designed to give us a controlled buzzing to emulate Indian sitars, but keeping the electric guitar playability.
Its clever design rests on one adjustable plastic plate that controls the amount of buzzing we desire, although we might get some intonation problems as the bridge does not allow fine adjustments.
Still, it's cool, fun and unique, and we need more of it!
1979 - Floyd Rose
Created by Floy Rose who was a jeweller and a guitar player at the time, in 1977. He then filed for his patent and received it in 1979.
His design was an immediate success, and two major innovations on this tremolo system made it so. First Floyd removed the tuning stability issues on the machine head tuners by creating a locking nut. This locking nut is tight with screws and holds the strings in tune. Then on the bridge side he created six micro tuners mounted above the pivoting saddles, and this gave the player micro tuning possibilities, like the name implies.
The success of this design was such that Players like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai were using it and the design was being licensed to major brands like Fender, Washburn, Ibanez, Jackson and many others.
Another tremolo that Floyd Rose spent a lot of time and money developing was the Speedloader tremolo. This unit uses specially developed strings that makes it possible to change strings in just 30 seconds, after a bit of practice of course! The guitars using this unit can be headless. Now the problem is that there are currently no strings available to this trem due to production quality issues on the requirement of these peculiar strings specially designed and made to this tremolo. So there's that!
1986 - Steinberg
Steinberg is famous for his headless guitars, but he also has developed a tremolo called TransTrem, and its main distinctive characteristic is that it maintains the pitch of each string at the proper tuning interval to the others. This allows entire chords to be bent while remaining in tune.
Now just like the Floyd Rose SpeedLoader this unit also needs special strings to operate, these strings required a custom double ball end to work properly, with each string being calibrated to a specific length.This obviously affects its popularity.
One other bridge type is the individual or single string bridge. I have not been able to track its history, so if you know something about it please share in the comments.
The main advantage of these bridges is their use on multiscale instruments, allowing to place each individual string at the proper scale length giving perfect intonation. But these bridges can also be used on regular instruments, meaning just the one boring scale length guitar.
Evertune bridges are quite an innovative system and unlike other attempts to achieve the “string back in tune” effect that rely on electronics, the Evertune achieves it all mechanically.
This works using a spring and a lever system that maintains string tension.
Invented by Cosmos Lyles, and then with the help of Paul Dowd the Evertune bridge came to the market in 2010.
A guitar with this unit installed is no longer tuned by the machine head tuners but by a screw on the bridge.
Custom made luthiers:
To end our long delve into guitar bridges and tremolo world we need to look at what contemporary Luthiers are working on! People look to the 50’s and 60’s with the usual nostalgic feeling, and say those were the golden days of the electric guitar but in my opinion we have never been better than today! The stunning quality of work and diversity of instruments and options is just overwhelming, and contributing to that are the individual luthiers, who are not bound to history and can innovate and dare to create!
So let's take just a glimpse of some custom bridges they create!
Tao guitars is a a guitar brand with two luthiers behind it, John and Serge, and their craftsmanship is off the charts. Here I choose the Tao Guitar model, because it's bridge is as simple as it can be. Slots allow for the anchoring of the strings, and each saddle is a brass thread rod, with a rounded top. Since this is not a large manufacturing thing, but handmade, they can accurately calculate where to position the saddle pins for perfect intonation and keeping a minimalist design in terms of function, as aesthetically it's packed with textures and contrasts.
Palm based vibrato - By Leila Sidi and Max Heidemann
This vibrato has a distinct flavour as it is designed to be activated by the palm of your hand, while you keep the hand in the natural playing position. It was designed by Leila Sidi, of TunaTone Instruments and Max Heidemann of Heidemann. The system can also be locked in place and function as a hardtail.
For last I saved one of the coolest guitar designs of lately, a guitar that really is a design product, the Verso Guitar. Made out of metal sheet amongst the many details of this design the bridge is one of the highlights.
The bridge is a simple piece of wood that sports the brass saddles much like that of an acoustic, but the trick here is the “tailpiece” string retention. Simple slots opened in the metal allow for the simplest anchoring of the bridge and all results in an elegant solution.
Well that is it for this article, until the next one, and if you're felling fancy take look at the shop and available guitars!