Monday, June 20, 2016

Nut and Bridge Width: the Other Important Dimensions in Guitar Playing

So a lot of people have appreciated my discussions of scale length and pickup placement. Lately, though, I've been thinking about the other dimension that affects playing -- width. There's not a lot of discussion of it where electric guitar players are concerned beyond the big hands = wide nut conversations, but there's more to it than that. I'll get into the details of it in a moment, but first a bit of context.

A few months back, I bought a Cordoba Mini R guitar. It's a nylon string classical guitar with a 20" scale length, but close to a full width and string spacing classical nut (2") and bridge. (It's tuned up a fourth to keep the strings from getting floppy.) It's a very good little guitar and so much fun to play, and the extra width at the neck really helps to keep the guitar from feeling as cramped as it might if I were having to deal with the closeness of the frets from the shortened scale. (For comparison, put a capo at the fifth fret of your guitar, especially if it has 24 frets. It's not quite the same, but it's close enough to get a feel for things.)

Moving back and forth between my Hagstrom (24.75" scale, 1.69" nut), my Fender acoustic (25.3" scale, 1.69" nut) and the Cordoba Mini (20" scale, 2" nut), the thing I most noticed was not the width of the nut so much as the string spacing at the bridge. After fingerpicking the Cordoba, the Fender feels a little close and the Hagstrom has me stumbling a bit between strings and playing less cleanly. This started me thinking more about string spacing and nut width and what sorts of changes I'd need to make, part wise, to change how the Hagstrom felt while going full Beck/Knopfler and playing with my fingers rather than a pick -- my habit more often than not these days.

The string spacing on the Cordoba is 63mm from A to a. The spacing on the Hagstrom is the standard 52mm associated with the tune-o-matic bridge and PAF style humbucker combination. Tune-o-matic That's an 11mm difference -- a little under a half inch -- in width, split between the four middle strings. That's 3mm, (not quite 1/8") more space between strings, which feels like a lot of difference. I haven't measured the Fender's string spacing, but it feels like it is somewhere between, and closer to the Hagstrom than to the Cordoba. Ideally, I think I'd like something in between the Cordoba and the Fender as far as string spacing goes to balance out the speed of picking and the comfort of fingerpicking.

To get this, I'd have to replace the saddle on the Fender and notch it with the wider spacing (and if the change were significant enough, I might have to redo the pin holes in the bridge or replace the bridge entirely to keep a nice, straight pull on those strings). Likewise, on the Hagstrom, I'd need to re-notch or replace the saddles for the tune-o-matic or get a replacement roller bridge with adjustable width rollers. Of course I'd also have to keep an eye on the fingerboard to make sure that the E strings didn't get too close to the edge (hey, maybe that's what Yes meant) as the string spacing changes. And I'd also have to pay attention to the bridge pickup pole positions to make sure that the strings stayed as much within the magnetic field of each respective pole as possible.

If the string spacing were important enough, and the neck had enough space to support the extra width, then any problems with the bridge pickup could be solved by either switching from a standard width humbucker to a slightly wider pickup built for a Floyd Rose trem. Or you could go for something with larger pole pieces to keep the sweet spot larger. Or skip the individual pole pieces altogether and go with a blade-style pickup or alumitone. Worst case, there's a blade-style or alumitone built for a seven string to get you all the pickup width you might need. And you might not need anything at all. My instinct is always to be conservative and see how things work before changing out everything.