A floating bridge is any type of bridge that literally floats above the body of the guitar. For most guitarists, the term "floating bridge" calls to mind floating tremolo units, although some old-style tailpieces that are mounted to the bottom of the guitar are also technically floating bridges. (Epiphone Casino guitars tend to use this type of bridge.) Both of these types of bridges have an effect on your guitar's sound and playability.
Floating Tremolo Tone
Floating tremolo units tend to have an interesting effect on the tonal characteristics of a guitar. This is because a large chunk of wood must be removed from the guitar body to accommodate the floating tremolo unit and the springs that hold it in place. Guitars with floating tremolos tend to sound thinner (the Stratocaster sound as opposed to the Les Paul sound) and have less natural volume than guitars with a stationary bridge piece. Whether this is good depends on your personal preference and style.
Floating Tremolo Playability
If you're heavy handed, you may knock the strings on a floating bridge-equipped guitar slightly sharp when palm muting them. This is because you're accidentally pressing the floating bridge toward the body of the guitar, thus slightly increasing the string tension. Some floating tremolo units, especially locking systems such as the Floyd Rose tremolo unit, require a significant amount of upkeep to keep them in working condition. In general, if you don't plan on using the floating tremolo system in your playing, avoid buying a guitar with one equipped.
Floating tailpieces affect a guitar's tone in a different manner than floating tremolo units. No body wood is removed when installing one of these bridges, so the natural tone of the guitar is not affected as much. These types of bridges are associated with a warm, round tone that's well suited for jazz music. Floating tailpieces are more common on hollow and semi-hollow body electric guitars than on solid-body guitars.
Floating tremolo units can have a negative effect on string life, especially if the tremolo arm is used frequently. The more often a string gets manipulated with the tremolo system, the more stretched out it gets. Excessively stretched out strings will go out of tune quicker, sound duller and break easier than regular strings. This shortening of string life is not drastic, but many guitarists do find it noticeable. Floating tailpieces don't negatively affect the length string life or tuning stability.
- "Guitar for Dummies"; Mark Phillips et al; 1998
- Gibson: Tone Tips -- Bridges
- ProfessorStrings.com: How Does a Floating Bridge Effect String Life?
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