Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Started to shape one half as practice.

I got this new guitar and decided the action was slightly high compared to my 20 year old Seagull guitar. Well, I didn't really examine my Seagull because the truth is that the action is ridiculously low and the neck is backbowed and the top has sunken AND the bridge itself has lifted up badly from the oven-like conditions in the van in Costa Rica, and the nut has worn down and most of the strings buzz. So, why would I use this as any kind of example or template? Because I love the way it plays and sounds.
Then polished one half
So I decided I wanted action as low as my Seagull, ridiculously low, like an electric guitar. And I look at the Fylde and think it's off by 1/32'' or more. Now, the first step to lowering action is to make sure the neck is as flat as you want it. Getting the neck flat isn't part of lowering the actual action, but if your neck has too much relief then you will be lowering the action with the saddle to the point that any later change to the neck relief will cause buzzing. There's an order to go in. So they are connected.

I looked at (eyeballed) the neck relief and decided the Fylde was fine and I shouldn't mess with the truss rod. So I shave a little off the saddle, and then shaved a little more. And the action was much improved to my fingers, but then I really examined the neck and decided it had too much relief and was unsatisfactory. My Seagull was SUPER flat and I wanted the Fylde to be SUPER flat. But I've already shaved the bridge what to do?
luckily my Swiss Tool has cable shaving groove that works on bone
Fuck it, I'll adjust the truss rod anyway and I do that as recommended in small 1/8 turn increments taking days and weeks to adjust and after maybe 3/4 turn I decide the neck is as close to flat as I want it, and the Seagull shouldn't be considered a role model. And after full examination and adjustment to the point I am pleased with a hair of relief and the saddle is totally shaved to the lowest point, I can unfortunately get the low E string to buzz annoyingly by plucking it hard. This is the only string to buzz and only when I fret the string at the 12th fret and really pluck it hard. Well, when am I ever going to be beating on the low E string while playing the 12th fret when I can only reach the 14th fret under the best circumstances? The answer is never, but that doesn't mean I'm content. So, I decide I'm going to shape my own saddle because I'm determined to own this guitar like no other and make it my #1.

So, saddles and bridges are called "Huesitos" or "Little Bones" in Spanish and I hunt 2 square cut, unpolished bone saddle blanks down for a dollar a piece, though I looked at the receipt later and the clerk only charged me for one so that is another moral irritation because I have to go back there on my illegal, unregistered moped across town to retroactively pay for the other one and my explanation will be so baffling in my bad Spanish that I will probably be arrested. I also like to think the bones these saddle blanks were cut from belonged to dead bullfighting bulls, like these pretentious prehistoric mastodon tusk saddles on archtop mandolins.
"What kind of guitar saddle is that?"
"Oh, Mexican bullfighting bull horn."

Now, the internet is full of tutorials about sanding saddles down but they all skip steps for the novice. I think everyone is trying to monetize and commoditize their skills from installing wheel bearings to guitar setups and posting crappy videos on the internet and trying to make some nickles. Good for them. God bless us all. But it doesn't mean they know how to instruct or train people. I'll give my photo essay of my first attempt.
This should be in any guitar tool workshop

My first mistake was shaping the top first, because if the width won't even fit in the bridge slot then I will eventually have to sand down the entire length of the side and that will ruin whatever shape I gave to the top at which point I'll be going in circles. Ok, rookie mistake.  All the videos include how to sand the flat side of the saddle down, which does indeed require some finesse, but nothing compared to the top side of the saddle where the strings sit and has a curved radius. This area affects intonation and action. Fortunately, the Fylde has a zero nut so the saddle is not compensated Compesanted saddles mean it has a zig zag flat spot slightly further back on the B string to account for the variation in the width of the B string compared to the core of the wound G string, which is actually smaller than the B string...and the high e string is more like the core of the low A string...blah blah blah.
The worst file in the world
I mean a hair, not even a millimeter further back, but it affects intonation. This saddle doesn't have any compensation that I can see and I'm deaf anyway so I don't care about a hair of intonation. In fact, I care mostly about the possibility that there will be a buzz at the 13th fret if I ever fret the 12th fret low E string and bash on that string.That idea irks me.
Getting in the ballpark, still too long and wide and high
The guitar sounds good and for my first carved bone saddle ever I'm going to try simply to get a perfect top shape and perfect height for this mostly flat neck relief.

