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Fretboard and bridge – are you running flat?

  • by LEIF Bodnarchuk
  • 24 Jun, 2017

When bridge and fretboard don't match, the love is hard to find

When this Gretsch Tennessee Rose came in, its owner said they were having a hard time loving it. But why? It's magnificent! A Gretsch like this is synonymous with Brian Setzer, George Harrison, and Poison Ivy. When you pick it up you want to play like them… But… this Rose is actually a bit of a weed. 

What we have here is a floating bridge, and my task was to fix it in place. If you're used to electrics like SGs, Les Pauls or Teles, a floating bridge seems like the craziest thing in the world because it isn’t fixed to the body. It relies on string tension to keep it in place, and even then it has a tendency to wander, which affects the intonation and string position – not ideal in this crazy modern world of hard playing styles, and front-and-centre guitar music.

Intonation: the Rose's bridge hardware is basically a grooved metal bar, offering no individual saddle adjustments. When fixing the bridge in place, you find a placement that gives an all-round compromise on intonation. The aim is to match each string's 12th fret note to its open note, while also ensuring the strings remain comfortably inside the fingerboard edges. Once you're satisfied, you mark the bridge position with lo-tack tape, sand the feet to match the contour of the guitar top, and use double-sided tape to fix the bridge in place.

Here's where things went a bit funny.

Before applying the double-sided tape, I played the guitar one last time to make sure it felt right. It didn't. The D and G strings were very low compared to the rest. As mentioned, there's no individual saddle adjustment here, so if I raise the bridge to get a better D and G height, the rest of the strings will be way too high. At this point I'm thinking to myself "Something's definitely not right here."

Lo, I beheld the weirdness.

The fingerboard and bridge radii weren't matched. In simple terms, the bridge bar was flatter than the fingerboard. I felt like Mugatu in  Zoolander,  or Trump after his travel ban was nixed again – am I on crazy pills?! Surely Gretsch wouldn't ship a guitar with this kind of issue? But it turns out this is a fairly common thing – you'll find the Gretsch bridge topic on message boards.

And then you can go dizzy…

When faced with searching for replacement hardware, you want to know what you're getting, and you don't want to pay silly prices.

Step one – science

I measured the fingerboard radius, and found it difficult to decide between 9.5" and 10". Definitely not 12"… which is strange, because  Gretsch say the fingerboard radius is 12" . I thought to myself "Measure it again you fool, and make sure you get 12." Lo, behold…

Definitely not 12" – closer to 10"… unless my Stew-Mac radius gauges are wrong? It's academic, because the bridge bar is unquestionably flatter than the fingerboard, and this guitar feels really uninspiring.

Step two – eBay

eBay? What are you, a cheapskate?  Well… there's a good reason to buy this cheap hardware. The guitar's owner isn't enamoured with this instrument, so there's no sense in spending a small fortune just yet. Baby steps.

The part arrived, and fit the guitar nicely. But… the radius… still not ideal. It was close to 15", a fair stretch off the target 10", but with somewhat improved results. The D and G remain a little lower than the other strings, but not as much as they were. The overall feel is a bit  better, and now you can fine-tune the intonation. For under fifteen quid, it's a good start.

With the bridge fixed in place, and new (but still not ideal) hardware, this Tennessee Rose is a bit less dandelion, a little more flower.

The next step: let the owner play it awhile, see if they can find love for this guitar, and if so, think about spending a little more money on a well-matched bridge. But for now, Operation Baby Steps is a success.

Fender have an easy-read article about fingerboard radius. Check it out to find out why certain radii are suited to different playing styles:

I stole the Poison Ivy pic from:

RNR blog

by LEIF Bodnarchuk 24 Jun, 2017

Do you play in drop-D, or other alternate tunings? Do slack strings and bum notes get on your nerves? Do you have giant fat fingers and curse your guitar? Maybe your puny weakling digits can't take the pressure. You might find some answers to your problems after reading about scale length.

