Guitar nut string spacing

I recently answered a question on a luthier forum about neck width and string spacing, specifically about doing a dreadnought body with a nut matching a classical guitar width.

I have done some wider nuts on electrics to allow for easier fingerpicking, although not as wide as a standard classical style guitar. There should be no issue for a dreadnought body with that width of nut. Too much wider than a classical string spacing might call for a change in bracing away from that of a standard six string, but a quick search will show many varieties of guitar with wider necks, including additional strings. Of course the bridge spacing and neck width/taper have to be designed accordingly, but that is a given anytime you change dimensions on a plan.

Concerns if you tried a wider (or smaller) than standard nut on an electric would be the strings going wider at the nut than at the bridge (unless you make your own, there are two standard widths for six string electric guitar bridges) and going wide (or narrow) over the pickup poles. There are standard, f-spaced humbucking, and trembucking pickups for the bridge due to the difference in bridge and nut spacing of the two major guitar designs. Single coils can be set at an angle for narrow string spacing and they are angled on F-style guitars. Scale length and pickup position also decide the string spread at a given point.  A standard humbucker near the bridge on an F-spaced or vibrato equipped guitar will have the e strings wide of the poles. Visually noticeable and debatably affecting tone.  Here is an article by someone who is a bit of an expert if you want to learn more: Lollar guitars pole piece spacing.

You could of course design your own bridge and use pickups that have blades instead of individual pole pieces which allows for more variation of string spacing without the pole spacing concerns. Of course you should layout any design that is not standard before building, as the neck width and taper are affected by the nut width, bridge spacing, and scale length.

Part two of the original question. I mentioned that there are two popular ways to space the strings on the nut, one is using a special ruler or use a computer app to get equal distance between the strings which assumes a certain guage and looks aesthetically pleasing. The other is to measure in an equal distance from the edge of the fingerboard and then use dividers to mark out equal spaces for the string centers.

A response after mine was given that they should be equally spaced between strings and that the sides should be half the outer string spaces, and therefore the guages must be known and not changed because it would throw the whole thing off.  They made an ascii graphic similar to this:    |||—||—||—|—|—|    No one disputed it and I didn’t see the response until much later, making it an old thread, so I refrained from further comment. I am not trying to say that person is wrong, obviously enough people use that method or similar that there are apps and special rulers made by reputable luthier supply shops for that purpose. But….

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Above is my ultra fancy and not accurately scaled or proportioned drawing to help illustrate reasons why I do equal spacing. Here are my reasons beyond just that I was taught by respectable luthiers to do it that way.

1. You play by fingering the top of the string, not between the strings. In this case I think feel is more important than aesthetics.

2. Pickup pole pieces and bridge saddles are equally spaced and to get straight string pull through the headstock I use equal spacing on the tuners. Basically all the rest of the guitar uses it. Equal space between strings would mess up this straight string path.

3. I have successfully changed string gauges on most guitars without issue. With the equal space between strings, changing gages would require changing nuts as it is spaced for a specific guage?

4. Equal space from the edge of the fingerboard gives consistent feel and no fear off pulling string off the edge. The half the distance of the outer string spacing method leaves uneven widths (see bottom of my graphic above) and if exaggerated could be enough to leave the string too close or very far from the edge.

At the end of the day I must admit I have not tried a guitar with equal space between the strings and it could be great. Or not noticeably different.  Always happy to hear anyone else’s opinions if you care to comment.

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Astarte – finished and for sale.

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A new design, Astarte, designed with a slighty smaller body size and shorter end of standard guitar scale lengths. My three year old daughter helped me work on this guitar and is learning to be a luthier herself. Will she continue to pursue it? I don’t know,  but right now she is learning some basic skills and the process of building.

Technical details :

24.75 scale length, 24 frets, Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro pickup, Hipshot bridge, Sperzel locking tuners, CTS pots with volume and coil tap on the tone control. Bolt on five piece neck, maple and walnut.  FSC certified Pau Ferro fretboard with pearl dots, two way truss rod.  Walnut body and flamed maple overlay, finished with Tru oil.

The cap was challenging because I cut it by hand with a cheap coping saw and finished it out with needle files. Something I was seen doing at the local parks last summer. Thank you to the kids who were interested and helped. Gluing it was difficult because I was trying to avoid glue squeeze out that would be difficult to scrape from in the small areas.  I am trying to decide if I should take a different approach next time when gluing a cap like this.

