Fixed and floating are the two main types of guitar bridges. The bridge is crucial to how the guitar plays, sounds and its setup, so understanding the difference between the two is important.
When choosing a new guitar (especially if you’re a beginner) or looking to do an upgrade getting the right bridge is key. But if you don’t know the differences between a fixed bridge and a floating bridge you might get the wrong one.
So let’s take a look at what these bridges are, their advantages and disadvantages, how they compare and which is going to be a good choice for you.
Main Differences Between Fixed Bridges and Floating Bridges
The main differences between a fixed bridge and floating bridge are:
- Fixed bridges feature a set of saddles the strings sit on. The strings pass through either a tailpiece or the body of the guitar itself and go over the saddles and up the fretboard to the nut.
- Floating bridges have a similar design to fixed bridges but with an additional tremolo system, which allows the saddles to be moved up and down. This creates a vibrato affect and changes the pitch of the strings simply by pushing on the tremolo arm (also known as a whammy bar).
- The simpler design of the fixed bridge makes it much easier to use, especially for beginners. Restringing and setting the intonation is a lot more straightforward on a fixed bridge than on a floating one.
- Fixed bridges are designed to be stationary and this provides consistent string tension and tuning stability. This is ideal for players who like to do lots of bending or vibrato as the fixed bridge will keep the strings in tune.
- Floating bridges however can lack the tuning stability of fixed bridges. But you get greater creativity with the tremolo that can expand your playing.
- Fixed bridges can be uncomfortable whereas floating ones are usually flatter and easier to rest your hand on.
Breaking it down a bit further you can look at the individual characteristics of each type of bridge:
- Designed to be stable and stationary. They provide consistent string tension and in turn very stable tuning.
- A simple design which makes them easy to set up and maintain.
- Offer limited pitch manipulation, meaning you can’t do much in the way of pitch bending or techniques such as dive bombs.
- Popular with beginners and players who like a straightforward setup and an easy to use bridge.
- Designed specifically to allow pitch manipulation and offer a wide range of upward and downward pitch bending.
- Have a “floating” design that allows for dynamic vibrato effects and techniques like dive bombs.
- Require a lot more complex setup and maintenance with the need to take into account the tremolo system and string locking mechanisms.
If you’re interested in looking at both bridges in more detail including how they work, what they’re bet for and choosing which is right for you, keep reading.
What is a Fixed Bridge?
A fixed bridge, also known as a hardtail bridge, is where it is secured to the body of the guitar. This design, along with the adjustable saddles for the strings, is simple and easy to use. It’s one of the most popular and well known bridges and used on some of the most famous guitars.
Types of Fixed Bridges
Fixed bridges can be broken down into a few different types:
- Hardtail – most well known for being on Telecaster’s and Stratocasters, hardtail bridges have the saddles combined with the bridge.
- Tune-O-Matic – synonymous with Gibson guitars, these bridges have separate saddles and tailpieces. Noticeable for being in 2 pieces.
- Wraparound – the strings go over the bridge and wraparound under the saddle.
Components and Mechanics of a Fixed Bridge
A fixed bridge typically consists of the following components:
- Bridge Plate: This is the main metal plate that holds the saddles and anchors the strings.
- Saddles: Are individual parts that support and position each string on the bridge.
- String Anchoring: The strings are usually threaded through or attached to the bridge plate.
- Intonation Adjustment: Many fixed bridges feature adjustable saddles to fine-tune the intonation of each string.
Unlike floating bridges fixed bridges do not have any movable parts. The strings are secured to the bridge and their tension remains constant.
Advantages of a Fixed Bridge
- Tuning Stability: Fixed bridges are known for having great tuning stability. Since the bridge is connected to the guitar body there is very little movement and this means less string slippage and less need to retune.
- Simple Setup: With no moving parts fixed bridges are relatively easy to set up and maintain. Changing strings and making basic adjustments such as the intonation are straightforward and can be done without any real technical knowledge or the need for special tools. This makes them very good for beginners.
- Direct String Transfer: As a fixed bridge is stationary and connected to the guitar it means there is a direct transfer of the string vibrations to the guitar body which enhances the sustain.