Science is for nerds! Most guitarists I know aren't much interested in the science of guitars. If something feels right, it just feels right, and that's why some players have loads of guitars for different purposes. But what if you don't have the luxury of a big collection? Or maybe you're just thinking about starting, and you're a terrible procrastinator. Read on, and maybe you'll discover what's best for your needs.

Let's consider two well-known guitars, a Fender Tele and Gibson ES330. Set them up with the same gauge strings: .010" - .046". Measure the treble E string from nut to saddle, and you'll get this:

Fender: 25 ½"

Gibson: 24 ¾"

That's only ¾" (19mm, or 3%) difference in length, but it's enough to affect string tension, which affects yer wee fingers. In the world of non-Trump science, a .010" E string on a Fender requires 16.2 lbs of tension, where the Gibson needs 15.25 lbs.

Let's move to the other side of the fretboard.

With a Tele in standard tuning, the .046" bass E requires 17.5 lbs of tension, where a Gibson needs 16.45.

Consider your own anatomy: if you have sausage fingers, a short scale could mean you have a harder time with accuracy where the frets get closer together. The upside: strings are easier to bend. On the other side of the coin, if you have tiny Trump fingers, a Fender scale might impede your guitar-god mega-chords.

If you're a nerd, and also into alternate tunings, keep reading. If not, skip toward the end…

Let's say you're using a Tele in drop-D. That E-string tension drops from 17.5 pounds to 13.9. The string feels floppy, and sounds out of tune. If you want to keep the guitar in drop-D permanently, you might consider a .052" string at a tension of 17.4 pounds, closer to the original .046" E tension. Your dropped D will hold a tune better.

Same drop-D scenario, with a typical Gibson scale of 24 ¾": the .046" E needs 16.45 lbs of tension. Drop it to D and it becomes 13.06. Again, if you want to keep the tuning in drop-D, you might go for a string with a unit weight of 0.0004813 lbs per inch… which by my calculations is damn close to that .056" string mentioned above.

If that's a blur (or if you don't believe it) check out D'Addario's website . They have a comprehensive chart of string tensions and a formula for calculating them.

**( Micro-science alert : the bass E on any scale will be slightly more than the stated scale because of intonation compensation.)**


If you want easier action in standard tuning, go for a shorter scale. If you want to play in E-flat, using a longer scale will mean the strings aren't quite as loose as they would be on a shorter scale. If you want to play in a really low tuning, use a thicker gauge (and get the nut altered appropriately). If you've got hot-dog fingers, go for a long scale. If you have corn-nubs, play short. If you're still procrastinating, visit Cash Converters and buy a cheap banger to get going.

And if you're a massive nerd, check out the links below to cram loads of useful factoids into that bulging brain of yours.

But most importantly of all, spread the love. Visit me and I'll fix up your broken guitar stuff.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_length_(string_instruments )

by LEIF Bodnarchuk 24 Jun, 2017

When this Gretsch Tennessee Rose came in, its owner said they were having a hard time loving it. But why? It's magnificent! A Gretsch like this is synonymous with Brian Setzer, George Harrison, and Poison Ivy. When you pick it up you want to play like them… But… this Rose is actually a bit of a weed. 

by LEIF Bodnarchuk 21 May, 2017

Every guitar needs a setup from time to time. A guitar might leave the factory with a decent setup, but sooner or later it'll need to be adjusted for its owner. Guitars with a long working life suffer age effects just like us. Over the years, wood can shrink or swell, and different owners make adjustments to suit their own playing styles. One magical day you bring home the vintage guitar of your dreams, but after the elation fades, you realise it's uncomfortable. Chances are it needs a setup.

A typical setup is a cocktail involving string height, neck relief (truss rod adjustment), and intonation. But to get your guitar playing just right, it might also need some nut work, fret dressing, or even a refret. What about the electrics? Jack socket, pots, switches, pickups, grounding schemes… all these things need to be in good condition if you want your guitar to be gig-ready, because playing a dodgy guitar on stage is... I'll stop before I curse that sort of thing.