The neck used some strips left over from cutting the sides of my acoustic guitar build, sandwiched between three pieces of maple cut with the grain at 90°to the fretboard. I like to save my cutoffs for reuse. The truss rod is adjustable at the heel, but this neck should be really stable. I also leave my finger boards a little thicker than the standard 1/4 inch minus whatever is lost during radiusing the board.

Building the new shop part 2: Tools

What tools do you  need? How many ways can you skin a proverbial cat? There are so many ways to build an instrument that there really isn’t a great answer. Sure there are tool lists galore, and they do mostly have certain tools in common. Equally important are the mental tools, building your skills, and having the determination and patience, especially if you are using hand tools, or are new to woodworking. This is not a list really. More of a one sided discussion, brief and lacking.  (You can always add comments or questions and make it a real discussion).

On my first guitar I had access to a basic woodshop. The teacher helped me make a blank the size of a guitar (neck included, I had no idea what I was doing), and I cut out the basic shape on a bandsaw. From there, it was handtools and a drillpress. Dull chisels, files, and sandpaper. I did manage to get a slotted fretboard and fretwire from a local luthier, otherwise that would have been tough to make, but I still had to deepen the slots with a coping saw (I had no idea about saw kerf, fret tang width, or any of that important stuff, just that the saw had a thin blade). The luthier’s mind and experience would have been a great tool to make use of, but I was busy being a teenager and he was gone just after I finished the guitar and realized I wanted to do more.

Later on (over a decade), when I finally set out to build again, I had access to the Internet, a book on building, and different tools. I  started with a jigsaw to cut the neck and body, bought the smallest drill press at Harbor Freight, used an old Craftsman router with a box jig I made to cut the truss rod cavity, and a cheap file and sandpaper. I also ordered a couple of nut slotting files and a fret slotting saw. By the time I was done, I had a good idea of what I wanted for tools, but very little money.

The next group of tools I acquired included a router table, a planer, a hand plane, a 10″ bandsaw, the rest of the slotting file set for guitar, a radius block for the fingerboard, pattern following bits for the router, an oscillating sander, and a few small chisels. All my tools except the router bits and slotting files were from Sears or Harbor Freight at this point. Cheap so I could afford them, small because I had a very small space to store and use them, and with my lack of experience I had no idea if they were good or bad. They were just faster and easier than my previous experience. I built three guitars, various other woodworking projects, and a few jigs using those tools.

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Conditions changed in life and I was able to fulfill my dream of going to a luthier school, (Minnesota State Southeast Tech guitar building and repair).  I  had to buy the required tools for the courses, mostly hand tools and measuring tools, and some just quality versions of tools I had. I also learned a lot about setting up tools. There is a big difference between the craftsman block plane out of the box, and a Veritas block plane that has been sharpened and properly set up (though I still have plenty of uses for the craftsman one, and it works much better after spending some time setting it up, but it takes a lot of time to set up and will never be as nice as the Veritas.) After using it in class and not having money or space for a jointer, I bought the Woodriver jointer plane. It may not be fancy, but it is still quiet the tool.

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One tool I would not have thought of buying was a 2 1/2″ machinist square, but I use it all the time, it was one of the required tools from school. A couple of the tools, I can’t even remember right now what they are, we used for specific things and I have not touched since.

I bought a craftsman 14″ bandsaw because it is tall enough to resaw guitar tops without having to buy a riser and was half the price of other comparable bandsaws when you include that. I make fences for it out of scrap, it does not come with one. I keep the small bandsaw set up for cutting curves and small stuff. Although I have bought bigger and better tools, I have not gotten rid of or stopped using anything I started with.

The Jet 1632 drum sander is also newer and the most expensive tool in my shop by far. The harbor freight planer works for getting two piece blanks pretty close, but suffers from tear out issues and end sniping (one tool I should have gotten better quality.)  The drum sander can fix those with a few passes, do a full body and handle figured woods. It can also work on thin plates for tops and eventually acoustic guitar parts. I tried the saf-t-planer for the drill press, but I don’t think my drill press is good enough, I had some issues with it.

One thing I upgraded from my shop built jig and printed templates is the fretting mitre box. I went with the Stew Mac one instead of Luthier’s Mercantile because it was cheaper and I like the metal templates,  but the LMII one does have more options for templates and you could have custom ones easily made, although I suppose you could for the Stew Mac one too. LAII’s also has hold downs, while I still need to make some for the box I have, although clamps work.

