The guitar’s bridge and accompanying hardware are oft considered one of the most identifiable parts of the guitar, not least for typically being so shiny. So focused on the overall pitch of the strings, this aspect of the guitar’s hardware more often the not holds considerable sway when an aspiring guitarist is seeking to purchase a new vessel.
Though there are so many different guitar bridge types, the debate is known to fall into a firm, dichotomic binary between the more obvious options: between either vibrato arm or no vibrato arm.
There are, however, many options in the middle of these two peak poles, all of which can have a truly significant effect on a guitar’s overall sound and, most importantly, the overall playing experience, which is doubly important for a guitarist just starting out, who might be left with a bad taste in their mouth that they can’t get out.
For instance, some more seasoned guitarists refuse to use locking tremolos because they think that they bring a lot of baggage with them and are a hassle to deal with, so they instead opt for something with lower maintenance. On the other hand, some will exclusively use Floyd Roses and similar systems because they have a reputation for being strong, sturdy, and reliable for performing whammy tricks and staying in tune all the while.
Which of the Guitar Bridge Types is the Best?
As with so many aspects of learning an instrument and the various acts of commerce that come with it, there is no one objective best of anything. So much of the beauty of learning an instrument, especially one so personal as the guitar, is that you can take it and adopt it as your own, sculpting your own way into the world of music with it, using it as a carpenter might a tool of their own.
That being said, there are certainly some better than others, such as those that are simply better able to hold tuning better in comparison to those of a similar model, unless you are a particular fan of being entirely out of tune as those in outsider music circles seem to be.
This isn’t to say that there are some guitar bridge types that are better than others, for this is all a matter of taste, context, and the style of music that the bridge will be acting as a conduit for. However, this also isn’t to suggest that all guitar bridge types are equal, for they are not, and it is precisely their differences that lead people to make such partisan choices when asked.
I’m sure we can all agree, though, that, of two guitar bridges of the same type and build, the one that is better able to fulfil the function and intent of the performer is the better guitar bridge for the job. So, it is in this sense that, while all guitar bridge types are equal from an objective god’s eye view, not all guitar bridges themselves as autonomous objects are equal.
Fixed Guitar Bridges vs Tremolo Bridges: A Dichotomy
Though it is of course important to look at the details as much as you can, if you are just starting out then it can be useful to reduce the often overwhelming panoply of guitar bridge types into a more palatable dichotomy that just about anyone can digest, including prospective guitarists such as yourself.
Thus, the series of guitar bridge types we will have under our microscope today will be split into two factions, to better digest them and organise them according to the needs of those reading this. After all, what use would it be if the reader and prospective buyer of a guitar or new guitar bridge who has already made their mind up to buy one such type of guitar bridge is subjected to propaganda on what to look for in another type?
The dichotomy is thus assembled between guitar bridge types that are governed by being used for vibrato and those that are fixed in place for the purposes of better staying in tune for longer periods of time.
I’m well aware that I said in the introduction to this article that it can be detrimental to simply pigeonhole the debate into such a fixed dichotomic symbiosis, and my opinion hasn’t changed since writing that earlier! This is simply a more friendly way to approach what can be such an ambiguous and overwhelming aspect of the guitar world.
Though some of the examples listed below will be more frequent than others, it is important to get a feel for the market so that you can best choose which would suit the intentions of your musical style best. In an age of seamless and lubricated internet shopping, you can source just about any niche piece of gear that you would not have been able to find even just a couple of decades ago!
Fixed Guitar Bridge Types
Here, I will elucidate for you the various guitar bridge types grouped under the umbrella of ‘fixed bridge’. These bridges, by their very nature, are fixed firmly in place, allowing little to no adjustment on the fly of the vibrato of the guitar.
Many famous guitarists have bypassed this aspect of this particular type of bridge, perhaps with looser fitting screws so that the bridge might be leaned upon with the palm of the picking hand for an added dimension of expression.
This is still a point of much contention even today, with droves of guitar enthusiasts still not wanting to touch a vibrato arm, or inversely a horde equal in number not wanting or feeling able to play a guitar without one, feeling their ability to express themselves utterly diminished by the lack of a vibrato arm to make the notes really sing.
The addition of a vibrato arm to a guitar can have a massively detrimental effect on the tuning of the guitar over time, making it difficult to consistently keep in tune. Earlier models of the guitar, such as the Stratocaster by Fender were notorious for this, not quite caught up or ironed out technologically to cope with incessant leaning on the vibrato arm by guitarists. It was rather common, in fact, for the springs to be entirely blocked off, fixing the bridge and rendering it more like its Telecaster brethren.
