We talk a lot about acoustic guitar repairs. The main reason is that they are more delicate and the repairs are just as delicate. We would like to continue work on our series regarding acoustic guitar repair… the saddle. The saddle sits directly in front of the bridge pins on an acoustic guitar.
The position of the saddle affects:
- Intonation (the guitar’s ability to play in tune)
- Action (string height above frets)
- Tone (different materials change tonal properties)
Most acoustic guitar saddles are either 3/32 inch or 1/8 inch wide. There can be different sizes on certain guitars. Most will be the noted sizes fore mentioned. Many are available here.
Types of Saddles
Drop In Saddles
A drop in saddle sits in a routed slot in the bridge. These are fairly easy to remove and should not be glued in place. Sanding material from the bottom does lower drop in saddles, unless the saddle’s crown or radius also needs work. Be careful while sanding not to over do it, otherwise you will require a new saddle.
Long (Set) Saddles
Set saddles extend into the wings of the bridge and are usually glued in place to prevent movement. The ends of these saddles are further shaped after being glued in place to give the bridge and saddle a uniform shape.
To remove a long saddle that has been glued in place the saddle itself must be heated to soften the glue. The top and finish must be protected from heat to avoid damaging the finish, particularly lacquer, as it is easily damaged by heat. Use a protective shield that leaves nothing but the saddle exposed before heating it with a hair dryer or similar device.
Compensated saddles change the strings length by varying the position of the saddle’s crown or point of contact. Compensated saddles are used to improve intonation, which effects the instruments ability to play in tune up and down the neck.
Adjustable saddles are raised and lowered by screws, making height adjustments very easy. The downside is they provide very poor coupling between the strings and bridge and don’t always result in the best tone. As these saddles are raised a greater gap between bridge and saddle is created. Adjustable saddles use screws to change string height.
It is not uncommon to have this style of saddle replaced by upgrading the instrument’s bridge, which removes this hardware and uses a traditional drop in saddle. Conversion bridges are made to match the original’s outline but equipped with a traditional drop in saddle.
Adjusting Saddle Height
As any player knows, having an instrument set up properly makes them sound and play better. The saddle’s height directly effects the instrument’s overall action and string height. Prior to lowering a saddle, neck relief should be correct.
Lowering A Drop In Saddle
When lowering drop in saddles, the saddle is removed from the bridge, marked for reference and material is usually removed from the bottom to avoid having to reshape the crown. This is particularly helpful if the saddle’s crown is compensated.
Lowering A Set Saddle
A bit more patience is required to reduce the action height on guitars with set saddles. These saddles are normally glued in place and material is removed from the top or crown to reduce their height. If material was removed from the bottom the saddles length would be shortened and an obvious gap would appear between it and the bridges saddle slot. After the appropriate amount of material is removed the saddle must be re-shaped to produce the rounded crown.
Saddles require lowering as age and string tension pulls on the top of a guitar, it’s arch increases and raises the action. The saddle is lowered to counter-act those changes.
Changing The Radius
The radius is the arched (E to E) shape of the saddles crown. In general, most manufacturers match the saddle’s radius to that used on the fingerboard. Having a saddle that is over radiused may place the D and G strings unnecessarily high and will affect playing.
Raising The Saddle
When saddles are too low it is best to replace them. Adding shims beneath a drop in saddle can have a negative impact on tone.
Saddles With Integrated Pickups
Ovation and other manufacturers use specially formed saddles that fit into their pickups. These saddles should not be sanded or altered in any way. Let me say this again… these saddles should not be sanded or altered in any way. This will ruin the way the pickup works and is very hard to replace. Instead, shims are added or removed from the bridge saddle slot beneath the pickup to adjust string height.
Why Are Saddles Different Heights?
Because the top of a flat top guitar takes on a greater arch with time, the saddle gives us the ability to lower the action when this arching raises string height further above the frets. The angle at which the neck is set will also influence the height of the saddle. Instruments that need a neck reset often have very little saddle protruding above the bridge.
Very Low Saddles
The saddle on many flat top guitars will eventually hit their limits. Having been lowered repeatedly thru the years, they are now too low for further adjustment. On a valuable or high quality instrument a neck reset is the corrective action. Resetting the neck angle will permit the saddle height to return to normal and lower the action. Having a very low saddle reduces the downward pressure on the saddle and can negatively effect the output of under saddle pickups.
When the instrument does not warrant the expensive neck reset, bridge thinning may also be an option. Again, this is not recommended on valuable instruments as it simply adds to the repairs needed….neck reset plus a new bridge = even more money!
Thinning a bridge is an option only if the bridge itself is thick enough to allow for a reduction in height. We must take into consideration the depth of the saddle slot as well. A shallow saddle slot does not provide the support necessary to keep a saddle in position.
If a saddle is too low, the strings will pass across the saddle and into the bridge pin holes without enough angle to produce good tone. The result is a sound that very much resembles a sitar to me. In order to increase the string’s angle into the bridge pin hole a ramp can be filed at the front of the bridge pin hole. I refer to this as “ramping” or keyholing. The additional string angle which it creates can help to clean up the “sitar” sound and place more pressure on the saddle.
I hope that you have been enjoying our series on acoustic guitar repair. More topics on the subject will soon be posted. So until next time, and play on.