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There are still more tools I would like, and not everything I use is here, maybe I will compile an actual list someday. But I think if you are just starting, start small and find ways to try different things before you commit to purchasing anything big.

Building the new shop Part 1: the workbench

This is my second bench, the first was donated when I moved out of my last workspace. Before the first bench, I got by with a workhorse or whatever those folding portable things are. You can build or repair a guitar on almost any surface, but a solid workbench with a flat top makes it easier.

This one was cheap (I didn’t even have to pay for most of the wood), easy to assemble (I am a luthier with limited time, I want to use it building instruments), and easily modified if I need to. I do need to get a vice for it still.

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I used a 2×5 foot 5/8″ plywood top, basically 2″x4″ rim and cross bars, and 4″x4″ legs. There is plenty of room for most instruments, maybe cramped for a cello and obviously no room for an upright bass. The wood is either from other projects or salvaged. I ended up buying some screws that are alternative to lag bolts for the frame and used pocket hole screws to attach the top. Not fancy, but solid enough to work with hand planes on.

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I leveled the frame with a handplane before attaching the top to make sure it was flat. The wood was not all straight and flat when I acquired it. Having the frame top flat is important since I used plywood as a top.

The inset on the frame (close side in the picture) is something I saw some where and it seemed like a real good idea when I saw it. No idea what it was for now, but I decided to do it anyway,  it is a good spot for clamping things to to the bench without having to use long clamps. It also worked out well with the wood I had.

The height is taller than average.  I have read that you will adjust to your bench, but being over six feet tall, I find that having a worktable that is a little taller than average is nice.  There was no real science or anything behind the height I chose.  I had a table and set the board I would use for the top on it, then I stacked stuff under until it felt right.

My bench is also at a height to sit on a bar stool (and store it underneath). I had a shelf under my last bench on which I stored some of the power tools like the oscillating sander and planer, but right now they are on the floor underneath and it seems ok.

I had built a nice half depth shelf with a drawer on top of my previous bench and added a cabinet which held many of my hand tools, but I found that it got cluttered, stuff fell onto the work space and it was to easy to bump the shelf, so this time I opted to keep it nice and open.

How long does it take?

How long does it take you to build a guitar? People ask me this question a lot. I don’t really know what answer to give that is quick and simple for someone who is only slightly curious and doesn’t want to hear me ramble on for hours. This answer is a slightly condensed version, but still more than a few sentences.

I just finished reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. (Don’t worry,  I’m not about to stray off into a book review, although it is a great book.) The reason I mention it is because the copy I read had an afterword by the author. He explained that the story started from an experience he had when he was four years old, his first carousel ride, along with some other events in his life over the next few decades, including a man he talked to from a carnival sideshow and some films he saw. These things resulted in writing a screenplay for Gene Kelly. It didn’t get made, so he ended up writing it into the story I read (and of which he later wrote a screenplay for Disney that did get filmed).

Some of you might be asking what this has to do with building a guitar. Those of you who are musicians or artists of some sort may already see where I am going. If I was simply building a similar body style or limited to a few styles and working in a production environment, I could probably figure out pretty easily after building a few guitars how long it takes to make a certain style. My guitars are not production pieces though. Each is an individual thing, a story in itself, and hopefully will be used to help others tell their own stories.

When I was in school for my luthier training, we built a guitar on a schedule. I even did a traditional style shape, although we had to draw our plans from scratch and I made my own design changes. I could look at the schedule,  total up the hours, and tell you how long that one took to build, more or less. I went on and did two more of the same style, using the same templates that I made for the original and wood that I purchased enough of enough of to make three similar guitars. Although they are the same shape, wood, and hardware, each came out different and took different amounts of time.

The rest of what I have built have been my own designs from scratch. Where did they start? When was the design inspired? Do you account for revisions in design? Drawing the plans, making templates, choosing the wood and hardware, acquiring the parts, some of which I first got decades ago, some of which I may not use for decades. Do you include the time that things have been sitting untouched? Shopping, researching, practicing, experimenting. For me, these are all part of building a guitar.

