The bridge of an electric guitar is an important part of the guitar’s function, playability and tone. The bridge of a guitar is located on the main body, and functionally works as a saddle that the strings rest on, allowing the strings to feely vibrate.
There are many different forms of electric guitar bridges, and decoding the pros and cons of each can be difficult until you understand the basic functions and characteristics of the main types of bridges.
There are many different manufacturers and models of bridges, but most of them follow the same principles to achieve a fundamental function.
There are a few main design features that impact the function and tone of the bridge: whether it is fixed or floating (modulating), and whether it is one-piece, or multiple pieces.
We’ll take a look at the common configurations that are out there, and where you may run into some of the more esoteric variations.
What is an Electric Guitar Bridge & How does it work?
The bridge on a guitar has two core functions: to affix the string to the guitar body, and to provide a point for the string to rest on (called the saddle) so that it can vibrate freely.
On floating/modulating bridges, the bridge can be physically moved (using a whammy bar/vibrato arm), resulting in a pitch change of all the strings.
If all this terminology is new to you, you should check out our guide on electric guitar parts (with photos and labels). It’ll make things clearer by having a visual aid!
Saddles are an important component of a guitar’s bridge. They are usually small, adjustable pieces of grooved metal that the strings sit on.
There are usually six saddles (one for each string), which can be adjusted to change each string’s intonation, which is critical for producing the accurate pitch of a fretted note (especially on the higher frets of the guitar).
On certain archtop guitars (and on almost all acoustic guitars), the saddle has the same function, however it is a single piece of material (often made of bone, metal or plastic) and is non-adjustable.
On many Telecasters, there are only 3 saddles, where each saddle holds two strings.
On electric guitars, the intonation of each string can be set by adjusting the horizontal position of the saddle. By adjusting this position, the saddle can move closer to the nut or further away from the nut, thereby changing the vibrating length of the string.
The pitch of a string is determined by its vibrating length and the amount of tension in the string.
The scale length of a guitar is the distance between the bridge and the nut (effectively the length of the vibrating portion of the string), which in turn, determines the fret intervals (the distance between the frets).
The saddle adjustment can be thought of as a fine tuning of the scale length, so that when the 12th fret is played on a properly intonated string, the pitch is an exact octave above the open string. If the intonation is improperly set, then you may notice tuning issues on fretted notes, especially on notes played beyond the 12th fret.
Saddles can also be adjusted vertically, which affects the height of the string relative to the pickups and fretboard. The saddle height is an important adjustment to make when optimizing the setup of your guitar.
If the saddles are too low, the strings can buzz against the frets, and if they are too high, the strings may be too hard to comfortably press. This is known as a guitar’s “action”.
The material and general design of the saddles can affect the guitar’s sustain, tuning stability and tone. Saddles are most commonly made of metal (such as stainless steel, brass, titanium, and many more alloys), ceramics, or composite materials (such as Tusq made by Graph Tech).
Some saddles are also made with small roller bearings for the string to sit in to help reduce string breakage, and to allow for better tuning stability when using a modulating bridge.
Types of Electric Guitar Bridges
It is difficult to directly compare guitar bridges, since there are various functions and designs that can be interchanged to produce many different configurations.
We’ll break these down into single-piece versus multi-piece bridges and modulating versus non-modulating bridges.
Single-Piece vs Multi-Piece Bridges
The first main design aspect of electric guitar bridges is the number of pieces.
Single-piece bridges, as the name suggests, contain all of the bridge components on a single piece of metal. This means that the string ends and the saddles are all affixed to the same bridge piece.
“Ashtray” style and Fender Tremolo bridges are often seen on flat top guitars, such as Stratocasters (and Strat-style guitars), Telecasters, etc. Flat top guitars can accommodate pretty much any configuration of bridge with some (or a lot) of modification.
Wraparound bridges are single piece bridges that are often found on vintage, “junior” style guitars, such as the Les Paul Jr. These bridges are mounted on posts screwed into the guitar, resembling the stop bar of a two-piece bridge.
On a wraparound bridge, however, the strings are loaded in the opposite direction from the neck, wrapping around the bridge, resting in the fixed saddle grooves on the top of the bar.
The main limitation of these bridges is the inability to adjust the saddles for intonation adjustment. The posts on a wraparound bridge are usually vertically adjustable so that the action can still be modified, as needed.
Multi-piece bridges are usually two pieces, consisting of the bridge piece (containing the saddles) and a tailpiece which holds the string ends.
The most common multi-piece bridge is Gibson’s Tune-o-matic bridge with a stop-bar tailpiece, which is used on almost all fixed-bridge Gibsons.
These types of bridges are commonly used on archtop guitars (such as the Gibson Les Paul, ES335, etc.), where it is impossible or impractical to affix a flat bridge to the guitar body.
With that said, these types of bridges are not exclusively reserved for archtops, as they are found on many flat top guitars such as the Gibson SG and Fender Jazzmasters.
