Though archtops and floating bridges go back to the early 1890s, it wasn’t until Gibson came up with the ES-150 (the first electric archtop, in 1936) and its later variants, that they became popular. Whether swing and jazz movements, a rage during that time, were a result of this evolution, or whether the music craze of the times necessitated the arrival of the ES-150 – we’ll let the historians settle that one.
Two, maybe three decades later, the guitar design must have landed in India and from that time to date, cheap imitations masquerading as guitars, with zero frets and floating bridges, keep entering the market month after month. With each lot, the corners are cut some more, making them bigger nightmares for gullible (ill-informed?) customers and yet bigger nightmares for repair persons like Yours Humbly.
One landed on my counter recently, one which probably had been stood in a corner and was forgotten about. In the interim, it managed to lose half of its floating bridge – the top portion on which the strings ride.
The other half would have got lost in time too, had not the young owner, innocently, super-glued it!
With a sudden awakening of a passion for getting on with his guitar journey, he brought me the instrument…and a replacement bridge.
He also brought me other parts
And, of course, after all this time, the fretboard was very dry and the fretwires were badly tarnished.
But what needed attention the most was the nut on the instrument – plastic needless to say – but one which had fallen prey to the experiments of the young man. No matter how hard I tried to pry, prise and knock it out of its slot, it refused to budge. A phone call confirmed that indeed the reason for it being so unmoving, was super glue!
Out it had to come – dead or alive – and it did.
And even after coming out in pieces, it insisted on leaving its mark – a matchstick: probably used to raise it on the treble side.
Finally, after much filing, sanding and even more persuasion, I got the nut slot clean of all extra pieces of wood and glue. However, when I placed a new nut in the slot, there remained a gap between the top of the nut and the fretboard enough for you to sink the Titanic in. The bottom of the nut, however, sat flush in its slot.
Now what? I turned to my discarded plastic cards and shimmed it and filed in a slope that would make the nut sit perfectly in its slot throughout its height.
The last photograph in the sequence shows you just how much wood glue (no other glue!) is to be used to keep the nut from slipping and sliding in its slot.
Then it was the turn of the fretboard and fretwires to get the much-needed attention. Some ‘0000’ steel wool, some boiled linseed oil and lots of elbow grease and the result was
And at that point, my friends, I knew my troubles were about to begin. Removing the (super-glued) bridge and then having to bring down the new one to the height required, it wasn’t going to be as easy as tic-tac-toe!
In a normal steel-string guitar, you adjust action by pulling out the plastic/bone/tusq saddle and sanding it. Here, I had to sand the entire bridge!
With weakening pulse, I sharpened the edge on my screwdriver and gently got it under a corner of the glued-on foot of the bridge. A little tap and the bridge popped off, and as I expected, took a bit of the paint with it. I wasn’t too worried about that for the new bridge would ideally sit exactly at that place.
However, I did not take off the old bridge before marking where exactly it sat (with some painter’s tape).
Looking at what I had just pulled off, I just shook my head.
The two portions of the bridge with the rectangular hollows are called the feet of the bridge, for the bridge ‘stands’ on the top of the guitar with these. The function of these is primarily to conduct the energy of the strings to the top of the guitar. But when you have hollows, how much conduction was happening, is anybody’s guess.
Now would begin the really painful stuff, sanding the new bridge to the correct height. For that, I would have to string the guitar, because without the strings how would one know how tall the bridge was and how much it needed to be brought down. And because the strings would have to be strung through the tail piece, I would have to leave them on and then work.
But why all that hassle? The top had an arch to it (and thus, the name ‘archtop’) and the feet of the bridge needed to conform to it for the bridge to function properly and for it to transmit sound properly. So, all the sanding that had to be done, would have to be done ON the top itself!
Taking measurements with the new bridge in place, I noticed that the treble side was much higher than the bass side (in normal guitars it is the other way around because the thicker strings need a bit more room to vibrate than their plain peers). So, what it translated to was that the treble side foot would need to be sanded much more than the bass side. One more problem!
I started off like this to get some curvature on the feet
and soon taped off the area of the sandpaper falling under the bass side foot of the bridge.
For six hours, over two days, I rubbed the treble side foot of the bridge on the sandpaper, going only as fast as the strings chaffing my knuckles would allow.
What made the job even more difficult was the fact that the bridge was made of ebony. Ebony is a beautiful wood but it is also the hardest wood around. Sanding ebony is like trying to chip steel with your spoon, and it is exactly for this quality of hardness that ebony is the preferred choice of high-end guitar makers: the hardness helps in a wonderful transmission of sound.
In between I would pull out the bridge and mark the treble foot like this
and then rub some more, pull it out and check if I was sanding correct, checking if inadvertently, I wasn’t sanding one side or one corner more than the other. If I would have been, the pencil marks would have remained on the portion coming least in contact with the sandpaper. Thankfully, each time I checked, the pencil marks had disappeared.
When I was satisfied with the bridge height, I finally strung up the guitar. The nut-end of the guitar looked like this
To clarify, a floating bridge is given that name because it is NEVER fixed to the top but only held down by string tension.
But it was all worth it because the young man was happy with the action, with the overall sound of the guitar and how it looked.
I think I heard him mumble ‘Very playable’!