I don’t work in a production style of manufacturing, but approach each guitar like a piece of art. Like writing a song, sometimes there is a riff or melody, sometimes a lyric, sometimes you just start jamming and see what come out. Sometimes it gets shelved and picked up again later. I still have a guitar project I started in high school woodshop. It would have been my second guitar, a high strung guitar (ala David Gilmour on Comfortably Numb) with an acoustic style string through bridge, the body design of which was inspired after I saw the goth band Switchblade Symphony. It still isn’t close to finished because I changed my mind on some of the design features. I never actually thought out the part about using bridge pins in a solid body either, (might need another design change). It will be finished though. It will only have taken me decades.

That doesn’t include other variables, like the fact that my shop space and access to tools has changed many times. Currently, I am working in the kitchen while my daughter naps or sleeps at night, and when I am not busy doing other things. I am also fairly limited as far as access to tools right now, mostly due to my workspace.

So those are my thoughts on how long it takes for me to build a guitar. It takes as long as it takes and each one is different, but if I simply said that, it just wouldn’t sound very nice.

Cheap guitars… some reasons why.

The key to great guitar playing is mostly in the fingers.  Having a good guitar helps too (although some people can get sound out of anything and some great stuff has been done on guitars that most would consider pretty bad instruments).  You don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune on a guitar to get a good one (and you don’t always get a good one just because you paid a lot for it.)  There are some real bargains out there, but they usually have a reason they are cheap.  The question is, is it something that is acceptable to you for the price?

If you are unsure about something, you can always ask a knowledgeable fellow guitarist, music store repair person, or possibly a salesperson, (although I have had mixed experiences with knowledge and honesty of some salespeople.)  It can be hard to judge these things online.

One issue that is common with most cheap guitars, and even a lot of mid to high priced ones, is setup.  Factory guitars are pumped out as fast as they can be. Setting a guitar up for optimum playability takes time.  Sometimes a really cheap guitar will never be able to be setup properly.  There are also some music stores that have set-up or will set-up the guitar for you when you buy it, but this is not common.

One of the other big issues with cheaper guitars is what they are made of and how long those materials will last.  Most cheap factory guitars these days use durable finishes, coated thick to minimize processing and cover minor defects.  The problem is, once these finish are damaged, they can’t easily be repaired to look new again.  The thick finish can affect tone also, more so than the type of material used to finish a guitar because the finish dampens the reverberation of the wood.  This is especially true in acoustic instruments. (Some higher end guitars use nitrocellulose finishes which can be repaired easier, although some factories simply add a layer of it to the finish so they can advertise it as a feature.  There are also lots of new finishes being experimented with as environmental concerns of finishing exist.  Some are more durable or repairable than others.)

Of course that brings up the question of what lies under that finish.  Plywood?  A paper thin veneer of exotic wood covering a cheap wood body?  If it sounds good and plays good, does it matter?

Acoustic guitars:

Top and possibly sides – laminated – possible lack of tone, not repairable

Neck not re-settable  – limited lifespan due to settling, bellying of guitar

Proprietary saddle – not easily replaced.

Poor joinery – Parts that are poorly glued, poorly fitted.

Electric guitars:

Licensed design – means same design as the good stuff, but not the same quality.

Metal parts – usually made from cheap materials, screws strip out, vibratos wear out quickly, sometimes rattling or lacking in tone or sustain.  Not always standard, so not always easily replaceable.

Electronics – cheap quality, lack of range, wear out quickly

Tuning Machines – often wear out quickly, may slip.

All guitars:

Poor fit and finish

Low/No resale value

Incorrectly placed bridge may cause intonation issues/may not be fixable

Amps and accessories:

Most likely, you will need more than just the guitar to play, unless you play acoustic finger style.

Strings:  There are plenty of good options at lower prices, unlike violins or other string instruments, although if you are playing serious classical guitar you might want to get a more expensive set.  I would not buy strings made in China or that are the same brand as a guitar sold only in department stores though.

Picks:  Usually less than a dollar, this is really a personal preference as to material, which can affect both the feel and the tone since this comes directly into contact with the string.  Buy a bunch of different sizes, materials, brands, and experiment.

Straps:  The only thing keeping your instrument from hitting the floor while you stand and play.  Yes, the expensive ones are expensive.  Don’t buy the two dollar one.  They are not hard to make and custom ones can be found for similar prices to the nice store bought ones if you look around.  Strap locks are an easy install, very secure, and make any strap better.

