The offset hot topic, Bridges! Stay Trem, KTS, Mustang, Mastery & Buzz Stop all discussed!
When it comes to offsets, Jazzmasters & Jaguars in particular, one topic is almost always the top pick, their bridges. With forums and social media discussions seemingly full of tales of string jumping and buzzing woes, quick fixes and upgrade options, I wanted to compile my findings and experiences, and do so honestly. I'm not a dealer for any of these companies discussed, so felt it was un-biased. So this may become a handy reference point for those getting into these superb but often misunderstood guitars.
If you look at a handful of the most iconic guitars Fender & Gibson put out there as an example, like the Stratocaster, Les Paul and ES-335 perhaps, the factory fitted bridges offer most guitar players exactly what they need with no immediate reason to look for alternatives. For the most part, stable tuning, accurate intonation and solid construction mean the original bridges are more than fine for years of enjoyment. But for the Jazzmaster & Jaguar it's often a different story, with it's original design bridge leaving some players frustrated and on a mission to get the best from their guitar. A well set-up and working JM or Jag is one of the most enjoyable, versatile & inspiring to play guitar designs from any maker to date, keeping it's flame well and truly alive despite it's little quirks. From it's initial intention to be a solid body Jazz instrument, to a renowned 'Surf' Sound guitar, to an Indie iconic and beyond, it's impossible to disregard these superb instruments just because of a troublesome bridge design.
So, what is it that people find wrong with them then?! If you're familiar with these guitars you'll know all too well already, but if you're new to offsets it's down to a few simple things. The problems often found by players with the original design bridge are the strings jumping around the saddles, as demonstrated rather here by the one and only PT (haha I love this photo). Each individual saddle is molded with lots of small, shallow 'notches' or grooves, which were intended to keep the string in place, much like how the early Telecaster bridge saddles were also designed to do. But unlike the Telecaster, the JM & Jag doesn't have the same string break angle over the bridge meaning the string tension alone often isn't enough to keep the strings seated on their saddle effectively. With lighter gauge strings many players report that with even the most modest of a strum will see the strings jumping across the saddle and instantly spoiling your fun.
There are a number of ways of resolving this, which don't all lead straight to replacing the bridge. Speak to any offset player and it is common place that the general rule is to use heavier gauge strings, and there's good reason for that. Switching to a heavier gauge like a set of 11s or 12s for example quite simply increases the string tension, which in turn affects the tension over the bridge. For some players this is enough to fix their problem. The standard bridge in function is great, individual saddle height adjustment, simple intonation adjustment and incorporates that unique 'rocking' design which tilts back and forth when the trem is used. So if simply upping a few gauges of string is worth trying first, then I say go for it! You'll be surprised at how great an 11 set feels on a JM, even if you're not usually an 11 player. Due to the shallow break angle and seemingly never ending gap between tailpiece and bridge, the tension is unique on these guitars. A heavier gauge just seems to work for the guitar and feels very well balanced.
If upping gauges is something you've already tried, or perhaps didn't have great results with it, then looking at bridge and saddle modifications and upgrades is perhaps the route for you.
The Mustang bridge mod is perhaps the lowest cost option available. These are barrel shaped saddles, usually made from lower cost materials if we're looking at the factory version like we are here, and feature a more prominent single grove in each saddle for the string to seat more effectively. They only offer intonation adjustment because the barrels are made up of 3 pairs to replicate the string radius, again if referring to the factory design, usually 7.25" radius. So great if you have a vintage radius Jazzmaster or Jaguar, but if you have a 9.5" radius guitar then sadly this particular option isn't so effective.
These are available as just replacement saddles, which can be easily swapped into your guitars existing bridge hardware easily, or also as a full replacement bridge. Many players swear by this upgrade, and the proof of that is companies like Stay Trem and KTS for example which I'll be discussing in a moment, further developing this barrel saddle design.
One thing to note about this mod, is that due to difference in the Mustang to JM/Jag, that when fitting into the bridge you'll notice a small gap between each saddle, and also that the bottom and top E can become very close to the edge of the fretboard. This isn't a problem for many players though, but worth noting if you find it a little awkward to play a guitar comfortably when the outer strings sit close to the edge of the board.