Disadvantages of a Fixed Bridge
- Limited Pitch Manipulation: The main limitation of a fixed bridge is you don’t get the pitch manipulation a floating bridge offers. This can be hindrance to some and give you less options and techniques available when it comes to playing, especially for certain styles of music.
- Technique Limitations: A fixed bridge is not going to be suitable for guitarists who rely on using a whammy bar to do things like dive bombs and exaggerated vibrato. You don’t get any tremolo system on a fixed bridge and the pitch of the notes can’t be changed as you play like a floating bridge allows you to.
- Comfort: due to their design some fixed bridges can be uncomfortable when it comes to resting your hand on them or palm muting.
Despite these drawbacks fixed bridges are still the most popular type of bridge. They’re the choice of bridge for many guitarists due to their simplicity, reliability and the fact they maintain such a precise tuning.
What is a Floating Bridge?
A floating bridge, also referred to as a tremolo bridge or vibrato bridge, acts in the same way as a fixed bridge except it has a tremolo arm. This lets you alter the pitch of the strings dynamically as you play, giving your playing extra flare as well as the ability to incorporate techniques like vibrato, dive bombs and pitch bends.
Components and Mechanics of a Floating Bridge
Floating bridges usually have of the following components:
- Bridge Plate and saddles: The same as the fixed bridge – a floating bridge also has a metal plate and saddles.
- Tremolo Arm: A lever attached to the bridge that allows the player to manipulate the pitch of the strings.
- Springs and Claw: These are found inside the guitar body and counterbalance the tension of the strings allowing the bridge to “float”.
The floating bridge is designed to be able to move. This movement is what allows for pitch variations. So when the player uses the tremolo arm it changes the tension on the strings, which alters their pitch and gives the vibrato effect.
Advantages of a Floating Bridge
- Pitch Manipulation: The main advantage of a floating bridge is it gives you the ability to change the pitch of the strings. This is key for some guitarists who like to use techniques like dive bombs, pitch bending and vibrato as part of their style.
- Certain Playing Styles: Floating bridges are usually more widely used in certain styles and genres of music like rock and metal. This is because these genres use techniques like extreme pitch changes and dive bombs that other genres don’t. It essentially lets guitarists add some more character and personal flair to their playing.
- Tremolo Effects: The floating bridge’s design lets you create tremolo effects which involve rapidly oscillating the pitch of the strings.
Disadvantages of a Floating Bridge
- Setup and Maintenance: Floating bridges are known for being harder to setup and adjust. Especially when compared to fixed bridges. Instead of a simple setup a floating bridge needs you to be familiar with and adjust things like spring tension, be able to balancing the string and bridge tensions and potentially use string locking systems too. This can be far too difficult for beginners.
- Tuning Stability: Floating bridges can be more susceptible to tuning issues. This is especially so when the tremolo arm is used a lot. When the tension in the strings is changed, which heavy use of the arm will do, it often affects the overall balance of the bridge. This will usually cause the guitar to go out of tune and mean you have to retune a lot more frequently than with a fixed bridge.
- Strings Breaking: The increased string tension and movement that comes with floating bridges leads to strings breaking more often.
Despite these issues lots of guitarists don’t care or are willing to put up with them to get the extra options floating bridges bring.
Comparison of Floating Bridge and Fixed Bridge
Depending on what sort of sound you’re looking for or your experience with playing guitar will affect which bridge you prefer or choose. They both have pros and cons, as we’ve looked at, but let’s compare them directly:
The difference in sound between the two types of bridge is mostly going to come down to the tremolo arm the floating bridge has. Having that arm (or whammy bar, if you prefer) gives you the option to change the pitch of the notes and create that vibrato effect.
For some guitarists this is essential. For others it’s nice to have but not all that important. And for some they actively hate it!
So a big part of which bridge you prefer between the two will be how big of a deal the tremolo is to you.
The other impact on sound the two bridges have is sustain. Because a fixed bridge is always in direct contact with the guitar it means the vibrating strings pass their sound through the body constantly. This gives the guitar better sustain.
A floating bridge however doesn’t have that constant, direct contact. As the bridge floats above the body and moves with the tremolo it reduces how much of the strings vibrating is passed to the body and this results in less sustain.
