Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Saddle Sore

There's an old cowboy saying that goes, "It's not what you ride; it's where you sit." Okay, I just made that up, but it sounds good, doesn't it? The point is, saddles are made for sitting on, so they need to be comfortable. Guitar saddles are no exception, only the strings do the sitting.

Ask a layman on the street to name the parts of a guitar, and you're likely to hear "head," "neck," "body" and "strings." A guitarist may be a little more savvy; he's likely to throw out "pickguard," "pick-up," "bridge," and "fingerboard." But you could probably re-string a harp in the time it takes him to get to "saddle." Saddles are so necessary that they're simply overlooked when everybody's gawking at flamed woods and three-tone finishes and lipstick-tubed squeal-increasing wired-in-series yadda yadda yadda.

Behold the humble saddle. It acts as both a fulcrum for bridge torquing and as a trasmitter of mechanical energy. In both capacities, it moves the bridge, which moves the top, which makes a guitar sound like a guitar. This particularsaddle was made by yours truly.

We're finishing saddle-making in Mr. Vincent's section this week, which means it's crunch time. I had this one prepared this morning and ready to grade, and it did well (after I replaced the broken string, naturally). We were going to move on to neck-resets class after lunch, and, with one saddle still due, I had three hours of hasty work to do.

The first step is determining need. I hope it's clear why ol' number 44 needed a new saddle.

I selected a blank. By which I mean that I asked Mr. Vincent for one, because I'd ruined all my spares. The next step was shaping; this is where most of my major mistakes have happened in the past. I don't need to go into details; just know that there's no "undo" button on a belt sander. You'll see in the picture that I've sanded and polished it to thickness, and I've started fitting it to the slot. The real trick is getting a good, tight fit, so the saddle will stay in place under string pressure and won't lose energy that it should be transmitting to the bridge.

Next comes a careful process: lowering the saddle height to bring the strings to a playable distance from the fingerboard, without taking them so low that they buzz. It takes good measuring and cautious sanding. Ideally saddles should be a bit taller than what you see here but for this particular guitar, this is where the saddle height ended up to have the correct string height or "action".

After the saddle is mostly shaped, its top, where it contacts the strings, needs to be contoured to set each string's intonation. That is, the end of the string needs to be placed at the exact point where it sounds correctly, offsetting its stiffness, the bending that happens when it's fretted, and the general tonal fudging of fretted instruments. You can see that I'm inserting an old string end under each string to create a high spot and then marking where it sounds best.

All that completed (and a little polish sanding, to boot), I presented the saddle to this nice gentleman for grading. It turned out very nicely, only missing one point because the high E string was too close to the fingerboard. My total fabrication time was about two hours, forty-five minutes, out-pacing my previous effort by over two hours. (Still twice the time a professional would take, I'm told, but they've had more practice than I have.)

You can ask people what the best pieces of furniture they own are, and they may bring up antique dressers or Grandma's dining-room table. But ask them what they use the most, and they'll almost always pick one chair or another. Much like saddles, chairs are so essential and unassuming that we rarely appreciate them for all they do. But, in the end, it's about where you sit.

- Jon