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London Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down, Falling Down

Put your bridge on a flat surface upside down. If there is any space between the top of the bridge and the straightedge, you've got trouble. Look at the difference in the flatness of each of the bridges. Neither are perfect but one will really screw up your setup.

Most of us go to great lengths to keep our vintage guitars original. That means that every part of the guitar is just the same as it was when it left the factory. Original and correct are not the same thing, although there is absolutely no way to tell with many of the parts. There’s no magic to all original. After all, the assemblers at Gibson grabbed a tailpiece a bridge and two handfuls of tuners and a bunch of screws and set to work. From the point of view of the guitar, it ┬ámakes no difference whether you use a tailpiece from 63 on a 64, or the one that came from the factory. ┬áThere is little or no variation in these mass produced parts. “Original” is the way we protect ourselves (as buyers and sellers) from aftermarket stuff or even from “correct” (but not original) parts. This falls apart at a certain point and this point arises when the original part ceases to be fully functional. I recently had a 59 ES-345 that was near mint and beautiful sounding. This was nearly a museum piece but it just wouldn’t set up to my liking. It buzzed but the frets were fine as was the truss. I looked at the nut and it seemed perfect-no wear at all. The guitar had barely been played, so I couldn’t imagine that wear had anything to do with the fact that it just wouldn’t set up. So, I sent it to my favorite repair guy to see what was going on. He said the guitar was in great shape but that he felt we should level the frets and polish them. That made sense-the frets were a bit of a mess from lack of play. When the repair shop was about to do all this work, I got a phone call. “You know the bridge has collapsed on your guitar”. I hadn’t even thought of it. The guitar had been in its case for years and years unplayed and the strings were never loosened, so, the bridge had been doing its job for 50 years while the guitar sat in its case. I really wanted to keep the guitar original but once the bridge loses its shape, you can usually say goodbye to it. In this case, it’s usually “has a Tone Pros but the original bridge is in the case.” When this is the situation, the seller usually doesn’t mention the fact that the reason it has a Tone Pros is because the ABR-1 has lost its shape. What does that mean? There is an arch in the bottom of the bridge but the bridge is straight across the top. What most people never notice-and why would you-is that the string height are actually different even though the bridge is perfectly level across the top. The notches that the saddles fit in are different depths-very shallow for the D and G strings, less shallow for the A and B and deepest for the high E and low E. That way the string can follow the radius of the fingerboard. The shallower the notch, the higher the saddle. After 50 years or so of continuous stress, the cheap “pot” metal of the ABR-1 can fatigue, usually making it all but impossible to achieve a proper setup. The D and G strings will be too low and will buzz. Unlike some Fenders, you can’t raise the individual saddles on these bridges. So, to get those strings to behave, you wind up raising the entire bridge so that the D and G are fine but the others are too high. There are two ways to fix this and one of them doesn’t always work. The easy solution is to put on a different bridge and stick the original in the case pocket. Or, you can try to reshape it. If you fail at reshaping, the likelihood is that you broke the bridge. If it succeeds it will eventually sag again but at least it will be usable. Fortunately for the 345 in question, the luthier was able to get it back to level and, from what I hear from the current owner-it’s still holding after nearly a year. I told him to put on a repro or a vintage correct replacement but he won’t have it. He wants his guitar to be exactly as it was when it left the factory .

Contrary to popular belief, there is no curve to an ABR-1. The curve of the bottom will fool you into thinking there is but the top edge is supposed to be dead level. It's those notches that the saddles go into that give you the arc so that your strings will follow the radius of your fingerboard. It doesn't take much of a collapse to wreck your setup.

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4 Responses to “London Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down, Falling Down”

  1. Mike says:

    A timely post for me…I just last week took a late-50’s ABR that I’ve had laying around for years, that was curved beyond normal use, and straightened it. I used popsicle stick pieces at 3 key points, and a vise, heated it with a heat gun, and slowly…about 8 or 9 times…would turn the vise a bit, let it sit, heat it, turn the vise a little more, etc. I’d like to sell it, and it straightened out very nicely, but I’m wondering if they stay that way. I suppose there’s no way to tell without using it?

  2. OK Guitars says:

    I sent a guitar to Dan Erlewine’s shop for another problem and he told me the bridge had collapsed as well. His partner said he would try to straighten it but warned me that it wouldn’t stay straight for very long if you use heavier strings. He noted that the bridge metal gets weaker when it bends and you bend it back.

  3. Jonne says:

    I remember Dan also suspecting (in one of his guitar repair books) that sinking/collapsing the ABR or Nashville bridge might have something to do how deep/close to top the stoptail has been screwed down. The deeper down the stop tailpiece is, the bigger the pressure on the bridge.
    Dan was one the first one to question that old myth “your guitar will sustain better if you screw the tailpiece down” and started to talk about how there might be a possible “sweet spot” on each guitar.

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