The main question I have right now is what shape should a saddle top have? A perfect inverted U? A slight inverted V? I'm going with an inverted U. Because, it's not rocket science, but it's not easy, to shape a perfectly uniform and symmetrical saddle top from rare bullfighting bull bone with a piece of sandpaper and some nail files.  Bone is forgiving and I can see the attraction of scrimshaw and carving with material that responds easily. Bone saddles actually have all 4 dimensions to deal with, height, width, length and also density, but I can't really adjust density without plutonium. Bottom has to be flat, top has to be uniform (or compensated) length has to fit and width has to fit. Also, is a saddle normally symmetrical? Or is the bass side slightly higher than the treble? If we accept that the saddle should match the guitar fretboard radius...then it should be symmetrical, and maybe the slot in the bridge itself is routed out at a slight incline...I don't know. This seems impossible to match the radius of the saddle to the fretboard radius and still get the high e string lower than the low E string. Because a perfectly symmetrical saddle will lead to an identical action height of the e strings. And I want the high e string to be lower, so either the saddle bottom has to be leaning or else I have to drop the top of the saddle under the e and b strings. This Fylde Alexander seems to have a 16'' radius fretboard (or maybe 15'' or 14''?? These are so similar I have no idea which is a better fit. They all fit!), which feels similar to the Seagull. So, is it a perfect arc? Of course, it must be or else these tutorials would not bother talking about a radius arc since you really end up with a roller coaster of different elevations. What the hell do I know? I'm just a guy who lives in a van. Turns out the radius is indeed a perfect 16'', but it is tilted a degree or two down to the treble, so it's not perfectly matching the fretboard anymore. See, the radius itself matches the fretboard, but because it is tilted the saddle is lower toward the treble side. This takes so clever sanding I will get to later.

After some further investigation that involved a micrometer caliper to measure the depth of the saddle groove and the width and even the sensitivity of my ego I determined the saddle is indeed symmetrical but human hands can not cut an exactly flat groove in a bridge. Measuring with a depth gauge along the whole length of the groove I got 6 different depths. Which means that the saddle bottom, no matter how perfectly flat it is, will never perfectly mate with the bottom of the groove because the bottom is not perfectly flat. We are talking about .165'' compared to .147, and .164, .167, .153 and .133.  that is a .02'' difference in depth, but the bone saddle is not pliable and will not conform to these changes in depth so there will be gaps between the saddle and the bridge, which is the exact point of contact for the tone production. So, this is a luthier engineering issue I don't even want to investigate further because how can you cut a perfectly flat surface into a bridge of wood, when we know the wood will splinter and cause imperfections in the depth. This might be a case for composite carbon bridges and saddles because you will never cut a perfectly flat groove in wood and if there is a .02 or .05'' gap between the saddle and the bridge then you lose tone production. Talk about the devil being in the details! You build a guitar for a month and the tone still comes down to a nearly impossible task of mating a piece of bone to a cut piece of wood. It won't be flush. Oh, sure, .02'' is pretty close to flush, but it's not flush. I'll bet every saddle groove in every guitar from $100 to $10,000 is not perfectly flat if the bridge is wood. Because how can you cut wood, which is a sinuous grain, as though it were glass? Every tiny chip that is created when sanding even with a saddle slot file/level is a different level. I guess I need to build a guitar workshop full of tools to test my theories before running my mouth. I see the luthier added some graphite to the bottom of the groove so maybe that is what fills in the .02'' of gap and my depth gauge is selectively missing the graphite and if I ran a slot file down the slot (assuming the file is true) then I would not be able to measure any grade differences. So the slot is flat and true, although compensated, and the saddle bottom is flat.