Hardtail bridges are one of the most ubiquitous guitar bridge types and can be found in varying degrees of quality throughout the western world. Guitar bridges don’t come much more simple than this design, which is scarcely more complex than the simple designs you might find on an acoustic guitar.
There are plenty of good reasons for their popularity, a popularity which can be seen right down to the bottom of a guitar catalogue, where even the wholesale guitar copies are equipped with them. They are easy to restring, especially useful for doing so on the fly during a gig, they are sturdy and reliable and more likely to hold their pitch against the various pitfalls of the guitar’s sonic coherence etc.
The restringing couldn’t be much simpler, in fact. First you take the old strings off (if there are any – I personally prefer to leave at least half on at a time to maintain tension in the truss rod), then you feed your new strings through the corresponding holes in the back of the guitar (D’Addario strings are very clearly colorised to make this part of the process decidedly less painful).
From here, the strings go through and hurdle over the saddles embedded in the bridge – some hardtail bridges are even equipped with holes in the back through which the strings go, though this ought not make a huge difference. The process from this point onwards will be the same for almost any other guitar, feeding as you do the strings into the tuning pegs and tightening according to whichever tuning you are going to use.
You can find these kinds of bridges on many guitars, and they can look and function slightly differently from another. One of the most popular kinds of hardtails is the Telecaster version, which is unique in that it uses 3 saddles. In fact, the hardtail bridge was the original type of bridge for Fender guitars, until Stratocasters started using synchronized tremolos of course.
It’s hard to fathom a time when this wasn’t one of the primary guitar bridge types. A quick glance at next to any Gibson Les Paul and you will know exactly what I am talking about; even brands that attempt to usurp this model of guitar are prone to using it for their own devices, and for good reason!
It’s hard to say whether the Tune-O-Matic bridge is more simple than the Hardtail style of bridge, though suffice it to say that they are both about as simple as guitar bridge types can be, prioritising the things that matter before anything else. Pitch, tuning, intonation, and tone are prized, as they should be by any luthier who knows their stuff.
The simplicity in the Tune-O-Matic bridge can be seen very obviously in the sheer lack of parts, comprised as it is of just two primary pieces. The first piece is a tailpiece fitted with adjustable screws so as to find a height that is right for each individual player and their individual context. The latter piece is the bridge itself, over which the strings are fed onto the fretboard and beyond.
As the more learned of you might already have surmised, this is one of those guitar bridge types that especially prizes tuning no matter in what guise that may come. The easy to access and to understand saddles make this a perfect bridge for sculpting a perfect intonation or even a more experimental intonation should you feel inclined.
This guitar bridge puts more of the power in the hands of the player, for each and every guitarist to be able to modify their guitar and perfect it how they want and however they see fit. However, it must be said that while intonation is something dear to the Tune-O-Matic’s heart, this is only with the right saddles. Often, these bridges are made with cheap saddles from cheap materials, and this can in fact have an inverse effect, the Out-of-Tune-O-Matic!
Wrap Around Bridges
This is a piece of history, one of the oldest kinds of guitar bridge types to ever grace the electric guitar, acting as the direct predecessor to the Tune-O-Matic, in fact being the reason for its very existence, the latter designed in response to the pitfalls of the former. Thus, if you come across a guitar with a wrap around bridge like so in the wild, then it is likely to be worth a considerable amount of money for being so old, so be wary and tread carefully folks!
This type of fixture, despite being older, can look a lot like a hybrid between the two parts of a Tune-O-Matic. It has the adjustable slots of the tailpiece while having the saddles of the bridge. The Tune-O-Matic essentially just separated the wrap around bridge into two parts, which helped to improve some of the latter’s intonation problems.
While wrap around bridges have a lot of history and have more or less been relegated to the past because of more favorable designs that treat your tuning and intonation with a little more respect, you can find this type of guitar bridge on a lot of entry level guitars because it is inexpensive to produce and still so effective considering.
And though it can look a little fiddly, you simply insert the strings from the bottom of the bridge and wrap them around the top of it, fastening them to the tuning pegs up top. Thus it can be a perfect bridge for a beginner finding themselves unable to fork out on a guitar equipped with the wrap around bridge’s successor, the Tune-O-Matic.
Tremolo / Floating / Vibrato Guitar Bridge Types
The addition of the vibrato arm to the bridge was quite simply revolutionary to the way we understand sound in popular music as well as its course throughout the rest of the 20th century. The electric guitars prevailing in the period were installed with six adjustable saddles for the relative intonation of each string, though the Stratocaster came along in the 1950s, installed with a two point tremolo system, allowing for rapid adjustment of pitch with what should be more accurately be called a vibrato arm.