Overall these saddles certainly serve their purpose, and do so very cost effectively. A non invasive modification, easy to fit, helps reduce strings jumping out of the saddles and look quite pleasing if that's something that is important to you too. Can't argue with the price too, so it's a thumbs up for the Mustang saddles from us on 7.25" radius fretboards.
Replacement Mustang style saddles - Example reviewed £19.79 from AllParts UK (at time of review).
British made and designed, he Stay Trem bridge is an incredibly popular choice worldwide and notably used by Johnny Marr for example who's signature model Jaguar had these fitted when it was initially released (Although it has been noted that it's now a Fender produced item). Even so, it's not often you see other brand items on a factory made Fender is it? A sign of the quality of product here for sure. Machined from Stainless steel, this bridge is not only more functional due to it's precision engineering, but a great audible modification also. This bridge isn't just another take on the Mustang bridge, it tackles a few other niggles found by offset players too. Some find that the original bridge height adjustment screws found deep in those two holes at either end of the bridge plate can sink downwards over time, meaning your nicely set action keeps creeping lower down. Again, this can be quickly fixed by applying some thread lock to the adjustment screw's threads, but Stay Trem have developed for their bridge two nice nylon bushes that sit at the bottom of the bridge legs, meaning the adjustment screws once adjusted sit there firmly. Clever huh, Ideal! Also, some players reported rattles caused by the intonation adjustment springs on each saddle, an annoying little detail that can be quite frustrating when recording perhaps. But here, each saddle adjustment screw is held firmly in place again with a nylon washer. No spring in sight, making it incredibly solid and accurate for intonation, and certainly no chance of annoying buzzes. Another slight difference is that the intonation adjustment is made by an Allen key headed screw, rather than a Philips head, which feels easier to adjust I think. Nothing worse than adjusting a tight saddle and the screw driver slipping risking either damaging the guitar or cross threading the head of the screw! So the change to Allen key is a simple, but effective change.
The saddles themselves are based upon the Mustang equivalents, but precision machined from Stainless Steel instead so a much nicer quality material aiding tone among other things, a touch wider so they sit flush against each other and to the correct string spacing, and this time available for both vintage 7.25" radius and more modern 9.5" radius guitars. It also still uses the unique rocking bridge, which I personally really like, and does so accurately due to the solid saddles. The saddle notches take bigger gauge strings easily, as tested with the set of 11-50s on this particular guitar I've used in the photos.
Tonally, the stainless steel is nice and resonant, as well as harmonically pleasing. I think the stainless steel produces a slightly duller acoustic tone, but I don't mean that negatively, as I mentioned previously it is a very harmonically pleasing tone and meant I struggled to want to ever put the guitar down!
Overall, I think the Stay Trem is a superbly made, really great value, very well thought out and a truly great option for the Jazzmaster & Jaguar bridge upgrade debate. I don't stock Stay Trem sadly, but you can order direct from John's website - http://staytrem.com/ and I can be certain you won't be disappointed doing so. This is the bridge I have now settled with on my own Jazzmaster guitar, and I'm really happy with it.
Stay Trem Bridge - £65 (at the time of review)
This is an upgrade I decided to try out on our demo Squier VM Jazzmaster, as I couldn't find many reviews or user experiences out there. I'm a sucker for experimenting, what can I say? So these are another Mustang style bridge saddle, made in Japan by KTS Titanium. The clue about their material is in the companies name, being engineered from quality titanium provides not just a precision product, but one that is tonally pleasing too. Due to how they're made, and what they're made of, granted they're very much not the cheapest option by any mean, but I was open minded and for the sake of research, wanted to see if they were worth the higher price point for just saddles.
Being totally honest, I am very impressed with the tonality of titanium. They fitted the existing bridge hardware perfectly, each saddle sitting snug against each other in a similar manner to the Stay Trem bridge. Intonation is made by a Philips head screw and firm up-rated retainer/adjuster spring which rather than sitting against the saddle piece, actually has a recessed hole so the spring goes into the saddle seating it correctly when adjusted. A nice touch I thought, this also made installing them easier, rather than feeling like you needed three hands to hold each item in place whilst maneuvering the screw driver!