Amps:  There are a lot of amps.  The cheap ones will sound cheap.  Cheap modeling amps still sound like a variety of cheap amps.  Size and wattage are dependent on your needs, but a small amp with a mic through the P.A. can still sound big.  Before buying an amp, try your guitar through it.  Different guitars sound different through the same amp.  There are a lot of variables including the way the electronics interact with the amp. (Amps can easily be a page by themselves.)

Pedals:  So many available… try before you buy, ideally with your setup, but at least with your guitar.  Like amps, they interact slightly differently with different guitars.

 

 

Temporary hiatus due to the ultimate creation.

A quick update. Not gone, just temporarily focusing on other things, like a new job, a baby that will be coming any day now, (see our Facebook page, you can comment on the due date and possibly win a free t-shirt!), plus I recently moved and am still setting up the new shop amid all the other chaos.

I had a couple of guitars in the works, pretty much finished, except for the finish. The finish went wrong. Bad product, nitrocellulose brushing lacquer from the local big box home store. I had read mixed reviews about it on the forums, although there were many reviews by people that said they had been using it for years with no issues. I should have gotten something that is specifically made for musical instruments, but it is hard to come by in California due to EPA regulations (which is actually a good thing for everyone, just a pain in the butt sometimes). Actually, I should have stuck to the water based stuff and done tests on scrap, but I wanted to get them done before moving. Haste makes waste… So I have some refinishing in my future, but once done, two more nice guitars to sell.

Meanwhile, I have two guitars hanging out in Cotati, CA at Loud and Clear Music. They get good feedback on the people who try them, but as of yet they are unsold. Should you happen to be in the area, check them out. If not, then go to some other conveniently located independent music store and check out some other stuff. If you are in the Stockton, CA area and need parts, upgrades, repairs or whatever, contact me.

Buying an electric guitar Part 3: Wood and stuff…

Wood is the traditional material for the body and neck of any type of guitar and it also provides the traditional sound that we associate with guitars.  Different wood or combinations of woods provide different overtones which help fill out the sound that is produced by the vibrating string.  Otherwise it would be more like a sine wave, sounding similar to a tuning fork.  To find out how different woods sound, it is best to check out resources for acoustic guitars where wood is the main resonator (amplifier).  On an acoustic you can really hear how different woods can definitely affect tone although there are only a few woods that are common between electrics and acoustics for the bodies.

Keep in mind:  No two pieces of wood will sound exactly the same, but you may or may not be able to tell the difference.  Cut side by side from the same tree, there can still be a bit of variation in weight, tone, and figure of the wood.  Wood is only one part of an electric instrument that has an affect on the overall sound and there are many other variables, some of which can even be changed, like pickups.  Depending on the type of music you play, it may not make any difference.

With an electric instrument, the body does not provide amplification, yet the choice of wood(s) still has some effect. Unlike an acoustic, the body of an electric plays a much smaller part in the many things that affect the overall characteristics.  Other materials such as plastic, metal, and fiberglass have also been used to make guitar bodies.  These materials generally have a stronger fundamental with fewer overtones which results in a “clearer” sound, but is lacking in  “character”.  Probably part of the reason wood is still by far the most popular choice.

Acrylic guitar

An Acrylic guitar body. Many companies have made them, but they haven’t caught on in popularity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When looking at necks, one thing to note other than how the wood choice might affect tone, is that maple fingerboards, popular on a certain style of guitar, are covered in finish just like the rest of the neck.  This is to protect the fingerboard from dirt and oils that would otherwise stain it.  Other woods (like rosewood and ebony) are usually left unfinished because they are more resistant to this issue (although washing your hands before playing and wiping down the guitar after is a good idea with any guitar.)  In the long run, assuming you play the guitar regularly, the finish will wear off the maple fingerboard, exposing the wood to staining.  Should you wear the frets down enough to need a refret, many luthiers also charge extra for working on maple fingerboards because of the extra steps involved with the finish.

Relic strat

An extreme example of how a worn guitar can look, but the focus here is the fingerboard. Once the thin finish wears through on a maple board it will start to look similar, although it would take a long time to wear through most modern factory finishes on the body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you buy a guitar with an opaque finish, don’t expect to find a nice looking body underneath if you sand the finish off.  Most factories use paint grade wood on these bodies and they are often multiple mismatched pieces.  Not that multi piece bodies are unusual or bad (assuming they are well made), but usually large factories don’t even bother to match pieces on a transparent finish unless it is a book-matched veneer. Of course this is just a superficial thing and it’s importance is dependent on the individuals taste.

