Hum Problems with Bone Saddles and Takamine-Style Pickups

You’ll remember that, last time, I talked about the complications of lowering action (saddle height) on a guitar fitted with an integrated pickup.

A quick recap is that you can’t do this the ‘normal’ way. Typically, we’d remove material from the bottom of an acoustic guitar or bass saddle, reducing its height and lowering the action.

The integrated pickup sits in a housing and removing material from the bottom means it will no longer make contact with the pickup elements.

And I mentioned that, if you didn’t know about this quirk and removed material (like the image below), you were mostly screwed and would have to buy a new saddle.

Don't shorten the Takamine integrated pickup saddle from the bottom. Unless you want a heap of hassle, of course. 

Recap over…

Replacing one of these saddles is less straightforward than it could be. If you want to be sure, go talk to your nearest Takamine dealer*. That's the safest route but not always the most easy.

There are some places online you can find saddles that will fit and if you can find one, go for it.

With one consideration.

Watch out for bone.

Bone saddles don't always play nicely with Takamine pickups. Nobody wants to hear the hum. 

Integrated Bone Saddles

Many of the online sellers offer bone saddles, machined with notches and recesses to fit nicely into the integrated pickup housing.

Great, you think. Everybody’s always talking about how an upgrade to bone can be good for tone. Yay.

Not necessarily.

While a bone saddle might be good for acoustic tone, and while it may be just fine with most under-saddle pickups, it can be problematic with the integrated pickup.

Because of the hum.

Bone saddles will likely give an increase (substantial in most cases) in interference noise which you’ll hear as a nasty hum or buzz when you hold the instrument to play.

If you’ve ever touched the tip of a guitar lead that’s plugged into an amp, you’ll know the sort of noise. Unpleasant.

Why do Bone Saddles Cause Hum/Buzz in Some Guitars?

So here’s the problem:

The construction of the integrated pickup, puts the ‘hot’ conductor along the top of the piezo elements. That hot conductor is a bare metal (copper or a copper alloy, I’m guessing) strip. It’s connected through, the preamp, to the amp.

Construction of a Takamine integrated UST pickup.

Normally that’s all good.

The thing to remember, though, is that different materials conduct electricity differently. Some offer a lot of resistance to any electrical signal and we call them insulators — they insulate one part from another and stop most of the signal** travelling through.

The original saddle is some composite material, a plastic of sorts, that is pretty highly resistive. It blocks a lot of electrical signal. It’s a very effective insulator.

Bone, it turns out, isn’t as resistive as the original saddle material. While bone is far from a super-conductor, it allows a bit more electricity to sneak through it.

As you stand around anywhere in the modern world, there’s electro-magnetic interference all around you. This isn’t generally a problem until you pick up a guitar. Then some of the interference you’re soaking up from the environment can be heard through the guitar.

Bone saddles allow more of this to sneak through to the hot conductor of the pickup beneath.

And you get a nasty hum.

Stopping Takamine Bone Saddle Hum

So, the easiest thing to do is to just install a non-bone saddle from Takamine.

If you’re stuck with bone for some reason, it’s worth tying to install a string ground. This should shunt off some of that interference before it gets to the pickup.

I’ve talked about hum and ground issues and string grounding in electric guitars before. The principle is the same for acoustic instrument but, without a metal bridge or saddle, it’s more difficult to accomplish.

What you need to do is make a connection between (ideally all) the strings and the ground point in the output jack.

Taylor makes a string ground device for acoustic guitars. It’s just a thin metal strip with six holes. The strip is stuck to the bridge plate inside the guitar, under the bridge. The string ball-ends press against the metal strip, which has a wire that can be connected to ground.

Stewart McDonald sells a Plate Mate which is just the metal strip part. It’s actually intended to address bridge plate wear, but you could easily modify it to give it a wire connection to ground.

The Taylor String Ground has big advantage of being ‘fused’. We’ll deal with the reasons why this is useful another day but the short story is it might prevent you from being electrocuted some day. Of course, it’s designed for Taylor guitars and may not match your string-spacing. The Stew Mac offering has a couple of different string-spacings.

The Bottom Line

All of this is to say that I don’t actually recommend a bone saddle for a Takamine, or other guitar, fitted with an integrated pickup. I’d advise you play it safe and replace like with like if you need a new saddle.

It’s rare I wouldn’t go for a bone saddle but this is one of those times.

*Again, Takamine is not the only instrument where you'll find an integrated pickup but it is probably the most common.

**'Signal' isn't really the correct word in this context but it makes sense in the wider ‘guitar' context so I went with it.