The other day, Nick- a worship leader at Mars Hill’s University District- brought his Breedlove acoustic back to the shop in hopes that we could rectify the volume imbalance he’s been experiencing. His high E string just wasn’t cutting through, which is a common complaint associated with under-saddle pickups.
I have to confess that I was a bit worried when Nick informed us of this problem; some weeks back I replaced his Tusq bridge saddle with genuine bone, and I thought for sure that I’d properly leveled it. However, upon inspection I found that everything was exactly as it should be. The saddle was perfectly flat, and the groove in which it sits was also perfectly routed. “What’s going on here?”, I wondered. I was stumped!
I then noticed the bridge pickup itself: braided, with a rather large balled-up mass of shielding. I studied the pickup before making a precise cut, not wanting to be too hasty. A dead pickup is not the solution we’re looking for. I made the cut, re-installed the saddle and strings, and plugged in. To my surprise, the volume of the high E string jumped up, but not nearly enough to be perfectly balanced with the others.
I tried everything else I could think of: I re-seated the saddle, thinned it out to make sure the fit wasn’t too tight, even flattened out the underside of the saddle for good measure. Nothing worked. The only thing that I couldn’t change was the break angle of the strings. See, on a Breedlove bridge the strings feed through the back end of the bridge itself instead of through the top on other acoustic guitars that utilize bridge pins. I did ramp the bridge where the strings extend to the saddle, but even with the wood removal there was no noticeable change. Except for fitting a different bridge or adding pins there seemed to be no way to change the amount of pressure on the saddle. Design flaw? Nah. Just something different. If the neck angle were more steep, this wouldn’t be a problem as the saddle could afford some more height. This neck was dead-straight on the body. Once again, I was stumped.
I consulted my most trusted resource: the internet. I surfed numerous websites, digesting pages upon pages of possible solutions when one stuck out to me: split the saddle. Split… the saddle? But, how would that solve anything? I was intrigued.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If I split the saddle, I’d be able to even out the tension between the bass and treble strings. Even with a perfectly flat saddle, the braided shield could be acting as a cushion, preventing the saddle from directly contacting the pickup in a few places.
I did a test-run using a discarded plastic saddle that I had laying around. I [not so carefully] cut the scrap saddle in half and quickly installed it. Upon plugging in I was greeted by a robust and brilliant E string, as if it was saying, “Hello!” I was awe-struck. It worked!
Now, I was really, really proud of the bone saddle I’d made for this guitar previously, and I was hesitant to dig in. Once I worked up the courage I took to splitting the saddle. I cut straight through the middle and spent a great deal of time shaving down the sharp edges I’d just created. I think the end result is visually appealing, actually. I was also worried about any negative effect splitting the saddle would have on the unplugged tone of the guitar, but there didn’t seem to be any change at all.
In the end, Nick seems happier with the guitar, and I’ve learned something important about thinking “outside of the box.” Hooray!