Depending on the type of guitar and the era, multi-piece bridges can have varying styles of tailpieces. As previously mentioned, stop-bar tailpieces are typically used for fixed, multi-piece bridges.
On older hollow and semi-hollow guitar models, however, the bridge tailpieces were sometimes affixed to the end of the guitar’s body (similar to the tailpieces on a violin).
On these tailpieces, a metal plate or bar extends from the end of the guitar to the near side of the bridge. The end of the strings thread and anchor into the tailpiece, elevating it off of the guitar body when the strings are under full tension.
This type of tailpiece can be seen on many vintage style, archtop guitars, such as vintage Hofner guitars, Gretsch Country Gentleman and vintage Gibson ES335’s (among others).
Fixed Bridge (Hard Tail) vs Modulating/Floating Bridges
Now that we have an idea of the two general design styles of bridges, we can talk about modulating bridges. Modulation, in musical context, means to vary some parameter of sound (such as pitch, volume or tone).
With fixed bridges, there is no ability to modulate the pitch of the strings through the bridge.
With modulating/ floating bridges, however, the pitch of the strings can be changed by varying the position of the bridge (or a mechanism within the bridge), which changes tension (and therefore, pitch) of the strings.
In this next section, we will look at some types of bridges that can modulate, and how their mechanisms differ. First, we have to talk about “tremolo”.
What is Tremolo?
I would be remiss to write an article on bridges and not talk about the misnaming of the Fender Tremolo bridge.
Being a major producer of these bridges, the name “tremolo bridge” is now somewhat ubiquitous with this style of bridge, even though the effect that this bridge produces is not called tremolo.
Tremolo is a type of modulation that varies the amplitude (or volume) of a sound or audio signal.
“Tremolo” bridges allow for the bridge to be modulated so that the pitch of all the strings can simultaneously be changed.
The resulting modulating pitch effect made by “tremolo” bridges is actually vibrato, not tremolo. Vibrato is the modulation of the pitch of a sound or audio signal.
This means that “tremolo bridge” is actually a misnomer, and should more aptly be named “vibrato bridge” (though some bridge manufacturers do make this distinction).
Throughout the industry, however, “tremolo” bridge is generally an accepted term for this style of bridge and is often used interchangeably with “vibrato.”
Fixed bridges, also known as hardtail bridges, do not allow for any vibrato effects to be played using the bridge.
These bridges are generally much more simple than their modulating counterparts, since they are designed to have no moving parts when played.
The main advantage (and in some eyes, disadvantage) of fixed bridges is that they cannot modulate.
If you tend to play a style or genre of music that traditionally uses a lot of vibrato (such as lead guitar in hard rock or metal), you may consider a model of guitar that offers a modulating bridge.
Many guitarists play hardtail guitars without any issue or need for a modulating bridge, and ultimately, it is up to personal preference on which is “better.”
Fixed bridges almost always offer superior tuning stability when compared to modulating bridges and overall, they are less of a fuss and much more simple to use when performing basic functions and maintenance.
Guitars such as the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul are usually hardtail guitars. Fender Stratocasters do come in hardtail variations, but are often sold stock with a Fender Tremolo bridge (which is a modulating bridge).
It can be a bit challenging to determine if a one-piece bridge is a hardtail or vibrato (since they look very similar).
You can usually find this out by gently pulling upwards on the back of the bridge (a modulating bridge will move up with some resistance) or by looking for the vibrato arm hole on the front of the bridge (usually placed below the strings on the bridge near the saddles).
Modulating/Floating Bridges (Fender, Floyd Rose & Ibanez)
There are a few big names in the modulating bridge game. Fender, Floyd Rose, Bigsby and Ibanez are a few brands that produce common modulating bridges.
Each of these brands make versions that are compatible with flat top guitars, however, only Bigsby produces a bridge that is compatible with archtops.
Single-Piece Modulating Bridges
Probably the most common single-piece, modulating bridge is the Fender Tremolo bridge. This style of bridge is installed in almost every stock Fender/Squier Stratocaster and Strat-style guitar, as it is a simple, low fuss bridge that reliably provides a limited but effective amount of modulation for most situations.
These bridges use a removable tremolo arm/vibrato arm/whammy bar to tilt the bridge so that the saddles move very slightly towards the guitar nut. This in turn, lowers the pitch of all the strings by an increasing amount as the arm is pressed.
The action of the bridge is counterweighted by springs in the back of the guitar that are anchored into the body and connected to the protruding portion of the bridge in the body of the guitar. As the whammy bar is returned to its normal position, the tension from the springs returns the bridge to the original position.
The Floyd Rose and Ibanez Edge bridge are variations on the Fender Tremolo Bridge that allow the bridge to be dramatically modulated forwards and backwards, so that the whammy bar can cause the strings to pitch down as well as pitch up (which is not possible with the Fender Tremolo bridge).
These types of bridges are most often seen on metal guitars, as it is desirable within the genre to have the ability to modulate the strings’ pitches both up and down.
