3 Ways to Make Your Acoustic Guitar Sound Better
Tuesday June 25, 2019. 10:00 PM , from Sweetwater inSync
Let’s face it, there aren’t many variables in the sound of an acoustic guitar, and few that are easily changed. String and pick choice are the most obvious, but what else is there? The points where the strings touch the guitar have a significant sonic impact: the bridge pins, saddle, and nut specifically. All three of these occur at the break point of the string. Tuners could be put into this category, since they are the final termination point for the strings, but arguably they have less impact on the overall tone, because they are past the break point.
The break points — and the amount of angle created — on the strings of an acoustic guitar create pressure that transfers energy to the top of the guitar, which drastically shapes the output and tonal characteristics of the guitar.
As we considered the sonic impact of these upgrades, we wanted to find out just how much difference changing a guitar’s nut, saddle, and bridge pins would make. I personally have experimented with changing all three of these and have been satisfied with the results. However, my findings had been purely anecdotal and subject to opinion. I’ve never had the opportunity to control the variables and do direct comparisons — neither had anyone else that I asked. With that, I knew that I needed the help of Lynn Fuston, Sweetwater’s unofficial Director of Shootouts, to ensure that the process was fair and controlled, eliminating as many variables as possible. Next, we sought out Thom Grant, Sweetwater’s Associate Category Manager of Guitars, to help us choose all the right pieces. Needless to say, we were all curious about the outcome of this experiment!
We started with a Martin D-10E Road Series acoustic guitar with a Sitka spruce top. We chose it because it’s a mid-priced, solid-wood guitar with Fishman electronics; we wanted a good-sounding foundational guitar to make the changes as audible as possible. This guitar comes stock with plastic bridge pins, a Corian nut, and a TUSQ bridge.
Don Carr playing the modified Martin D-10E Road series guitar.
The replacement bridge pins we chose to audition were Planet Waves Ebony, Graph Tech TUSQ, and Martin’s Luxe Liquidmetal.
For the nut and saddle, we had Wade Owen, Sweetwater’s Guitar Repair and Install Manager, cut a bone nut and saddle for this guitar. Are you curious about the differences you can (or possibly cannot) hear? So were we.
Wade Owen installing the bone nut in the Sweetwater Guitar Repair Shop.
Take a Listen
Here are recordings of the guitar as we made the changes. I performed the same piece of original music each time we made a change. The first four clips are the different bridge pins with the stock nut and saddle. The next clips are the different bridge pins with the bone nut and saddle. I would suggest you listen in the best possible environment you have, preferably studio monitors or high-quality headphones — and preferably not MacBook or iPhone speakers or cheap earbuds.
Don Carr’s Music Selection
I composed a simple piece of music that covered a wide range: low to high pitches, strums, arpeggios, fingerpicking, single-note runs, and harmonics. The challenge was to make it something I could perform as consistently as possible, since I’d be doing it lots of times. Except for changing a couple of notes occasionally, I think I achieved the goal. It also had to be something that we could stand to listen to over and over!
What to Listen For
From example to example, listen to the sound changes in the initial attack of each note and the changes in EQ balance across the guitar. The low end can be louder, softer, and/or deeper; the high end can be less apparent, darker overall, or ping-y; and the mids may range from brighter to darker and stronger to weaker.
Stock Nut and Saddle
Bone Nut and Saddle
The Technical Details
We recorded in Sweetwater Studios’ Studio B with the help of in-house Producer/Engineer Dave Martin and Assistant Studio Engineer Krystal Davis, using an Audio-Technica 5045 large-diaphragm condenser microphone on the body side, a Neumann KM 184 small-diaphragm condenser microphone on the neck side, and a Rupert Neve Designs RNDI active direct box to capture the sound coming from the guitar’s internal pickup. All were recorded through the Millennia HV-3R preamp into Pro Tools via Focusrite RedNet interfaces.
Once we got a miked sound that we were all happy with, Lynn set up a laser to make sure that I was holding the guitar a consistent distance and angle from the mics for each sample. Mic placement is crucial to the overall sound, as any slight fluctuation can result in skewed results. Gotta keep the variables out!
Using lasers we made sure the distance from the mics and guitar angle remained consistent.
The tracks you hear are a blend of all three sources — the 5045 panned hard left, the KM 184 panned hard right, and a touch of the DI in the center.
We started the day with fresh Martin Authentic Acoustic Phosphor Bronze medium-gauge strings, and Wade was on hand to swap the bridge pins between each performance. After the first performances, we all took a long lunch break while Wade changed the nut and saddle —which he had precut the day before — and put on a set of fresh strings. Once the guitar and strings were settled in, we recorded all the different bridge pins with the new nut and saddle. The pick I used was a Dunlop Ultex 1.0.
There are so many variables that can affect the sound of a wooden instrument. We wanted to make sure we kept everything consistent so that we were truly hearing only the changes we were intentionally making. So we routinely checked the humidity of the iso booth with the Oasis Digital Hygrometer just to be sure. It can be pretty dry in Indiana, and it does make a difference. You can see from the photo that we were at 50% humidity, which is perfect.
Hygrometer in the studio, used to confirm consistent humidity.
Bonus: How much does the saddle affect the pickup sound?
To satisfy our curiosity, we wanted to hear the difference between just the nut and saddle as it pertained to the bridge pickup. So we recorded DI-only examples, both with plastic bridge pins, using first the stock nut and saddle and then the bone nut and saddle. The biggest difference we noticed was the balance between the loudness of the individual strings. This is due to the amount of pressure exerted by the saddle on the under-saddle transducer. Any minor pressure discrepancy from a naturally denser or thinner spot in the bone can cause one string to be louder or softer. This was something we knew could happen, and we thought pointing it out would be of use to anyone reading this article. It is not consistent from one saddle to another, because bone is a natural material with variations in density. For this reason, a majority of guitars with under-saddle transducers come stock with a saddle made from man-made materials, which are inherently more consistent and predictable.
Here are the samples via the direct out.
Single notes with stock nut and saddle
Single notes with bone nut and saddle
We dropped the bridge pins onto the granite desk to demonstrate the differences in the sound of each.
Bonus: How do bridge pins “sound?”
Bridge Pin Weight
We dropped the different bridge pins from the exact same height onto a granite countertop in Studio B and recorded the results so you can hear them yourself. These recordings are very revealing. The differences in the materials and mass are extremely obvious when you hear the resonant frequencies of these pins.
We hope you learned as much as we did from this comparison. It was very eye-opening to us, and Thom and I are both trying to decide which new bridge pins to buy. If you have any questions, please contact your Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700. Most importantly, make more music!
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