As a guitar tech, my job is to ensure other people's guitar stuff is ready for gigging and recording. To me, a guitar setup doesn't end with playing action – it means getting the guitar in overall good shape. That's why I say setups start at £30.  

Some guitars are quicker to get gig-ready than others. But here's a rough guide:

new, well-made & maintained guitars – £30 to £40 plus strings

old beaters with a chequered past – maybe up to £80 or beyond, plus strings and replacement parts.

So what about the original question How do you set up a guitar? Here's a vague answer: You do all you can to make it play great . But if it looks like it's going to be a lengthy process, and you're pressed for time or money, You do what you can to make it...okay .

The next question you might ask me is Can youdo all the things to make a guitar play nice?   I can do many things, but here are some things I don't do:

• refrets (not yet anyway)
• acoustic crack & body repair
• acoustic neck resetting
• resprays 
• straightening a warped neck

Some of those processes require special tools, environments and techniques.

But...most guitars that come to me are in decent shape, so chances are I can set yours up.

So what are you waiting for? Get it in, get it playing well.

by LEIF Bodnarchuk 14 May, 2017

A few people have contacted me recently with similar issues: their guitars won't stay in tune. Whether you play a Fender Strat, a Gretsch with a Bigsby, or any other guitar with a trem, you're probably familiar with this. Unless you have a Floyd Rose and locking nut, you've learnt there's no safe return from a dive-bomb.

But what about guitars with no trem at all?... Telecasters and Les Pauls to name but a couple. These hard-tails are the workhorses of rock n roll, and once you string them up, they should remain in tune... right?

Some players are quick to blame their tuners. Not their Boss TU-2, or TC Electronics Polytune, or Korg, or Peterson.... None of that. We're talking about the guitar's own tuners, sometimes called machine heads .

In my 22 years (yikes!) as a guitar tech, I don't think I've ever come across a tuner responsible for strings constantly slipping out of tune. Of course some tuner actions are stiff, some loose, and there's almost always a bit of gear slippage . As far as machines go, tuners are really simple. A worm gear and crown gear. Ancient Greeks used way more sophisticated machinery in Atlantis. But enough of that. This gear slippage – a quirk to every tuner I can remember – is so common it feels silly to mention it, but just in case you've never noticed gear slippage, here's a trick.

When tuning your guitar, and you encounter a sharp note, you obviously have to tune down to reach the right note. But what you should always do is, work the tuner so the string goes flat – considerably flatter than the desired pitch – and then slowly tune upwarduntil you nail it. This will ensure you've dealt with gear slippage in the tuner. It'll happen every time you tune down. Just accept it. Go further down and back up. It'll come as second nature.

The next thing to consider is the nut. If the slots are too thin or too deep, they can grip the string. You don't want that. You've probably heard the dreaded 'ping!' when you're trying to get the guitar perfectly in tune. Just when you think you're about to get the note perfect, there's the ping , and the note flies sharp. This is most likely because the string is getting hung up in the nut: too much friction.  What you want is even tension all along the string: from the post, through the nut, right down to the saddles and wherever the strings are anchored.

When you buy a new (well-made) guitar, it should hold its tune well. But one day soon after you'll change the strings, and that's where pilot error creeps in.

"My guitar won't hold its tune! There's something wrong with it."

I take no pleasure in pointing this out: in my years babysitting guitarists, I've noticed a tendency to blame equipment before technique. Stringing a guitar is pretty simple, but it does require some attention to fine detail. When you're only changing strings, you're only changing strings. You haven't changed the nut, the tuners, the bridge... so if you're experiencing a tuning problem, seemingly out of the blue, just after you've changed strings... chances are... <sucks air through teeth> it's you.

Take this Fender Telecaster as an example. Too many winds around the tuning post resulted in excess slack, sending the strings flat when the player least wanted it. When the player changed strings, they effectively gave the strings too much rope.

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