Like a freeway’s crossroad cloverleaf for commuters,
a guitar’s bridge represents a crucial
intersection for the transportation of tone.
Getting from one part of the sprawling
Chicago metro area to another can
try anyone’s patience. If your journey takes
you through the fabled “Spaghetti Bowl”
just west of downtown, annoyance can turn
to unbridled anger. Technically known as a
circle interchange, this 1950s-vintage labyrinth
of ramps, curves, and crossovers merges
the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy
Expressways with the Congress Parkway.
It’s a stone’s throw from the former site of
the Maxwell Street Market, where Chicago
blues legends like Little Walter and Howlin’
Wolf began their careers. Sadly, Maxwell
Street’s open-air flea market is gone now,
but ironically, the concrete and steel
monstrosity of the Bowl remains. It rates
impossibly low as a way of getting to your
destination quickly, unless you are Oprah
on the way to the airport with a police
escort. Most days traversing this path, you
are consigned to trundling along ready to
snap, or forced to attempt a jailbreak along
the shoulder. It saps your energy no matter
how Zen you try to be.
How this relates to instrument building
is actually quite simple. Imagine your guitar’s
tone vibrations as little commuters zipping
down the strings with the intention to
proceed into the wood grain and then back
again. Some frequencies are in the “passing
lane,” flying along determined to bounce
back and forth from nut to bridge. Others
move more doggedly—similar to a truck
convoy—by rumbling the surface below.
As vibrating strings reach the intersection
of nut, bridge, tailpiece, and tuner, they are
faced with a decision prescribed by physics.
Even on the long return trip through neck
and body, the crossroads of the neck joint
looms ahead like the cash-only lane on the
Much like a transportation network, a
guitar is a resonant system where the components
all pass energy back and forth, excited
further by the wallop from your amplifier.
It can be a harmonious conversation that is
a joy to play, or a stubborn beast that dares
you to pass. Either way, there is a tonality
and a temperament associated with the sum
of the parts and their willingness to play
nicely with each other. It would be oversimplifying
things to say that the better the connection,
the better the sound. It might be fair
to apply this logic to sustain, but that’s quite
different from tone. In fact, some players
ascribe more weight to the rise of each individual
note than its decay. The beginning of
the note, or what I call the “nose,” is what
actually stamps your sound with character.
Acclaimed instrumentalist Steve Kimock
refers to this as the “prefix,” and it is where
the initial identity of tone resides.
Much of what makes an identifiable
sound on a guitar comes from the external
interface. This includes your fingers and your
plectrum (if you employ one). Instead of
veering off at this exit, I’ll concentrate on the
geeky hardware side of things and leave the
self-help stuff to another month’s column.
So, I thought I’d point out what is becoming
obvious at this stage: Wherever two parts
join each other along the path of vibration,
that spot is fair game for fine-tuning.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the brass
string-nut craze of the 1970s. The brass-bridge
phenomenon quickly followed, with
the theory being that more mass meant
more tone and sustain. The current infatuation
with lightweight, aluminum tailpieces—and lightweight instruments in general—is the other side of the same, worn coin.
There is a U.S. patent issued for a device
that adds mass to a guitar’s headstock, and
one for locking systems for bridge studs.
In fact, I have a bulging file folder full of
letters of introduction from inventors with
“genius” patents pending. Some of the ideas
might actually work, but the notion that
applying all of these remedies simultaneously
will result in a super-axe is a pipe dream
at best. That said, judicious use of upgrades
can indeed yield positive results, so let’s take
a look at a few places where you can tuneup
the freeway of tone.
A great place to start is to listen to
the attack (the beginning of the note as
described above). Is it sharp? Or is it more
rounded than you’d like? If it sounds like all
string and not much body, you might want
to consider changing your bridge material
to something that will allow the vibration
to pass as opposed to reflect. Typically, a
lighter material will do this.
The next place to examine is where the
bridge and/or tailpiece meet the guitar’s
body, which logically enough, is next in
line. Are the screws, posts, or anchors tightly
machined, or do they fit loosely? The physical
connection between parts can either be
transparent to vibration or dissipate energy
before it goes further. If your goal is to
engage the guitar’s wooden components
(neck and body), you need to tighten up the
threaded parts in the pathway and make sure
the mountings fit snugly against the body.
When possible, you can even use a locknut
between the post and body. Bridges or tailpieces
that are attached with wood screws
can benefit from tightening as well.
Another place where energy can be
either transferred or siphoned off is at the
tuning machine. The fit of the part within
the hole through the headstock is crucial to
this. Be certain that the retaining nuts (if
used) are fully tightened. If small screws are
used to seat the machine to the headstock,
make sure that they are firmly tightened as
well. With softer woods like mahogany or
cedar, it’s not unusual for these small screws
to strip during assembly at the factory, so
check to see if they need re-drilling and
doweling for a better fit.
As you can see, every part-to-part mating
is a potential fine-tuning point. The great
thing is that if you don’t like the results,
they are easily returned to where you started,
or even reversed for a different effect.
Unlike being stuck in rush-hour traffic in
Chicago, there is an upside to every turn of
noted designer, builder,
and player who co-founded
one of the first boutique
guitar brands, in 1973.
Today, as the director of
Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar. To
learn more, visit guitardesigner.com