This aspect of accuracy is one that has often plagued guitar bridge types of this variety, throughout the ages and seemingly ever since their implementation into the annuls of guitarology and popular music culture. No one quite knows the exact reasons why, but what ought to be referred to as a vibrato arm or vibrato system is more often than not misnamed as a tremolo arm or tremolo system respectively.
These are, without a doubt, some of the most popular types of bridges, especially for metal guitarists. You can thank many guitar heroes for the rise of some of these vibrato systems, which provided a wild, creative, and expressive way to play the guitar back in the 80s. However, you’ll soon learn that the floating bridge goes even further back than those years.
Successive generations of musicians have done little to help this trend, one of my favorite bands from the 1990s, My Bloody Valentine, even going so far as to name a whole EP Tremolo after the so called tremolo system so prevalently experimented with in their music. The bridge itself would be more accurately described as floating, as able to fluctuate between pitches fluidly. For the purposes of continuity and clarity, however, I will today be more often than not referring to the overall system as a vibrato system, vibrato arm, or vibrato bridge, and I urge you to do so in future too!
Synchronized Vibrato Systems
The synchronized tremolo system was one of the first to really introduce the concept of vibrato systems and vibrato arms to guitar bridge types and thus to musicians willing and wanting to experiment a little more.
This came to prominence in the 1950s, developed around the same by Fender and released with the adjoining Fender Stratocaster from the same decade. It’s easy to see how this particular design has become so synonymous with the Stratocaster and various copies of the Stratocaster, though one would be sorely mistaken were they to believe that this is the only place where they can be found and toyed with.
These systems can appear somewhat similar to a hardtail bridge, and are even the same in terms of the way that you would go about restringing them. They do, however, work differently, particularly due to the tremolo and the springs required to make it function as intended. When the guitarist uses it, it moves and pivots the fixture, which allows the pitch to be altered. Pressing or pulling on the vibrato arm will bring the bridge forward or back, and that lowers and raises the pitch, respectively. This is essentially what vibrato is in a nut shell.
These systems were also some of the first to use the springs, which apply tension and allow the bridge to stay on the guitar. They are needed for balance, and if they are not properly adjusted, it can cause some serious internal problems. So always get a guitar setup and don’t attempt to make fixes on your own if you’re unsure of what you’re doing.
Locking Vibrato Systems
This particular type of guitar bridge and adjoining vibrato system has garnered a bit of a bad press amongst music equipment aficionados, many deeming it a real pain sometimes, though I think it only fair to give it its due attention, to allow you, humble and aspiring guitarist, to forge your own way in this chaotic world and to make your own conclusions.
The system itself acquired its name for its ability to clamp and hold strings in place, meaning that tuning can be more accurately attained without losing the ability to express oneself like a vocalist that a vibrato system can so often provide a guitarist so inclined. A single locking tremolo only does this at the bridge, but a double locking one will clamp at the bridge and also have a locking nut, which you can tighten and loosen with an allen key, an essential guitar tool.
One of the aspects that receives the most bad press is that of tuning, which can rendered rather cumbersome and fiddly when a vibrato system so complex as to be computational is involved. Sometimes there are small pieces that can get out of place and some require you to cut the ball-ends off the strings. Setting them up also takes more time and effort, which is why guitar techs will usually charge more to work on them.
The Floyd Rose
One of the leading examples of the locking vibrato system is that of the Floyd Rose, of which there are several varieties, though all do more or less the same thing.
Mr. Floyd Rose came up with his design in the mid to late 1970s as response to his Fender’s inability to stay in tune when using the tremolo bar. It was subsequently made famous by guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, who were known to do crazy things with the whammy bar, dive bombs and the like, making use of the Floyd Rose’s innate ability to lock tuning in place and not let go even if it’s life depended on it.
The original Floyd Rose did its job very well and was endorsed by leagues of guitarists from genres and styles far and wide. To this day, the original Schaller Floyd Rose is the cream of the crop of this type of guitar bridge types. However, derivatives were created, and the quality just wasn’t the same.
The Ibanez Edge
Constructed in a very similar vein to their Floyd Rose brethren, the Ibanez Edge is a variety of locking vibrato system attempting to serve a very similar purpose in their own niche way.
The Edge was born from Floyd Rose’s licensing with Gotoh, and consequently many of these Edge designs were created by Gotoh, but with their own twists to avoid lawsuits. As with Floyd Rose’s, there is a difference in quality between Ibanez / Gotoh Edge tremolos, so proceed with caution.
