Sink or Float

For many years the only decent guitar that I owned was my trusty Fender Stratocaster.  That guitar got me through all four years of my music degree, and I used to joke with my Dad that what he and my Stratocaster had in common was that I couldn't afford for either of them to retire.  

I still have my Stratocaster, and due to those formative years spent with it I feel like I'm able to pull whatever tone is necessary from it.  I feel comfortable bringing it to a top 40 gig, a rock gig, a country gig, whatever the job calls for and I will be ok.  

A contributing factor to the diversity of the Stratocaster in my opinion has always been the floating bridge.  Of course the Stratocaster is not the only guitar with this feature, many Ibanez or Charvel or Peavey guitars have the Floyd Rose floating bridge, but to be honest I have much less experience with guitars equipped with a Floyd Rose bridge.  Today I wanted to take a minute to discuss some of the inner workings of the Fender style floating bridge, beginning with what a floating bridge actually is, why would you want a floating bridge, and how you can adjust your floating bridge.

What Is A Floating Bridge?

The best way to explain a floating bridge is by contrasting it to a traditional guitar bridge.  Most traditional guitar bridges, like the ones on acoustic guitars for example, are "fixed" in position.  

Fixed Bridge
Acoustic Guitar Bridge
The position of this bridge is not moveable or adjustable.  The bridge on an acoustic guitar like the one shown above, is often held in place by glue.  The glue doesn't allow the bridge to move at all, and if it were not held in place by glue the tension from the strings would pull the bridge up off of the body of the guitar.  Telecasters, Les Pauls, and many common models of acoustic and electric guitars have fixed (sometimes also referred to as "hard tail") bridges.  

Floating Bridge
Stratocaster bridge tension
On a floating bridge, there are two adjustable tensions acting on the position of the bridge.  The first is exerted by the strings, which are pulling the bridge upwards, and the second is exerted by the springs in the back of the guitar, which pull the bridge downwards, towards the body.  

Stratocaster Back Cavity
Every guitar with a floating bridge has a cavity in the back containing springs.  These springs work to pull the bridge downwards, towards the body of the guitar.  Unlike the earlier example of a glued down fixed bridge found on many acoustic guitars, how much tension the springs exert on the bridge is adjustable.  When the springs are set to exert a relatively low amount of tension on the bridge, the bridge will no longer sit flush to the body of the guitar.  This is what is known as a "floating bridge".  

Why Would You Want A Floating Bridge?

Some of the best guitarists in history were big fans of the floating bridge.  Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck and Dimebag Darrell have all used floating bridges as an integral part of their guitar playing.  

Since the bridge of the guitar is not sitting flush to the body of the instrument, floating bridges allow for the whammy bar to be used not only to dive the pitch of a note downwards, but also to lift the pitch of a note upwards.  Many heavy metal players will be well acquainted with this aspect of the floating bridge, as it is necessary to perform the ever popular "dive bomb", which is a really cool technique for anybody who has not heard of it before.  That said, the floating bridge is not only for heavy metal guitarists.  

Fusion guitarist and Suhr signature artist Scott Henderson is a proponent of the floating bridge, and at around the 10:00 mark of this video he goes into detail about his use of the floating bridge and some of the techniques that it allows for. 

There are two big things that Scott Henderson talks about in this video concerning the floating bridge that I have heard echoed by many other guitarists.  The first is that he brings up how he intentionally adjusts his floating bridge to give him an upward range of a major 3rd on his G String.  While different guitarists will set their guitars up for different ranges, most guitarists that I have encountered who use a floating bridge tend to set their instrument up to give them a pre determined upward range with the whammy bar.  The second is how he actually uses the floating bridge to help to keep him in tune.  He demonstrates how by affecting the bridge abruptly with the whammy bar, it is possible to quickly correct tuning problems created by aggressive use of the whammy bar.

Is There A Downside?

The short answer is yes.  While it ultimately comes down to taste, and how important a floating bridge is to your particular style of guitar playing, there are two unavoidable down sides to having a floating bridge.

The first down side is that breaking a string will put your entire guitar out of tune.  This is because when a string breaks, the tension that the strings exert on the bridge is reduced, moving the entire position of the bridge.  Additionally, once you have replaced the broken string you will need to tune up more than once to be accurately in tune as adjusting the tuning also moves the entire bridge slightly.

The second down side is that accurately performing string bends becomes slightly more difficult.  This is because as with breaking a string, bending a string alters the overall tension that the strings are exerting on the bridge and therefore moves the position of the bridge.  

In my own personal and subjective opinion however, the positive aspects of a floating bridge far outweigh the negative ones.  Also, once you start to get used to tuning and bending strings on a floating bridge, it's really not all that problematic.

How To Adjust A Floating Bridge

To adjust a floating bridge is fairly straightforward.  Whether you'd like to have a predictable amount of upward range from your whammy bar like Scott Henderson or if you've changed the gauge of your strings and would like to increase the spring tension to compensate, all you really need is a screw driver.   

To adjust the level of tension that the springs are exerting on your bridge, you need only to open the back cavity of your Stratocaster style guitar and move the claw of the bridge by adjusting two screws.  

Stratocaster Claw

 To increase the tension from the springs and bring the bridge closer to the body of the guitar (reducing the amount of upward range available with the whammy bar) tighten the claw adjustment screws.  To reduce the tension from the springs and allow the bridge to float more (increasing the amount of upward range available with the whammy bar) loosen the claw adjustment screws.  Try to tighten or loosen each side evenly.

Another way of affecting the level of tension that the springs exert, and also the amount of resistance you feel when using the whammy bar is to increase or decrease the amount of springs connected to the claw.  

Most Stratocaster style bridges will accommodate up to five springs, but there are guitarists who use pretty much every possible permutation.  Adding or removing springs is an easy and inexpensive way to modify your guitar on your own.

More modern Stratocaster style instruments have accounted for the tendency for guitarists to use floating bridges in their construction by modifying the bridge plate.  Vintage Stratocaster models used six screws near the saddles of the guitar, but modern Strats as well as Stratocaster style instruments made by companies like G&L use two pins to fix the bridge plate to the body of the guitar near the saddles.

The above bridge plate has the 6 screw vintage style configuration.

And this one has the two pin configuration.

As with anything in the guitar world, there is a great deal of discussion online about which bridge style sounds better.  Personally, I can't say which sounds better.  My Strat has the modern style two pin bridge configuration and I personally love it.  I think the two pin configuration is functionally better if you intend to set up your bridge so that it's floating, but I really can't speak to the tonal differences between the two, and I am skeptical of anyone who claims that they can.  

If you have any questions or concerns regarding this article or anything else guitar related, please feel free to reach out to me!  Thank you for allowing me to be a super small part of your journey with the guitar, it's a privilege that I don't take for granted :)

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