So, exactly what is a floating bridge guitar? In plain language, a floating bridge guitar has a tremolo arm, also known as a whammy bar, that allows the player to pivot the bridge across the vertical axis of the guitar. This will change the string tension and the pitch much more drastically than other techniques.
With years of experience playing different styles of music on various guitars, I’ve spent a lot of time wailing away with my whammy bar as I channeled the spirit of Eddie Van Halen in my attempts to become a guitar god. So I’m at least a little familiar with how they work, why we use them, and what potential problems they can present.
Let’s look at what a floating bridge is, how it works, why we might use it, and what drawbacks it might present.
Why A Floating Bridge?
The most traditional way we change the pitch of a guitar string is by pressing it down against the fretboard, which effectively shortens it and changes its pitch. This is how we get six strings— E, A, D, G, B, and E—to work together to produce, say, a G major chord: G, B, D, G, B, G, according to one fingering.
There are also the tuning pegs, as well as vibrato, in which you rock your finger back and forth on the string as you hold it down, producing a wavering in the pitch. We can also bend notes by physically pushing the string around as it’s pressed into the fretboard.
But if you want more extreme pitch alterations or a smooth transition from one pitch to another, as in a glissando, you need something else. Something additional. Something like a floating bridge.
Standard bridges are anchored to the guitar body and get held solidly in place. This makes sense when you consider the need to keep the strings in precise positions to maintain their pitches and keep the guitar in tune.
A floating bridge, however, is held in place by the string tension or, in some cases, is anchored to the guitar on only one side. However, a true floating bridge should sit in a cavity, being absolutely level with the guitar, so that it can be manipulated in both directions. This allows the player to move the bridge so that it more or less instantly changes the tension of all the strings at once but can be relied upon to return to its original position without knocking them out of tune.
Parts Of The Floating Bridge
There are saddles, springs, and screws on a floating bridge, just as on a fixed bridge, so we won’t spend time on those elements. The two most important parts of the floating bridge are:
- The bridge plate
- The tremolo arm
The Bridge Plate
This piece holds the saddles in place— one for each string— and keeps the guitar in tune by holding the strings in their exact location and at the precise tension you set them to when you tuned each string.
By altering the orientation of the bridge plate, you move all six saddles at once toward (most often) or away from (less often, but still something we do) the neck of the guitar. This changes the string tension drastically and results in a significant change in pitch.
The Tremolo Arm
Also known as a whammy bar, the tremolo arm is a metal rod connected to the floating bridge and sits below your strumming hand. After striking a note or a chord, you use the tremolo arm to move the bridge up or down.
Playing a note and then pushing down on the whammy bar can drop that note an octave or more in milliseconds.
Why Would You Want This?
If you don’t have a floating bridge guitar, you’re not at a loss, and you’re not automatically a lesser player. There are a significant number of guitar players out there who make incredible music without a whammy bar, Zakk Wylde, Slash, Paul gilbert just to name a few.
But if you have a floating bridge on your electric guitar, you have an additional tool for making sounds and expressing yourself on your instrument. Think how different a piece of music Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” would be without the tremolo arm that so vastly alters pitches throughout that solo.
- Dive bombs are notes that a player strikes and then dramatically drops the pitch of. They can add drama to a solo. We hear these often in hard rock and metal solos.
- String bends with a whammy bar allow a wider bend than just pushing the string with your finger. A wider bend can add some emotion to your playing, and it follows that wider pitch variation stemming from bending with the floating bridge can add more emotion.
- Vibrato can be accomplished without a tremolo arm. But the effect can be much more pronounced with one at your disposal.
If Floating Bridges Are So Great, Why Aren’t They Standard?
Great question. And the short answer is that floating bridges, despite all the versatility they can bring to your playing, do have some drawbacks. Depending on the kind of music you play and the possible issues a whammy bar might bring, you may not want one.
- Almost without exception, you will break strings more often. You won’t snap one every time you play (if you do, you may have something wrong with your guitar), but rapidly changing a string’s tension will put more wear and tear on it than if the bridge never moves. And since many guitars with floating bridges also have locking nuts, changing the strings takes a little longer.
- You will need to monitor your tuning much more closely. Though the floating bridge returns to its original position when you let go of the tremolo arm, that bridge is much more prone to not returning to its precise orientation than a fixed bridge, which never moves. You may find your guitar falling out of tune more often with a floating bridge.
- If you use a lot of palm muting in your playing, the whammy bar may get in the way. On top of that, when you rest your palm on the strings near the bridge, you risk disturbing the bridge’s position even if you’re not using the whammy bar, and may cause your pitch to sag when you don’t want that to happen.
A floating bridge guitar offers guitarists an exceptional range of pitch manipulation capabilities. These capabilities add more to your playing than just making changes to the notes as you play them. You can develop sounds and techniques that bring more expressiveness to your playing.
Dive bombs alone can add a cool factor to your playing, and the more you learn and experiment, the more you’ll develop sounds that let you say what you want to express with your axe.