Fancy tops, like quilted or flame maple, or other figured or exotic woods, when on a quality guitar with a contoured top, like a high end PRS or Les Paul, tend to be substantial enough to play a role in tone.  On flat top guitars it is usually thinner and more decorative.  On really cheap guitars it can be nearly paper thin.

Many independent builders have started working with woods beyond the traditional ones too.  There are a lot of good woods beyond what the factories use, and if you are looking for something unique, there are some really nice looking woods beyond the standard flamed or quilted maple.  Factories tend to stick to what is expected and what they can get in mass supply, not necessarily what is best sounding or looking.

Curly douglas fir

I’m hoping to cap some bodies with wood like this. I think it is so much more interesting than just another quilted maple guitar, but that is just my opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next time I will talk about pickups and electronics, which play a big part in how an electric guitar sounds.

Buying an electric guitar part 2: Bridges

Bridges come in a few basic styles with lots of variations.  There are different things that you might want to think about beyond just what looks cool, things that affect sound, feel, maintenance, and playing style.  One thing to keep in mind is that there is no one best style because it really depends on your personal preference.  What might be great for one person might be horrible to another. All the original styles are still sought after and new ones are constantly being made.

The bridge is only one factor in the overall sound of the guitar, but it is also something that is limited in how you can change it.  You can get different brands of similar styles to fit, but the guitar is usually designed to work with a specific bridge style and it can often be more work than it is worth to try and alter that.

You have two main types of bridge: fixed and vibrato.  In the guitar world vibrato bridges are commonly (and incorrectly), referred to as tremolo bridges, mostly due to the misuse of the term by one of the largest manufacturers of electric guitars.  From there, again it breaks down into two common styles for each, although there are lots of variations and people are constantly trying to improve and redesign them.

Non-vibrato bridges tend to have more sustain and more energy directly transferred to the body of the guitar due to the direct contact with the body.  The solid coupling also means no resonance from springs that are a part of the vibrato system.  The two main types are the flat plate with adjustable saddles and the raised bar type with a stud on each side.

Hardtail bridges

Two common types of hardtail bridges.

 

 

 

 

 

The plate style bridge usually has individually adjustable saddles (although vintage Telecaster style guitars only have three barrel saddles, which usually results in a compromise of intonation).  Older styles (and cheaper ones) use stamped steel saddles while more recent ones have cast or machined solid saddles. It is usually very easy to adjust for individual string height, which allows for different radius fingerboards and string action.

The bar type bridge, a few common variations include ABR-1, Nashville Tune-o-matic, and the wrap around style, uses two large posts to hold it off the body of the guitar.  With the exception of the wrap around style they usually have individually adjustable saddles to set intonation, and overall height is adjusted by turning the bolts at the ends.  The strings usually go over the saddles and back to a separate tail piece which holds the ball ends, although some go through ferrules in the body instead.   Modern wrap around bridges usually also have adjustable saddles and some even have screws that allow forward and backward adjustment of the overall bridge.  Of course, the more adjustment, the less solid a connection.  There are also vibrato style tailpieces that work with many of these type of bridges and they can be retrofitted on some guitars.

Vibrato bridges come in a variety of types.  Anytime you see a bar of some sort coming off of some part of the bridge it is a vibrato bridge.  Some of them are variations of the hardtail bridge but with moving anchor points. More common since the 70’s is the one piece bridge that holds the strings and pivots on the front edge, usually against a row of screws or two studs. Even this comes in a variety of styles.  Any tremolo system will work to get a simple vibrato effect, but if your style will involve extreme changes in pitch you might want a locking tremolo style bridge.

Locking tremolo

Locking tremolo (because the strings are locked in at the end instead of just relying on string tension to pull the ball ends tight. They often also have a locking nut or tuning machines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things to note about vibrato bridges: when you have moving parts, you will get parts that wear. (This is one of those times where quality makes a big difference.)  It is also more work to tune the guitar because you have to balance the string tension with the spring tension.  With locking bridges like the one above, you also have to use hex key wrenches to change strings and some even require special or modified strings.  It is not unusual to hear about people who got fed up with vibrato bridges and put a wood block in to lock them in place, especially on cheap guitars.  Springs tend to resonate a lot more than the wood.