At least I know the saddle is symmetrical horizontally, although the top of the saddle presents an issue since the strings only hit one side of the curvature and the other side facing away from the bridge doesn't touch the strings but has to serve as a perfect ramp toward the fretboard. Furthermore, my attempts compensate the action lower on the treble side are thwarted by a symmetrical saddle. I have to lower the treble strings but the G string already buzzes when I really pluck it like a Bow. So if I lower the treble half only of the saddle bottom then the G string will really buzz. So I have to lower the top, which is also going to cause troubles with tone. It's a puzzle and, if you haven't noticed, I like to overthink things until they crumble beneath my superior intellect.
It took many hours to hand sand this bottom saddle from the top blank. The width and length and radius all fit. It is a spare and needs only to have the bottom shaved for a different action. If I were going to do this regularly I would need different tools such as a true 16'' radius sanding block. Eye-balling a 16'' radius is no good. I used a multi-grit fingernail polisher, 120 grit sandpaper, and a metal file. The radius might match the fretboard but if the saddle is symmetrical then the action won't be right since both e strings will be the same action and the high e should be lower since it has a tighter vibration radius than the low E. The only way that can be done is by either carving special indents for the e and b strings or else sand an incline into the bottom. Or, I guess, you could rout an incline in the saddle slot, but that would be insane since it is irreversible and the saddle can always be changed for a few dollars. To rout an incline in the saddle slot you would need to cut a sliver wedge that the router climbs up as you pass the router through the slot. It would be madness. Bone saddle blanks with the correct radius and width are available and only require you to shorten the length and sand the bottom. A good saddle must be done by sanding a slanted bottom so the high e sits 1/32 lower than the low E.
This whole ridiculous project is because I'm trying to get the high e string action to be at 2/32 and because the saddle is symmetrical it is now at 3/32. So how do I get only the e and b string 1/32 lower? With a slanted bottom in relationship to the radius top. But because I already sanded this saddle almost to the absolute lowest point if I sand any more to get the unwound strings lower then I will probably start the wound strings to buzz. Thus I carved a whole new saddle to experiment. But until I figure out how to sand a perfectly flat but inclining bottom I will be content to play the guitar as is. I should add that this 1/32 of additional action height on the e string is the only reason I can't play like Tal Fallow. I think about $50 in basic luthier tools will solve this problem and since an action set up is around $25 minimum it's a good investment.

So, this ongoing project reached a boiling point recently.

I had managed to get the action on the Fylde to 3/32 and the neck relief was near a bare minimum of .15mm or around .006''. Ok, the action on both e strings was 3/32'' or around 2.38mm and I really wanted around 1.5mm for the treble e and around 2mm for the bass E. I live in a van, so here is a picture of the equipment I was going to use.

carpenter's square, 'L' bracket, machinist ruler, 2 'C' clamps, 2 vise grips

I ended up clamping the saddle to the ruler as a straightedge. This dented side of the saddle and almost crushed it. Notice the slant! If the bottom is perfectly flat then the action will be equal, unless you sand the top of the saddle, which is also an option.

The issue is not only removing exactly 1/32'' from the bass end, but removing 2/32'' from the treble end at the same time in an even slope. Man, I puzzled over how this could be done and decided it was not possible with my hand alone, I needed a fence that would stop the sanding at a certain point, while allowing me to sand a slant. I almost bought a vise, but I knew the vise would not be level. I tried to sandwich the saddle between two rulers but gave up because it was very hard. Maybe gluing the saddle to one ruler would've made it easier because I needed 4 hands to hold the saddle in place while locating the opposite ruler at exactly the same slope. Also, the width of the saddle was so narrow I needed to add a second saddle below the saddle so the two rulers would press equally. I think it could be done with two 'L' Brackets bolted together like a vise, provided the holes were in identical spots. Then you could sand off whatever was protruding out the top. Less is more!

I should point out that this amount turned out to be about a hair too much. The strings don't buzz, but man they are cllllllooooose. Actually, the treble e string does buzz when fretted at the 14th fret. There is zero clearance for string vibration from the neck joint to the end of the fretboard. Everything else is ok, and that part can't be adjusted for radius so I know the saddle is too low. It feels so low I fret a chord before I even feel the strings. This action is ridiculously low, maybe the lowest action I've ever felt on an acoustic guitar. It's even lower than my electric but the relief is absolutely perfect for the vibration on a fingerpicked string so there is no buzzing*, but it's actually shockingly low. I'm sure it would buzz a little if I wailed on it with a pick, but simple picking has no buzz. Playing bar chord jazz comping was a real chore at 3/32'' action height. I'm spoiled by low action of my Seagull and Ibanez. It was no good so I needed lower action and got it.