Some floating bridges suffer from a lack of stable tuning. Basically when you use the tremolo arm they go out of tune.
Fender Tremolo systems, for example, are known for losing their tuning when you use the whammy bar. Floyd Rose bridges though are much better due to their double locking system and so don’t have nearly the same issues.
But be warned – any heavy use of the tremolo arm is going to have some impact on tuning. You can reduce how much by using a good Floyd Rose bridge but you can’t stop it entirely.
Fixed bridges though are much more stable. Without the tremolo you get a nice and consistent tuning that should hold without any problems.
With a floating bridge changing strings is awkward. There’s just a lot more involved in the process than with a fixed bridge.
Fixed bridges you just thread the string through the bridge, over the string trees and wind it around the tuning posts. Straightforward and something most beginners can pick up pretty quickly.
Floating bridges though are complicated. The strings often go all the way through the body, which can be fiddly. Strings locks are something you’ve got to get used to as well, if you’re using a Floyd Rose.
Some floating bridges also have the locking nut that the strings have to go through at the head of the guitar. You then have to adjust the strings at the bridge after you’ve tuned them at the tuning pegs.
You need tools for restring a floating bridge like allen keys that you don’t need with fixed bridges. It’s definitely a lot more difficult, and not a good place to start if you’re a beginner.
Setup and Use
Much like changing strings it’s far more difficult to setup a floating bridge than a floating bridge. You’ve got to balance the the bridge and that means adjusting the bridge springs.
You can’t change one string quickly. You have to go through the whole process of moving and balancing the bridge.
In comparison a fixed bridge is an absolute breeze. So much faster and simpler to use.
Depending on the style of music you play one type of bridge may suit you more than the other.
Fixed bridges are more stable and suited for solid guitar playing. You can do most techniques and without any issues. So palm muting, bends, etc.
Control is a big part of a fixed bridge. You know you’re going to have a bridge that won’t let you down or cause you any problem when playing a fixed bridge.
A floating bridge is a bit more exciting. You can really open up your playing and have some fun with more interesting techniques and styles.
The likes of dive bombs and big pitch bends can only really be done with a floating bridge. So if you’re trying to stand out or really express yourself you may find the freedom the floating bridge gives you is preferable.
Floating bridges are usually seen as being the comfier of the two. That’s largely due to the way they are constructed. They have a much flatter design that if you’re resting your wrist or hand against is going to be more comfortable.
Fixed bridges on the other hand are often quite ‘jagged’. Lots of metal that sticks up and can be more uncomfortable when you’re resting your hand at the bridge.
As floating bridges have more parts to them and have required more skill to construct they tend to cost more.
Guitars That Use Fixed Bridges
Fixed bridges are used across so many models of guitar. From electric to acoustic and various styles there’s no end of choices if you want a guitar with a fixed bridge.
While the original Fender Stratocaster had a floating tremolo there have been fixed hardtail versions for decades now. Telecaster-style guitars, including the Fender Telecaster and its numerous variations and replicas, typically come equipped with fixed bridges.
Les Paul’s have always had fixed bridges and Epiphones followed suit. Most of the Gibson lineup have some version of a fixed bridge, be it their own Tune-O-Matic or wraparound bridges.
Ibanez’s are known for their superstrat guitars that usually have floating bridges but the Artcore series has fixed bridges.
And then many acoustic guitars, whether steel-string or nylon, use fixed bridges.
Remember though that while these guitar models come with fixed bridges there are always variations within each model that offer different bridge options.
Guitars That Use Floating Bridges
Floating bridges are commonly found on guitars like superstrats and signature models. Although the Stratocaster is probably the most famous guitar to feature a floating bridge.
Ibanez, Jackson and Charvel guitars often come with floating bridges. These type of guitars are specifically designed for genres like rock, metal and shred where you need the floating bridge to be able to pull off dive bombs and similar tricks.
Many signature artist models feature floating bridges as they are designed to meet the specific requirements of the artist. The likes of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen are known for their use of floating bridges and their signature models of the Ibanez JEM, Ibanez Universe and EVH Wolfgang respectively have floating bridges.