In the end though, while there may be several different motives in how a guitarist chooses their next electric, the only wrong move they can truly make is selecting an axe that just doesn’t fit their needs. A classic example of this is picking up a hollow body when you actually need something for metal and then come to find that your choice suffers from feedback when used with high gain distortion, an important necessity in that genre; bad times all around. And with that said, there is one important feature of electric guitars that seems to be consistently overlooked by most younger players. I’m talking of course about a guitar’s tail piece; its bridge.
The Electric Guitar Bridge
One of the most important features when it comes to an electric guitar is what type of bridge – which is the part of the guitar where the strings are attached – it comes with. There are essentially two different types of bridge systems that you have to choose from; a standard, non-tremolo bridge and a tremolo bridge. The important difference between these two types of systems pretty much comes down to how much control in your sound you are looking for along with some of the pros and cons your willing to trade with. The non-tremolo bridge for example doesn’t offer any control over the tension of the strings and thus don’t have any option for a whammy bar. Tremolo bridges on the other hand – which come in a few varieties – do offer control over the tension of the strings which gives players some pretty interesting and signature sounds to their harmonic tool kit. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of the two.
Non Tremolo Guitar Bridge
Among the best benefits of non-tremolo bridges:
- Better at staying in tune – less movement and bending of strings means your guitar will stay in tune longer. As easy as that.
- Easier to restring – the non-tremolo bridge is as barebones as they come. The fact that the fixing points aren’t movable, which is what allows for that tremolo effect, means that restringing your guitar should be as easy as with any acoustic.
- Easier to adjust tunings – If you play in a number of different genres with different tuning setups, these bridges can be tuned a lot easier than with a tremolo bridge simply because they are much less sensitive to changes in tension due to the fixed bridge.
- Better sound transfer – Because of the fixed bridge, the sound transfer from the strings to the body of the guitar is better than those which have “floating” tremolo bridge.
Some pretty useful benefits, wouldn’t you say? The drawback; no ability for tremolo effect. Most people would suggest this type of guitar bridge for newer musicians simply because they are generally easier to use along with the fact that most new players rarely take proper advantage of the tremolo effect. Alright, on to the next one.
Tremolo Guitar Bridges
These are the guitars which give the player more control over the pitch of the strings on the guitar and tend to be used to provide a much more varied repertoire of sound effects which can be used.
When looking at the tremolo guitars historically, the one that most people will have used up until recently will have been those which have a non-locking tremolo bridge, and anything before the late ‘70s will all have been tremolo bridges of this type.
Since the invention of the Floyd Rose locking bridge then there have been a number of locking tremolo bridges which have been introduced. Looking at both types of tremolo guitar will give you a better idea of the differences between what each one can offer.
Non-Locking Tremolo Bridge
This is the type of bridge which was used for many years during the growth in popularity of the electric guitar to give effects similar to bending a string. It has been used by many of the twentieth century’s greatest guitarists and is still a popular option today, although as a rule, tends to be included on the less expensive guitars produced these days.
In terms of the mechanics of how it works, the strings of the guitar are attached to the bridge which can be moved using the springed tremolo arm to increase or reduce the tension of the strings, and thus the pitch that is produced when that string is played.
- There are however problems that may occur with the non-locking
tremolo bridge, such as:
- Strings can lose their tune quite quickly when using this type of guitar, because the stretching and releasing of the string will cause a tiny amount of stretching in their length which take it out of tune.
- Retuning this kind of guitar to a different tuning can often be a much longer process, and will usually be a little more fiddly.
- Equally with these, restringing the guitar can also take longer as it is more difficult to attach the strings.
Despite these drawbacks, there are still some fantastic guitars which will utilize this type of bridge, and also a number of sensational guitarists such as Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler and Paul McCartney who have used these types of guitar bridges to great effect.
Locking Tremolo Bridge
This type of bridge works by clamping the strings into place, reducing the loss of tune that can happen with the older-style bridges. Guitarist Floyd Rose, who also worked as a jeweller was the man who started the innovation for this type of bridge at the end of the 1970s, and led to a very different way of guitar playing that was used throughout much of the 1980s, utilising the ability to dramatically change the pitch without going out of tune.What the locking tremolo bridge guitars look to deliver is the balance that has the best of both worlds. Guitars with this type of bridge tend to be among the most common that you will see being played in bands over recent years, because they will generally hold the tuning more consistently and for a longer period of time than the guitar with a non locking tremolo, but still allow the control over the pitch and tension of the strings that are key in so many guitar effects.
Guitarists who used this bridge included:
- Steve Vai
- Frank Zappa
- Joe Satriani
- Eddie Van Halen
Once the locking bridge had been created and was being used successfully, a number of other similar systems were developed, and have been widely used ever since.
For most guitarists who are considering to purchase a new guitar, a lot of what will inspire your choice will be down to your own preference and your playing style. Make sure you play whichever guitar you are considering buying and see to it that you feel comfortable with it.
Unless you have specific reasons to choose either a ‘hardtail’ non-tremolo bridge guitar, or the traditional non-locking tremolo bridge, then the locking tremolo bridge does usually offer a balanced product that gives you the best of both worlds.