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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hidden Clauses

How many times did we ogle at the many beautiful guitar photos on the internet? After reading the best descriptions of a given guitar, we made mental calculations regarding the exchange rates, freight charges, GST, etc. and after some hesitation we click the “buy now” button. The rest of the administrative processes are self explanatory to most experienced online shoppers, I presume.

Eagerly the buyer waited for the package to arrive praying for a safe delivery. Finally when it arrives, very quickly the guitar is tuned up and the first sound was produced … by and large there are two typical outcomes. The quality met the buyer’s expectations and they both live happily ever after until the desire to sell it comes back in the future. The other one is a sad story … both live unhappily but never ever after. The buyer will be thinking of ditching this “not up to expectations” piece soonest.

Generally, most common visible blemishes should not escape the capture of photography. If there are certain visible issues, they should show up in the pictures unless the seller “photoshop” the pictures or deliberately avoided angles that will illuminate the blemishes. In any case, the outcome is not going be desirable. Not limited the issues listed below, these are the common ones related to acoustic guitars that pictures will not reveal their presence.
  1. Truss rod is broken
  2. Loose braces
  3. Inoperative electronics
  4. Thin or Low Saddle
Certainly there are ways to surface these “hidden clauses”. For online purchases, the buyer can probably ask some relevant questions to evaluate the true conditions of the on-sale guitar. Below are a few sample questions.
  1. Is the truss rod working?
  2. Are there structural issues with the guitar? (This implies any lose joints on the guitar)
  3. Are the electronics devices operative?
  4. What is the maximum height of the saddle above the bridge?
Will these questions eliminate the possibilities? Well, it will probably not but it is wiser to ask than to leave it to pure trust. Judging the responses from the seller, you can sense if the transaction is worthy of proceeding. If you’re confused by the seller’s responses, send it to some experienced friend for another opinion.

As for local purchases, you can inspect the on-sale piece with great thoroughness to surface any hidden issues. However many buyers are simply struck dumbed in the presence of wood beauties (amygdala hi-jacked) to remember to inspect. Try your best to remain compose … Here are 2 real examples. Without mentioning the guitar brands and models, both acoustic guitars possessed the same issue, i.e. thin or low saddle. See below picture for better illustration for example one.

Saddles and Shim

The picture above shows a regular saddle, a piece of wood shim and one of the guitars’ saddle. Shim functions to increase the saddle’s crown height in the event the saddle is made with insufficient crown height to achieve a good set up. While shims are good for such quick fixes, there is a trade off in terms of tonal qualities. Too thick shim will affect the tone of the guitar. This stems from the fundamentals of wood density and hardness. We know that hard materials conduct sound better than softer materials. Sound is actually vibration of air molecules. Likewise, a thick enough wood shim can absorb the strings’ vibration significantly until the overall tone of the guitar is diminished.

The wood shim in the above picture measures at 1.5mm at its thickness section. The wood shim will occupy a certain amount of space within the saddle slot, which means the saddle is making less contact it should with the saddle slot and in turn the bridge. Moreover the bottom of the saddle is not making direct contact due to the wood shim. If the shim is thin, the effect may be insignificant but with a thick shim and made of soft materials, tone will suffer nevertheless. All these are contraindicative to the principles of good saddle fitting.

Fortunately it is not irrecoverable but it will make well-made guitars to sound like a dog. A change of saddle will solve the problem … provided the new saddle is properly made.

Example two: One of my clients encountered this issue with one of the guitars that were purchased online. After the guitar has arrived, it was played and left in the case. My client sensed the lack in tonal quality even this guitar was expected to perform well. By chance, I had a conversation with the buyer who is also my client and I mentioned the possibility of a thick shim as the woe was the quality of tone. A quick inspection indeed revealed a plastic shim seated in the saddle slot. The saddle was low in its crown height which wasn't surprising. This plastic shim was 1 over mm in thickness, and it was made of soft plastic. See pictures below.

Thin or Low Saddle and Plastic Shim

Original Bone Saddle View 1

Original Bone Saddle View 2

After some discussions, my client decided on replacing the original one with a handcrafted saddle. I got my client to snail mail the shim and the saddle to me and I duplicated the saddle with factoring the shim thickness using Fossilized Mammoth Ivory (FMI). Here are a few pictures of the finished FMI saddle and the original. By the way, FMI is totally legal and traded internationally.

Original and duplicated FMI Saddle View 1

Original and duplicated FMI Saddle View 2

Original and duplicated FMI Saddle View 3

Ideally the new saddle should fit like a glove to the guitar but many unexpected things can happen. It is not unusual to do some fine sanding to get the saddle into glove fit with the guitar even it is a duplicated one.

So the next time before you commit to any pre-owned pieces, do exercise some prudence and you can avoid such situations.


  1. Hi I'm curious to know the acceptable height of the saddle above the bridge? What happens if it falls below this height? Thanks!

  2. If the saddle height above the bridge is too low, it will affect the string break angle, i.e. making them insufficient. All these lead to diminishing of tonal quality regardless the wood composition or made. No strict rule here, the amount of protrusion that considered regular and normal should fall between 4 to 6 mm. Those guitars with saddle with only 2 to 3 mm of protrusion tend to suffer in tone.