If you’re buying a guitar with a locking tremolo, try to do some research beforehand, to figure out what kind it is using. If it doesn’t have a good quality one, you might be better off with a more simplistic bridge. After all, what’s the point of having an entire vibrato system, a system that also makes tuning and setting the guitar up a pain I might add, when you are hesitant to use it for fear of it losing tuning in the first place?
Bigsby Vibrato Systems
This is one of guitar bridge types that comes attached with an awful lot of history, though I’ve no doubt you’ve already surmised this, for they look like they were designed in some flurry of steam punk idealism back when that was popular – Victorian age imaginings of a mechanised and industrial future.
The Bigsby vibrato system is officially the first kind of vibrato system, at least which was strapped onto an electric guitar, predating the synchronized tremolos designed, pioneered and made world famous by Fender by at least a few years, released as the former was in 1951. This kind of electric guitar bridge has become something of an antiquity owing to the effectiveness of its competitors, but it has always has an iconic and distinct aesthetic to it, and you can still find it on some new guitars today, new guitarists fawning over the look if nothing else.
The Bigsby design is unique in that it is a type of tailpiece tremolo and thus, it works alongside a separate bridge that has saddles on it. Thus, a Bigsby isn’t technically a bridge. The spring function is entirely different in that it sits right under the bar, rather than working in the back of the guitar, like our previous types of tremolos. The springs are also much smaller than your traditional ones, meaning the span of the vibrato from highest to lowest point is usually smaller, rendering it perfect for more subtle flourishes.
This vibrato system has plenty of functions, however, and is still popular to this today, often bound to the back of an antiquated looking Gretsch. Brian Setzer, a long time enthusiast of the Gretsch sound as fed through Filtertron pickups as well as of the Bigsby’s majesty, would have something to say were you to throw any shade the Bigsby’s way.
Stetsbar Vibrato Systems
This is a very interesting alternative to the other guitar bridge types we have thus far explored. Those that came before have been far more concrete, more their own entities and their own branding, many of which were there back in the day forging ahead and paving new paths for the history of the guitar. This vibrato system, however, is a little different.
The Stetsbar is actually a unique type of system that seeks to adapt to the various guitar bridge types that these guitars come equipped with already. This originally came about as a solution for installing vibrato systems onto Gibson SG’s and Les Paul’s without using the fabled Bigsby system. As we have explored, the Bigsby is all well and good, but can be a little too subtle in control for some tastes, so the Stetsbar was the perfect alternative.
Later on in their career, Stetsbar created models that worked with all kinds of different bridges, including many we have already explored: there’s the Hardtail and T style systems which mount on the regular and Telecaster hardtail bridges, as well as the S Style which works with the Stratocaster’s synchronized system.
For this reason it seems it’s not too common to find a Stetsbar when looking for a guitar for sale. It seems that they are more of a custom piece for those who want to upgrade or try something new with little to no modifications to their instrument or fuss overall. Perfect for some, including you perhaps?
So, there you have it, a comprehensive and (I hope) helpful guide to navigating the sometimes confusing and sometimes tedious world of guitar bridge types. It is my hope that you are at least slightly better equipped to think about these kinds of things for yourself, which you can see yourself leaning towards with regards to your purposes and needs musically.
I also pray that you are feeling better able to discuss these things with a friend, a fellow aspiring guitarist and music buddy, or even an employee at your local music store, who might be better able to cater for your questions, ideas, and needs.
FAQs Guitar Bridge Types
Hardtail bridges are one of the most ubiquitous guitar bridge types and can be found in varying degrees of quality throughout the western world. Guitar bridges don’t come much more simple than this design, which is scarcely more complex than the simple designs you might find on an acoustic guitar. There are plenty of good reasons for their popularity, a popularity which can be seen right down to the bottom of a guitar catalogue, where even the wholesale guitar copies are equipped with them. They are easy to restring, especially useful for doing so on the fly during a gig, they are sturdy and reliable and more likely to hold their pitch against the various pitfalls of the guitar’s sonic coherence etc.
The short answer is a holistic ‘no’. Though many, many acoustic guitar bridge types may look in essence the same and may certainly be performing the function, all of the different brands and models of acoustic guitar will have their own bridges to cater for certain singularities and idiosyncrasies in their own designs. Surely there can’t be one design for acoustic guitar bridges that fits each and every different type of acoustic guitar? Not only will the sizes and shapes and proportions be different, but the material that they are constructed from is likely to vary too.