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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saddle Materials for Guitars Part 1

Much hype and myth have surrounded the effects of saddle materials that will transform your guitar from a caterpillar to a butterfly in aspect of tonal quality. Will it?

There are numerous literatures written about saddle materials for guitar and I have benefitted a great deal from reading them online. Great job to those dedicated writers. Since 2009, Guitaring Passionately has been serving the Singapore's guitar community and I must say guitar saddle replacement jobs are the most sought for. Surely I have those writers to thank for this surge in this demand. It is timely to share the accumulated experiences in working with various saddle materials for guitars to benefit the community.

Most of the available literatures are written from reviews of saddle materials or functional aspects point of views. However I was more curious about the acoustic properties of saddle materials because I believed by learning it, I will arrive a step closer in uncovering the myths surrounding these saddle materials in relation to tonal properties for guitars.

A Bovid Horn

Before the technical stuffs get elaborated, anyone who is pursuing for the ultimate tone should bear in mind that tone is an extension of sound, which is resulted from vibration of particles. The vibration is being transmitted among adjacent particles through various mediums until our ears detect this vibration energy. The detection of energy is processed in our brains as sound, a.k.a. tone. If you find the long sentence incomprehensible, you're pretty right about it. By noting the number of transfers that have taken place before our brains get to interpret the vibration energy, it is hard pressed to convince ourselves that we are in fact hearing the real thing.

Tone is likened to appreciation of wine. At the fundamental level, tone is nothing more than vibration energy. As tone is not visible to our naked eyes, we have to describe what we hear and feel by the use of words. At best the words used in describing tone are metaphors. Another critical filter that affects the outcome of any described tone is personal preferences. To sum it up, there is nothing accurate in tone description, except subjectivity, preferences and influences. However guitar lovers do enjoy conversations regarding tone as if they are sipping wine. The point is not about accuracy but appreciation. Humans are amazingly foolish sometime, aren't we?

Tone is likened to wine appreciation

Since tonal quality is that subjective and personal, does it mean that nobody will like a tone liked by another? Not quite … while each person is unique, there are similarities as well. Even when applying to personal preferences. Certain things are more popular among people while some are not. Take for example shapes and forms. I think it is easy to conclude that most people like the flowing curve lines on car bodies. It should be pretty hard to market a personal car that looks exactly like a box, right? Volvo has certainly got enlightened over the years. However, commercial vehicles do take on another mental model all together, i.e. functional above aesthetics.


Likewise for tone, certain types are more popular. The question is, which is most popular? Since each saddle material produces its unique tone, we can apply a pragmatic standpoint, i.e. judging by the material that is most sought after and utilized, perhaps the tone produce by this particular saddle material can hold the torch to become the best in tone saddle material.

What about expensive saddle materials? Scarcity and availability are two major factors in determining the prices of certain saddle materials. Strange but true, the study of consumers' psychology has long proven that buyers are likely to tag quality to high price points. Among the available saddle materials, ivories topped the price points due to their scarcities. Mammoth Ivories are harvested in Siberian Tundra by digging into the earth. The sub-zero temperatures are adequate as deterrents. Elephant ivories are on the CITES list as a controlled item. Only the pre-ban stocks are traded domestically and all forms of international trades are prohibited. Due to these reasons, it isn't hard to hear guitar owners singing praises about ivory guitar saddles. This doesn't imply that ivories make inferior saddle materials rather I wish to illuminate scarcity and price points as factors that influence our perceive value of various saddle materials.

Mammoth Remains Excavation

A distant relative to ivories, animal bones are abundance, easily available and economical yet they make quality saddle materials. Many luthiers have used animal bones for nuts and saddles for decades. This general acceptance is indicative of bones' intrinsic qualities as well.

Cow Bones as costume jewelry

Another important aspect is the appearance. TUSQ and bleached bone saddles are whiter than snow. They look clean and pure to users. Fossilized ivories and unbleached bones are characterized by natural malted streaks, grains, and discolorations. One can perceive these visible attributes as natural beauty or downright imperfections. At worse, some people considered such natural aesthetics as uncleaned or dirty. After all, steak must looks good before they taste good. Invariably, appearance is subjective. On top of that, aesthetic values cannot be ignored. The saddle is a highly visible part on the guitar and alignment to the over appearance does has it place. With a myriad of determinant factors, the measure of best tone is ever more elusive.

Bone Nut & Saddle with natural color

In summing up, the best saddle material that will deliver the best tone may very well be a mirage that can never be arrived. However, it may make more sense to conclude that audible differences can be obtained with a change of saddle materials on the same guitar. If one is able to detect the changes and the outcome is a satisfied one, the effort is worthwhile then.

My personal two cents; be opened to try new but don't forsake the roots. Ask yourself if you truly like what you hear … not just hear with your ears but with your heart. That is by far the most authentic evaluation to thyself.

In part 2, I will elaborate the differences of various saddle materials from the perspective of acoustic properties. Stay tuned!


  1. But will it enhance my tone by 30%???

    (hahaha...private joke) :)

  2. Hard to say ... (hee hee hee), can fluctuate plus minus 5% I think. Right????