These are radius'd to suit 9.5" fretboards only, so they don't appear to produce vintage 7.25" radius versions. This means they're perhaps not the choice for vintage JM owners, but for more modern JM players then they're ideal. The radius is mm accurate, as you'd expect from a Japanese precision engineered item. The string notches suit bigger gauges comfortably also, with no problems on the 11-50 set fitted to our demo guitar.
Upon stringing the guitar back up, I felt the titanium saddles brought a certain liveliness and brightness (in a nice way) to the tone. Both wound and un-wound strings have a lovely balance, without one sounding brighter nor duller than the other. All intonated nicely and accurately, so it all ticks the right boxes so far. Although Jazzmasters aren't exactly known for sustain, the saddles allowed open and fretted notes to ring out really nicely, especially paired with a set of Gabriel Tenorio strings.
Overall I'm impressed with the KTS Saddles, whether you do or don't feel that the price is worth it, as that's all personal I think. They're very well made, function very well resolving string jumping issues etc, and sound rather nice too. They do still suffer from some simpathetic noise from the intonation screws, though. So that would be where I mark them down.
KTS Titanium Saddles for Jaguar, Jazzmaster & Mustang - £127.99 from WD Music (at the time of review).
Photo sourced for The Gear Page - http://www.thegearpage.net/
I think it's safe to say, that nowadays if the topic of Jazzmasters and Jaguars comes up, it isn't long before the words 'Mastery Bridge' join in on the conversation. Designed, developed and made in the USA, and played by a wealth of musicians like Elvis Costello, Kurt Vile, Nels Cline and Thurston Moore but to name a few, all famous of course for their offset ownership.
Mastery is a complete drop in replacement bridge with quite a few changes over the conventional, traditional bridge. Probably most noticeable straight away is the almost Tele like string saddles, with height and intonation adjustment. There are two saddles on the bridge, with two intonation screws per saddle which essentially pivots the saddle to achieve accurate intonation. This design provides a lot of scope for accurate adjustment, but setting a radius will need to be done 'manually' so to speak as opposed to the mustang style saddles which are barrel shaped saddles already set to a radius. This is done by smaller grub screws at either end of each saddle, meaning the bridge will suit both vintage and modern fretboard radius'. Then, as with all offset bridge types, string height action adjustment is made by the bridge plate mounting points. Which leads us to the thimbles, this is a big difference between Mastery and others, the mastery bridge plate studs have been designed to be a tight fit into the existing thimbles, some models of which are supplied with new machined thimbles to suit if you didn't originally have a standard bridge, so the J Mascis JM fitted with TOM bridge for example. So wave goodbye to the 'rocking' function found on traditional offset bridges, as it quite simply isn't needed due to the bridge itself being more accurate, giving the bridge a firm seat against the body which in turn helps produce a better resonance. Nice right?! The string notches on these are much deeper meaning it certainly eradicates the worry of strings slipping out of the saddles, no matter how hard you play, improving the playing feel drastically. Also due to the saddle arrangement, helps eliminate and unwanted buzzing commonly found with traditional bridges.
Another different material here too, with Mastery opting for solid brass construction with a hardy and self lubricating chrome plating. Brass is probably most commonly seen on Tele bridge saddles, being the material of choice on vintage and modern models alike. The sound is warm yet vibrant making it a very popular choice for Telecasters, taming that sometimes harsh treble sound. Many players note a difference in tone after fitting a Mastery, which is understandable switching to a different saddle material. I would agree. Sustain is good, tone is well balanced. Sadly the example I tested created some sitar like string buzz on the top E, a slight rub with a fine emery paper solved it and was able to enjoy fully afterwards. Bit of a shame considering the higher price but may well have just been a one off issue. I haven't heard of others report this.
Mastery know their craft, and clearly settled with brass for a very good reason. The amount of thought that has gone into their product, I would very much be inclined to trust their choice! The reason why a coating is used instead of bare brass, is that brass is very prone to wearing, particularly with tremolo usage. So this coating completely protects the saddle from wearing down, and looks rather neat too. Perhaps a small little build up of the coating was what caused the top E niggle I had? Either way, resolved and enjoyed afterwards.
