The bridge is a critical part of the guitar, as it supports the strings and transmits the vibration of those strings – in the case of an electric guitar – to your pickups. The type you use can have a dramatic effect on the kind of music you can play.
Bridges are broadly grouped into two camps: fixed (or ‘hard-tail’) and tremolos. In this article, we look at the most common ones in each category, used by Fender, Gibson, Floyd Rose, Ibanez and more.
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Fixed / Hard-Tail Bridges
In the vast world of guitars there are several different types of fixed and hard-tail bridges, so let’s start off by taking a look at some of the most common.
Fender fixed bridges are built into hard-tail Stratocasters and some Telecaster models. The term ‘fixed’ is used because the bridge itself is stationary on the guitar’s body and cannot move. They are made up of a single metal plate that holds six adjustable saddles to support each guitar string.
The great thing about them is they are easy to adjust. To raise or lower the string’s action all you need to do is grab a screwdriver and turn the screws. This means you can control your guitar’s intonation without needing to pay for a professional setup.
Telecasters vary slightly, however, as their hard-tailed bridge sometimes have three saddles instead of six. The pickup is often set within the metal plate mount itself too.
Overall, they’re a great option for newbies, seeing as they stay in tune well, are easy to restring and only require a twist of a screw to change the guitar’s intonation and action.
Abbreviated to simply ‘TOM’, these bridges were first designed by Gibson and contain two parts: a stop bar tailpiece and a metal bridge. The bridge itself features two posts at either end, which are handy in that they can be twisted to raise or lower the string’s action.
There are still six-string saddles, but the unique aspect here is that the TOM mechanism allows for more refined adjustments in comparison to the Fender type above.
The stop bar holds the strings in place and keeps them in tune pretty well, as demonstrated by the classic Gibson Les Paul.
That said, hybrid ‘string-through’ TOMs are becoming increasingly popular, especially among Schecter guitar manufacturers, for their heightened sustain. These versions don’t include a stop bar tailpiece, so the strings run straight through into the bridge saddles from the guitar’s body.
Overall, TOMs are a great option for beginners that want to play rock music, as they are easy to adjust and provide plenty of sustain.
Tremolos are a type of floating bridge originally thought up in the 1920s. The Bigsby bridge was actually the first commercially successful vibrato system until Fender’s Stratocaster design took over popularity in the fifties.
Fender confused a lot of folks by using the term ‘tremolo’, which actually refers to a difference in volume, rather than ‘vibrato’ which means a change of pitch. To add to the confusion, the bar you use to control the tremolo is called the ‘whammy bar‘.
Synchronized tremolos bridges have six saddles that can be adjusted for each string, much like the fixed variety. However, the major difference is they can be manipulated by pressing down a whammy bar to produce a vibrato effect. There are several different tremolo designs, so let’s take a look at some of the best options below.
The synchronized tremolo system works thanks to its integrated bridge and tailpiece. The design includes a pivot edge on the top metal plate that allows the string tension to change.
The bridge itself is made from sturdy metal, with six individually adjustable saddles. The major difference between the Fender fixed and tremolo design is that there are springs inside the guitar body that apply tension to support the strings.
The downside is that the pitch bend range is fairly small in comparison to other tremolo systems out there (see below). However, because the tailpiece moves with the bridge, the Fender system is pretty stable and keeps the strings in tune well. Here’s a decent guide to tremolo bridges if you want to read up on them some more.
Floyd Rose Style Tremolo
The Floyd Rose Tremolo was first designed in the ’80s when thrash metal shredding was all the rage and remains a popular choice among heavy metal musicians today.
Floyd Rose and Fender both rely on the same fundamental design to produce a vibrato effect: the strings are held under tension via a set of springs and a pivot point that allows the bridge to change the pitch by rocking backwards and forwards.
The Floyd Rose, however, features some structural improvements that help the strings stay in tune for longer.
For example, they contain a double locking system which includes locking nuts to hold the strings in place, plus adjustable thumbscrews to manipulate the string saddles.
The Floyd Rose also provides a smoother run across the saddles, which means the strings experience less friction.
In turn, this prevents wear and tear when the bridge increases and decreases the string tension.
The result is the ability to perform huge whammy bar pitch bends such as dive bombs, reverse dive bombs and ‘scoop and doops’ – we discuss whammy bar techniques here if you’re interested – without knocking out your tuning.
Have a listen:
The downside is that getting a Floyd Rose set up is quite a challenge as the spring tension, fine tuners and locking nuts all require a bit of tweaking to get right.
For this reason, this is only for the brave.
Ibanez makes a few of their own brand-specific tremolo bridges, one of which is known as the ‘Edge’. This device features a double-locking system and a pivot fulcrum that works in the same manner as the Floyd Rose. In particular, Ibanez RG and S series guitars have Edge bridges built-in.
The major difference between the Edge and the Floyd Rose, however, is that you can replace the bridge’s knife edges with ease and the string saddles are smaller and smoother. Interestingly, Ibanez has increased the bridge’s overall mass too, so that you get even more sustain. As well as this, there’s lost-wax casting which helps to boost your harmonics.
Another well-known Ibanez design is the Zero Resistance tremolo. This functions just like the Edge model, but uses ball bearings and a stop rod to change the string tension. A ball bearing connection is a bonus as it lets the bridge tilt up and down smoothly, to avoid tuning issues.
As well as this, the Zero Resistance design features an extra set of springs, so that the tremolo sets back into place more accurately than the Floyd Rose.
Kahler makes tremolo bridges that use a cam system, rather than a fulcrum to change the string tension. These devices became popular in the ’80s, with metal guitarists such as Slayer’s Kerry King using them live.
The only downside is that guitars with rounded tops, like the Gibson Les Paul (or the many Copies out there), can’t support them. However, Kahler also produces a bass guitar tremolo system so would be a great choice for any creative bassists out there.
These are a sort of upgraded two-point, knife-edge Fender tremolo bridge that’s easier to adjust than the Floyd Rose.
Just be aware that although Wilkinson bridges feature locking tuners and quality springs, they aren’t quite as stable as the Floyd Rose. In particular, the strings tend to fall out of tune more quickly, so can require re-tuning after each song you play.
That said, the lock down saddles give it some extra sustain and tone transfer.
Bigsby bridges are most often used on hollow or semi-hollow guitars, like Gretsch, for example, and have a vintage tremolo design. In most cases, the strings are wrapped around a metal bar within the bridge and are secured by hooking them onto a set of pins.
The vibrato bar here is larger than those present on the Floyd Rose and Fender varieties, but the bridge itself only bends the string’s pitch slightly.
For this reason, the Bigsby is best suited to country or folk guitarists, as it won’t be able to kick out the huge dive bombs you get in extreme metal music.
If you’re a beginner that wants something basic and easy to handle, then go for a fixed or Tune-O-Matic. Just remember, Fender fixed bridges will already be built into most Stratocasters, whereas Gibson guitars tend to feature Tune-O-Matics for their extra sustain.
If you’re into extreme metal or heavier genres of music, then a tremolo bridge will be a great choice to enhance your playing. In particular, Floyd Rose, Khaler or Ibanez are best at producing massive dive bombs and pitch bends. Just remember, all of these devices take some time to set up correctly and can be very frustrating if you’re new to it all.
Perhaps you want a tremolo that isn’t quite as wild? If so, either the Bigsby or the Fender Tremolo system will deliver some fun experimental tones for you to get creative with. That said, the Fender Tremolo will still allow for more intense pitch bends, whereas the Bigsby can only go down in pitch.