This is absolutely as low as it can get.

This is the bridgeplate on my 21 year old Seagull, bought new in 1995. I wanted to inspect the bridgeplate for damage and found none. Yes, the wood is splintered, but it looks like it was always splintered. The ball ends are working their way slowly into the wood and maybe 20 years from now they will embed another 1/64''. Maybe.

The main things I've learned were from this luthier site. It's kind of fundamental, but not something I've given much thought to as I've struggled with Dorian scales and mental anguish. Neither the Seagull nor the Fylde has slots in the bridge for the strings. They both have slotted plastic bridge pins. I never gave this much thought, never examined a guitar that was any different. The Seagull action setup lasted 20 years without adjustment. Yes, the bridge has finally lifted from the top because the glue melted in the ridiculous beach heat in Costa Rica, but that's another story. I never gave much thought to break angle or string ramps or saddle height or neck relief or neck angle. None of that mattered. If a fret buzzed I took a framing hammer and hit the fret, denting it, until the buzz stopped.

Well, I've been going to school these last few days to learn what I should've learned long ago. These bridges are not slotted, but it's quite common to cut slots for the strings if the need arises, and then cut and sand rounded string ramps and then use either solid bridge pins or turn these slotted pins around so the un-slotted surface forces the string into the bridge slot and keeps the ball end in place. Wow, that's simple, yet something I'd never give much thought to. It's like zippers and pockets on pants. Have you really given much thought to the different kinds of pockets and zippers. Only tailors think about these things. I'm designing another pair of leather pants and have spent days looking at pockets. I feel like the Howard Hughes of pockets and zippers now. Suffice to say the variations are almost unlimited and only a resignation to accept what clothing manufacturers give us makes us think there is such a thing as a normal pocket. Like sex, there is no such thing as a normal pocket; there are only pockets we prefer or reject. And seams, I'm obsessed with seam styles and variations. There are so many it keeps me up at night wondering which seam to use on which part of my leather pants. The variations are infinite especially when combined with pocket variations. Well, enough about clothes: this is a mini lesson in bridge slots and ramps and I will tell you what I've learned so far.

I provide the photo of my Seagull to show that damage caused by the ball ends is minimal after 21 years. Ok, and the action was pro setup from Gryphon in the Bay Area with respectable break angle and it was perfect until the bridge started to lift and the frets started to warp. Still, the guitar plays and sounds good and I recently took the tension off the strings to let it rest until I can do something about the bridge. The top seems to have bowed out slightly so I can't simply glue it back on. The belly has to be reduced, involving heat, maybe more work than I want to learn how to do. We'll see. My point is that with no string slots and no string ramps, the Seagull played great, although had very little sustain and volume comparatively. So, it has some upgrading to do one day. My point is that the Seagull didn't need ramps because the break angle was ok and the action was perfect.

Almost no saddle left on the Fylde.
However, the Fylde now has incredibly low action, I can probably get used to action this low. But the break angle, and thus the downward thrust on the saddle, is pretty minimal

View from above. No string slots, no ramps. Slotted plastic pins.
 So, if I am indeed content with action this low, and I don't decide to shim the saddle a hair higher, then the only way to add break angle is by cutting a little ramp into the bridge so the string exits at lower point, maybe 3 mm inside the hole, and thus it will be increasing the angle of downward thrust on the saddle. Either the saddle must go up or the ramp must go down. I'm new at this so there might be another option such as shaving the whole bridge top down so the saddle appears to be higher relative to the string exit, but those are the major options and if I really like the action height, then I am totally in good company to cut a ramp and file a nice rounded edge so the string exits lower. Now, that is not necessarily a string slot. No. I can file a string ramp to provide for more angle downward on the saddle, instead of a sharp angle on the bridge itself, but I DON'T have to cut a string slot. The string slot is actually a different modification that doesn't actually impact the string break angle. The string slot is a modification so that the ball end will be 96% caught by the bridge plate and 4% squeezing through an added string slot, rather than 85% on the bridge plate and 15% trying to squeeze through the bridge pin slot (as pictured in my Seagull). That's the issue with a string slot, contact area of the ball end with the bridge plate. It's unrelated to the string break angle, but it seems the modification is normally to slot the hole and add a ramp regardless of what kind of action you like. In my case, the Seagull never needed string slots or ramps but it's possible the tone would improve with string ramps to improve the angle on the saddle. It's possible and probably desirable because the angle was not very pronounced. I didn't break strings but the volume was weak and the overall vibration of the soundboard was pretty weak, considering it is solid cedar. And if I'm going to add ramps then I might as well add string slots and change to solid pins. It really makes sense considering how weak the volume was. The Seagull has some issues that I'll deal with eventually. 