With all this string movement, tuning stability can be a challenge, especially on cheaper models with high amounts of modulation freedom.
As a result, many high modulating bridges benefit from some sort of string locking system that helps combat the constant tension fluctuations from the bridge.
Locking tuners and locking nuts help combat this by restricting string slippage at the headstock. Locking tuners have mechanisms that restrict any slippage of the tuning posts.
Locking nuts are nuts that sandwich the guitar strings between two pieces of metal, restricting the string from slipping at the nut. The aim of both of these systems is to reduce the variability of tension within the vibrating portion of the strings once the bridge has returned to its “normal” position.
Both of these systems make tuning the guitar more time consuming and a bit more difficult when locked. When in use, the locking tuners and especially the locking nuts can cause great inconvenience to fine tune a string.
Therefore, on many of these specialty bridges, there are fine tuners located on the bridge. These fine tuners are small screws that push against the strings on the bridge, working in the same way that fine tuners on a violin work.
They allow for small, precise tuning/tension adjustments to take place at the bridge instead of at the headstock. With these additions, the tuning stability and ease of tuning is greatly increased.
Without these extra tuning precautions, it can be very difficult and frustrating to keep a guitar with these types of bridges in-tune.
If you have a guitar with a single-piece modulating bridge that you want to convert to a hardtail, it is possible to do so without replacing the bridge. In order to make your bridge a hardtail, you just need to block the bridge’s ability to move.
I have done this with my Strat-style guitar by wedging a piece of wood in the back of my guitar (in the compartment to access the rear of the bridge) between the bridge and the body of the guitar.
Since I don’t typically use a whammy bar, this made the most sense for me, as I preferred to have more consistent tuning stability over a modulating bridge.
Multi-Piece Modulating Bridges (Bigsby)
There are not very many options when it comes to multi-piece modulating bridges. By far, the most popular option there is the Bigsby, which is available in many different models to accommodate flat top guitars, archtop electric guitars, varying bridge widths, etc.
Bigsbys are very distinct in their style, with a broad, fixed vibrato arm, sporting the brand name boldly on the tail pieces.
Strings are affixed to a rotating shaft on the Bigsby that rotates in both directions (depending if the vibrato arm is pulled or pushed), either raising or lowering the string tension and pitch.
Bigsbys are sold as tailpieces, and are to be used in conjunction with a bridge for the strings to sit on such as a Tune-o-matic, a roller bridge, or a Gretsch Rocking bar.
In my experience, Bigsbys look great and are really fun to use, but can be a hassle to keep in tune.
They are not intended to create the same depth of modulation as a Floyd Rose or Ibanez Edge, so they rarely utilize locking nuts, but can benefit from high quality/ specialty components (such as a roller bridge, or self lubricating/low friction nut) or locking tuners.
The Differences Between Types of Electric Guitar Bridges
Figuring out the difference between bridges is straightforward if you break down the features into two categories: number of pieces, and modulating or non-modulating.
Bridge Comparison Table
The table below can help you quickly cross reference some of the common bridge arrangements.
|Single-Piece||Tele Ashtray Bridge|
Hardtail Strat Bridge
|Fender Tremolo |
Fender Jaguar Bridge
Aftermarket bridges are available anywhere from about $50 all the way into the hundreds of dollars. Generally speaking, more complex bridges (such as Bigsbys and Floyd Rose bridges) will cost more.
If you are completely changing the style of the bridge, there may be other costs and considerations if major modifications are needed to fit your desired bridge onto your guitar (ie. luthier costs, locking tuners, locking nuts, etc.).
When doing any major structural modifications to a guitar or when replacing a very fine component (such as a nut), it may be best to hire a luthier to make the modifications.
Here are some answers to more questions about electric guitar bridges.
Do electric guitars have bridges?
All functional electric guitars have a bridge, as it is a required component for the strings to sit on and vibrate.
What is the best type of electric guitar bridge?
This is very subjective, since different electric guitar bridges serve different purposes. Any bridge made by a reputable brand (such as Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Bigsby, Ibanez and Floyd Rose) are likely to be made with high standards and warranty protection.
What are bridges made out of?
Electric guitar bridges are usually made out of metal, such as steel, and can be plated with various other types of metal (such as chrome or gold) to fit the guitar’s aesthetic.
Saddles on an electric guitar can have more variation in material and can be made from metal, ceramic, bone, plastic/composite or even roller bearings.
To learn more about the electric guitar, here are some other articles to answer questions you might have!
- Bass vs. Electric Guitar – The Difference
- Can You Use A Capo on Electric Guitar?
- Single Cut vs. Double Cut Guitars Explained
In the end, bridges are complex components that have many implications on the function, sound, and action of an electric guitar. Different styles and models of bridges cater to the immense variability of electric guitar styles that are available to buy.
Understanding how the different styles of bridges work can help you get the most out of your guitar or find the configuration that will work the best for your own musical preference.