Overall the Mastery Bridge is widely seen as the go to 'premium' bridge option alongside the Stay Trem, with everyone in agreement that the design is incredibly functional, and some only disliking it because of it's aesthetics and finish. Which is a totally personal choice so it's each to their own. If you're in the market for a well made, well designed bridge, the Mastery has to be a major consideration. I liked it, but have to admit with my enjoyment of the rocking style vintage bridges, this more fixed like bridge took a little getting used to. I have used this Mastery bridge on brand new, boutique luthier made guitars and it suited them very well with it's solid feel and well balanced tone.
Mastery M1 Bridge - £155 at the time of review.
The Whizzo 'Buzz Stop'
The option that will likely cause most arguments among the offset community, is The Buzz Stop. Once upon a time before Stay Trem and Mastery, this was your only bolt on fix for your string jumping woes. Some players still continue to use and love them, but many JM aficionados truly despise them, so why is this option the 'marmite' of the offset world?
The design is a simple bracket which fixes via existing holes on the tremolo tailpiece, it even caters for the trem lock slider. With a roller attached, the strings simply pass underneath it and over the bridge, almost like the string path on a Bigsby trem does for example. This is simply to increase the string break angle over the bridge, increasing the string tension resulting in less string jumping and as Whizzo state, reducing the renowned offset string buzz. All sounds good right? In theory, most certainly yes, it's why many players still swear by them despite the animosity. A low cost, simple bolt on item, no invasive modding required and enables you to keep the existing bridge. So why do many players consider these the taboo offset mod? If you're an offset veteran, part of the magic of these guitars is the huge space behind the bridge, the strings resonate differently, it gives the playing string tension a unique feel that I've certainly not experienced with other models, even other 24" and 25.5" scale guitars. The Buzz Stop is often nicknamed the Buzz Kill, for taking away this very detail that makes the JM and Jag unique, also seeming to damped or deaden the tone of the guitar. Which in reality means the resonance is reduced due to the increased string tension. In a time before the Stay Trem and Mastery options for example were available, it was very common for players to opt for the Buzz Stop, like this video of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in the early '00s armed with a JM fitted with a Buzz Stop below (I'm sharing this as it's relevant and a awesome track, why not?!).
They certainly do serve their intended purpose, reducing string buzz and increasing string break angle over the bridge, so if that's what you're after then the Whizzo is right for you. If you love the string tension feel of an JM or Jag, playing behind the bridge À la Nels Cline, then I would suggest looking at bridge options noted earlier in this post.
Either way, the Buzz Stop continues to cause the most arguments and discussion whatever forum or group I come across, and will likely continue doing so as long as they continue making them. I hope this section helps you form your own decision and not what others tell you to think, your guitar and your choices!
The Whizzo Buzz Stop - £44.59 stocked at AllParts UK (price at time of review)
Let's wrap this up, it's been a long one huh!? So I've looked at a selection of options, all of which have their own merits and their own avid fans. One thing you'll come across in the offset community if you're new to it, is that when you meet someone who uses a Stay Trem or a Mastery for example, that they are very firm in their choice and will sing the praises of the item they chose. Which is great to see that pride in a guitar product, but the downside is that it makes it difficult to choose which is the right option for you with so much info to take in. You'll also note many offsets outfitted with a Tune-o-matic bridge, I decided not to discuss that option on this post as they're not a 'drop in' replacement as such, requiring new thimbles and modifications. The TOM bridge option is the choice of J Mascis (although very renowned for his incredibly high action) and was a Kurt Cobain choice too, but always my main concern with a TOM bridge on an offset like the Jag or JM is fretboard radius, being unable to set the radius correctly to suit the fretboard courses set-up issues which can cause woes. Also if you're a avid user of the trem, then the TOM saddles aren't best suited causing a nasty pinch point on the string unless you use a roller type saddle on their which definitely helps. Perhaps I'll write another post going into the TOM option a little further soon.
I hope this post, with each style broken down into sections and hopefully with opinions left aside, provides you with the details you need to make the right choice for you and your offset. Stick with it, they're the some of the most enjoyable, engaging, rewarding and versatile guitars you're likely to pick up. I love them!
Thanks for reading,