Next time: Wood and other materials

Buying an electric guitar Part 1: Perception

Welcome to the first in a series of articles on buying an electric guitar.  It isn’t a definitive guide, but maybe someone will find it helpful.

The guitar is an instrument that appeals to the senses.  When you listen to it, it obviously appeals to your sense of hearing, and so it would seem that how it sounds would be one of the first and most important things to check out.  In reality, it is usually the sense of sight that you use to do most of the initial filtering.  This doesn’t mean that it is less important than what it sounds like, I am just going in order according to how most people make their selection.  So what are we looking at?

Shape: Some people would say that shape is unimportant.  I think it is actually very important.  While it may not contribute to the sound of an electric guitar, here are three reasons I think shape is important: Style, ergonomics, and storage.

  • Style:  Some people say that focusing on how you look is only for posers.  I think that your image is a projection of your style and personality and since you are an artist, you should express yourself fully.  Maybe that means using the same guitar as everyone else, or maybe it means using a Hello Kitty guitar in a death metal band, but since shape and color have no noticeable effect on how a guitar sounds, why not get something that fits your image?
  • Ergonomics:  Chances are that you will be playing this guitar for more than one song.  How will you be playing it?  Sitting, standing, slung low, or high?  Some designers actually have some pretty funky shaped guitars, but they are extremely comfortable to hold and play.  Other guitars are bulky, heavy, or just awkward.  Maybe that isn’t important, but if it isn’t comfortable to play, you probably won’t.
  • Storage:  A lot of people don’t think about this, and most manufacturers make pretty standard shapes anyway, but if you do pick up an odd size or shaped guitar, can you get a standard case for it?  (Cases are great for protecting your guitar. Even if you don’t care about scratches and stuff, you still don’t want it to break.)  Also, how does it sit on a stand?  Those round bottom guitars do fine just about any stands.  Other shapes…  Wall hangers are very nice for them, but things like the Gibson Explorer and a few pointy shapes have limited options outside of the case.

If you see f-holes (cut outs in the top) that implies that the body is hollow or semi-hollow, that is something that goes beyond superficial and can have an effect on the sound.  Wood choices which may or may not be visible can also have an effect.  Woods will be covered in a future article.  Size in electrics generally does not have an effect on the sound either, although in hollow body and acoustic guitars it can make a big difference.  Pickups, bridge style, head stock (tuning machine layout and head stock angle) are also things that provide more than just visual aesthetic.  Again, this is stuff that will be covered in future articles.

Finish:  There are a lot of different finishes available on instruments.  If you are buying a guitar made by a major manufacturer it most likely has a catalyzed polyurethane/polyester finish unless it is a special model, and even then it is likely still a variation of.  When you get into boutique, custom, and vintage guitars you may find nitrocellulose lacquer, varnishes, oil finishes, and occasionally other things.

What does it mean?  Mostly how the guitar’s finish will hold up and age. (Looks over the long term).  It also affects repair-ability of the finish and how it feels.

Catalyzed poly finishes are very hard so they hold up pretty well to standard wear and tear.  If they do get damaged, it is extremely hard to do a seamless repair appearance wise.  Usually these finishes are applied very thick and give that dipped in glass/plastic look and feel.

Nitrocellulose is easy to repair because new nitro can be “burned in” creating a seamless blend.  Of course it still requires color matching if the damage goes through the color layer.  Nitro tends to yellow with age and develops crazing (the lines that look like little cracks in old paint).  Before catalyzed finishes, nitro was one of the most common finishes.  Nitro is revered by many in the guitar world as the holy grail of finishes, often for various mythical reasons, but the finish doesn’t contribute a noticeable effect to tone on an electric guitar, so unless you want it for one of the other features it is probably not worth worrying about.

Water based finishes are newer to the guitar world and the technology is still evolving.  It is often as durable as nitro, but there are a lot of different recipes.  It is usually used by smaller manufacturers and independent builders because the cost of equipment for catalyzed finishes can be prohibitive, and/or because they are being more environmentally and health conscious.

Oil and other finishes can give a natural look and feel to the wood, but most provide little protection to the wood itself because they are so thin.  A semi natural feel can be achieved with a thin layer of nitro, some water based finishes, and certain varnishes.

Next Time: Next time I will start getting into some of the other things that you see, namely the hardware.  Bridges, pickups, tuners, and what those switches and knobs might mean.