Normally, Id recommend a bone saddle as a good upgrade for an acoustic instrument. However, here’s a rare instance where I’d advise against bone. Takamine-style integrated pickups don’t always play nicely with bone saddles.
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I thought it’d be useful to look at some of the other ways a radius gauge can be not just useful, but indispensable.
Radius gauges should form part of the toolkit of any guitar setter-upper… Setupper… Setterer-upperer… Anyone wanting to work with guitars.
Here's some of the ways to use radius gauges.
This is an acoustic guitar bridge and there’s something wrong with this picture. Well, the picture’s ok, but there’s definitely a problem with the guitar.
You can see how low the saddle is. The string’s have no ‘break’ angle over it—that first string sits almost horizontally on the saddle.
This means the strings impart very little downward pressure to the saddle. No downward pressure means that much of the strings’ vibration is lost rather than being transferred into the guitar top (which is what provides most of your tone and volume with an acoustic instrument). Poor tone and poor sustain.
Can anything be truly permanent? Come, let us sit and discuss the metaphysics of change and permanence. Perhaps we will consider Heraclitus before moving to the eastern schools of philosophy.
Nah. I'm just going to talk about guitar stuff wearing out.
Everything wears out.
And one thing that wears out is the Graphtech String Saver guitar saddle. These saddles are softer than regular steel saddles and, as they wear, the strings can dig in more and more and may cause weird problems.
Chief among these problems is a buzz. You might hear a nasty zither-type effect because the string doesn't have enough clearance at the saddle. The string actually vibrates against the front of the saddle.
As the saddles wear under the wound strings, you may find indentations of the windings (which can't be great for tuning no matter how much PTFE is in the saddle).
Those saddles that you sometimes get on the Deluxe Strats and Teles—the ones with the small Graphtech String Saver insert in the steel saddle can also be problematic. The String Saver material can 'mushroom' out of the steel housing and give nasty zinging or string-deadening effects.
Now, it's fair to say that even steel saddles can, and will wear. And if you like the tone, and find the tuning improvement/string breakage claims to be worthwhile, you should have absolutely no hesitation in using the Graphtech String Savers. I'm definitely not here to tell you not to use them.
Do keep an eye on them, though. Give them a once-over when you change strings and be prepared to change them if you see (or more importantly, hear) any problems.
The saddle slot in some bridges is quite close to the front edge. In an ideal world, this might not be too much of a problem because, even though there’s a lot of tension from the strings, most of that is ‘downwards’ towards the bottom of the bridge.
Of course, it’s not an ideal world and, even though most of the pressure goes down, there’s always some that’s trying to tip that saddle forwards too. Things like the strings ‘biting’ into the saddle and actually pulling it forwards as you tune up can add to the problem.
And sometimes the bridge gives way. Like this.
Now, I could just smooth off the fracture line and glue in a new piece but I don’t want to trust the glued joint to take that strain. It might be fine but I want to give this repair as much of a chance as possible.
So, I’m going farther back into the saddle.
My plan is to remove wood to the back of the saddle slot. I’ll glue in some new wood and then re-rout a new slot into that new wood. This way, the glue-line won’t be taking the strain.
You can see what I mean in the sketches below.
So, below is the bridge with the wood removed. I’ve sloped a section from the front of the bridge to the back, bottom corner of the saddle slot.
You can see the (slightly out of focus—sorry) shape of the piece I’ll be glueing in.
By the way, that’s just a thin piece of sheet brass that’s taped down to the guitar. It’s there to protect the top as I work on this.
The photo on the right below gives you a better idea.
Clamping this one needed a little thought. As well as clamping downwards, I have to keep a pressure towards the rear of the guitar. That’s tricky though. I came up with this:
I clamped a block in place near the front of the bridge. The new bridge piece will bear off this and, as I clamp it down, this new piece will ‘wedge’ into place against the block. I can now get good clamping pressure in all the right places. Yay.
Once done, it’s just a matter of shaping the glued-in wood to the right profile and routing a new saddle slot.
I decided to make a new saddle too. The old one was actually an un-radiused classical saddle and it was made from a pretty soft plastic (the strings were digging in as mentioned above). A nice bone saddle will sound, play, and wear much better.
Hopefully, there's a long life ahead for this guitar.
Bone for tone, goes the saying (well, in certain circles, at least).
And it's right. Bone's my favourite substance for nuts and acoustic saddles. It looks great, lasts well and works nicely. And, of course, the tone's all there.
Except when it's not.
The problem is that bone's a natural substance. Sometimes there are bits that are less hard or dense than others and it's important to keep an eye out for this when you're making a nut or saddle.
The less dense area of the piece in the photo is easy to see. A hefty semi-circle that allows more light though gives it away. It's not always so obvious and it's not always so big. If I'd cut a string slot in this part, there's a good chance that string would have a different tone to the others. The slot would certainly have worn more quickly than the others, too.
By the way, bone (especially unbleached bone) has many small differences in colour here and there. If you spot small specks and streaks in your own nut, it doesn't necessarily mean you've anything to worry about. When you're making a nut or saddle, though, it's not a bad idea to examine the blank bone first.
This one? This one went in the bin.