But the Fylde is an ongoing project. Aesthetically, I don't care about the break angle looking so shallow, and as far as I could tell from before and after, the top vibrates equally and the volume is the same and in general I can't tell any difference with less string angle. And I know that the ball ends will do no damage over the next 21 years so adding string slots is not a modification that needs to happen today. But the treble e string has such a shallow angle that I can move the string out of the tiny chip in the saddle if I push it hard enough. I can't lift it off the saddle, but I can slide it. The downward thrust is greatly reduced because now the greatest strain is where it comes out of the hole of the bridge. But that part of the string doesn't vibrate much so I don't want the greatest point of stress impact to be there. I want the greatest angle to be on the saddle top. So I have to add ramps to the treble strings at least. There's even a tutorial on the site that sells the tools so I don't have much excuse to leave this unremedied, except I can't get these tools in Mexico.

Let's recap: So, there is two step process. 
1) What is bridge slotting/ string ramping? 
2) Do you need this done.

Bridge slotting is cutting a groove in the bridge pin hole and bridge plate from top to bottom, so the string has a separate channel to sit in and the unslotted pin fills up the hole and the pin end forces the ball end to be wedged into the bottom of the newly cut slot. The ball end will never have 100% contact with the bridgeplate because that's impossible. The string has to go somewhere, but the idea is to reduce the null surface the ball end can try to escape through. I should point out that if one were careless and cut an extra wide slot in the treble e string hole, then the ball end could conceivably come right up the slot and then you are dealing with a bridge plate and bridge replacement. See? The pin will no longer hold anything down since the string slot will effectively be a second hole. Don't do that! The slot should only be the size of the string itself, and at most sized to accommodate the windings of the string. Any bigger than that and you'll have problems. If there is any advice against adding string slots this is probably the biggest issue: you are compromising the bridge and bridge plate itself and adding a slot against which the whole tension of the ball end will rest. Instead of trying to escape through the bridge pin hole, which it will never accomplish as long as the pin is there, the ball end will now try to escape through this channel that you just cut into perfectly sound bridge plate and bridge wood. If this slot is slightly too big then the ball will wedge into it. Why compromise this critical area if the bridge plate is not damaged and will not be damaged in 20+ years? If you want ramps for a better angle, then cut ramps. Why cut a slot all the way into the bridge plate? This is the argument against the slots: It might affect tone for good or ill, might protect the pins and brigeplate over 20+ years, will not affect play-ability, but might lead to the complete destruction of the bridge if the slot becomes an escape tunnel for the ball end. This is the equation. Another argument is, "If it was so good, then the manufacturer would always do it." Well, this is a factor that is debatable. I know the Seagull is perfectly fine without string slots and ramps. So, they made a good decision leaving that modification up to the user. The Fylde is probably the same thing. I looked on the Fylde site and might email Roger to see his opinion, but I think it's basically an irreversible modification that he would do if you asked, but if you don't ask then you can do it at a later date if, like me, you choose action so low you require ramps. It's probably looked on as elective surgery, cosmetic, sort of frivolous, but arguably a good idea over a 40 year instrument lifespan in a heritage guitar like a Fylde. The only reason a $250 beat and broken Seagull should get this $100 modification is for me to experiment. Still, a decision left to the owner, not the maker. It's irreversible. Like action height, this is a user preference that is best left to the user. The 3/32'' action did not need any ramps, so if the luthier precuts ramps then they aren't usually needed since 3/32 is generally low enough. Only a sissy like me who wants super low action because he has been spoiled with a badly buzzing electric guitar will need ramps. See? Only when I went crazy and lowered it to 1/16 on the treble side did the angle drop too low, and the string buzzes too! The bass e string angle is acceptable to me and some might even say the treble side is ok too and not bother with ramps. But, if done well, the ramps and slots will not harm anything and might help. We will see. I guess if you want to cut string slots because you are afraid that in 30 years the bridge plate will be worn or the $2 plastic pins will bend, then look at my Seagull pic again. 21 years has done nothing to that bridge plate and the ball ends have embedded into the bridge plate about 1/64'' and the pins have not bent. All but one pin I lost is original. So if I added string slots 20 years ago then who can tell if more damage would be done due to the compromised bridge plate and bridge. I don't know. Would the tone be improved? Maybe. It can't be much worse. People say they think it sounds good but I know better; it's very weak, no bass, no sustain, no volume. I'm willing to try it with the Seagull because in comparison to the Fylde it has no volume and the soundboard cedar top barely vibrates when I pluck the bass. It has no bass. I can't feel the vibration like with the Fylde. Maybe the break angle is to blame. Maybe the ball end being slightly inside the peg hole is to blame. Maybe the bridge lifting is to blame. Maybe there is a loose brace. Maybe it's a $250 plywood/laminate/ solid top guitar that will never sound very good but I didn't know the difference so I was happy.

