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Chatter: Gary Brawer - Different Materials, Different Sounds

June 4, 2013
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Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”

THEY SAY A CHANGE IS AS good as a holiday and variety is the spice of life. Well, that goes for guitar hardware, too. If a guitar part breaks, you obviously need to replace it, but plenty of parts can be swapped out with those of a different material simply to experiment with the changes in tone, feel, and/or durability that the new components offer. Although you can replace just about anything on a guitar, this installment will focus on the various parts of bridges on acoustic and electric guitars. Many of these experiments and upgrades can be done at home if you have a little skill, confidence, and curiosity.

Graph Tech’s String Saver saddle replacements are a great cure for string breakage because of their super-low friction at the point where the string contacts the saddle. Many players also find that graphite saddles improve sustain compared to other materials. KTS was one of the first manufacturers to get into titanium replacement parts for guitar bridges, and they go so far as to post frequency analyses on their site comparing how their parts respond versus ones made of steel. The FU-Tone company started making brass trem block replacements for Floyd Rose bridges and now offers parts for tons of other bridges in copper, titanium, steel, and brass. And yes, you can hear the difference. Resellers like Stewart-MacDonald, Allparts, WD Music, KGC, or LMI can be one-stop shops for cutting-edge replacement parts and a resource for ideas to breathe new life into a tired guitar.

Jeff Babicz has his line of Full Contact Hardware for electric guitar and bass that features a totally unique adjusting architecture. The components are produced with extruded billet aluminum, which is very musical sounding, as opposed to cast metals, which are porous and acoustically inert. Babicz’s direct replacement bridges can be adjusted so there are no gaps between the string and the bridge plate. Along the same lines, the Schaller-Hannes bridge is designed with individual saddles that couple the string and saddle to the top but decouple from each other. The unique bridge features a String Saver saddle assembly held together with a metal adjustment back plate.

One DIY modification for acoustic guitars is to change out your bridge pins. People are divided as to the tonal improvements, but as most pins are plastic, they bend and wear very quickly. There is an art to fitting the string and bridge pin, and it should be done with a good, solid material. If you want to experiment with materials, try brass, bone, black horn, boxwood, rosewood, snakewood, ebony, or composites like ivoroid (galalith) or Tusq by Graph Tech. Important: Never force fit the bridge pins. They should be just about finger tight and not fall out. A new and different take on bridge pins comes from Bigrock Engineering. Their Power Pins provide a tighter coupling between the strings and bridge for increased resonance.

You can learn a lot about why guitars sound the way they do by exploring options such as these. An added bonus is that you can always go back to the way you had it before, so you really have nothing to lose. Experiment and have fun.

Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.

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