21 Years with plastic pins and without string slots. If I cut slots the ball end would be in the same place, but the string would be going straight up instead of at an angle through the pin slot.

So, the string slot holds the string, the pin prevents the ball end from getting out of the hole. The ramp maximizes the angle of thrust on the saddle and you could say it minimizes the angle of thrust on the bridge surface. Eventually, in maybe 20+ years, the string will cut a ramp. The ramp on my Seagull is barely getting started, and I've never had a string break there and don't change strings more than I need to. The bridge wood is hard but it's not so sharp as to cut metal. I don't think the concern is that strings will be breaking between the saddle and the ball end where the string contacts the bridge coming out of the hole at a sharp angle. No, the wood will give before the metal. But the issue is downward thrust on the saddle and that can only be increased by raising the saddle or lowering the ramp. 

In my case, I will play the guitar as it is because I don't have the tools to cut slots, and maybe the action will prove to be too low and raising the saddle will remove the need to add ramps. I suspect I will personally cut ramps no matter what and either pay an experienced guitar tech to cut the slots or else learn the hard way myself. I'm talking about a .012'' slot, maybe a little bigger for the winding, but absolutely no bigger than the winding. Very delicate work requiring practice on a scrap piece of wood, steady hand, focus. I can do it, but I can also make a mess.

Here we see very little break angle. Remedied by either raising the saddle or cutting string ramps. If I like the action height then I must cut ramps, which is perfectly acceptable.

Usually, a saddle this low means something else is wrong, but in my case I've lowered the action to incredibly low standards. When it was at 3/32'', which is arguably the lower end, the saddle height was fine and the break angle was fine. It looked completely normal. If I had shaved a hair off, with a slope down toward the treble end then the angle would be a little sharper down on the saddle, but still I think I've reached the limit of how low an acoustic guitar action can be. The neck angle is good, the relief is good, the guitar is brand new, but I've shaved so much off the saddle that there's no break angle left, so I'm going to cut some ramps and one day I'll probably cut string slots and use solid bone or unslotted horn pins. Right now the action is 5/64'' on the bass E sloping down to 1/16'' on the treble e. I love it. The action is ridiculously low and I think the vibration of the top and tone has not changed from when I had maximum string break angle. But I would feel better with a string ramp on all the strings. The physics suggest I should get a better angle on the saddle and reduce the angle on the bridge surface, so that justifies the ramp. Then I will decide if the tone changes for the better. This guitar in general needs only a little more tweaking for perfection. The action was the biggest hurdle, the wider string gaps over the soundhole and wider neck at the 14th fret is an adjustment I'm still adapting to and the slight modified V neck profile bothers me mostly as a mental issue because I've played a normal C shape for 20 years and now when I play a minor7th with a root on 4th string I feel my thumb hit the slight V edge and it's not comfortable. Only on fancy jazz bar chords does my thumb hit that V edge and it's noticeable, even though it's barely a bump. Shaving the V off is not an option so I expect I will adapt. But the deepening of my guitar functionality IQ has grown so there's no price too high to vanquish ignorance.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.