I recently went to change the strings on my Dean Performer QSE acoustic-electric guitar, and I broke a bridge pin (please don’t ask how…it’s embarrassing). So, with a little swearing and some tips from online, I was able to extract the shattered remains of the pin out of the bridge pin hole. Here’s what it looks like now.
Now, I don’t have any spare bridge pins laying around. It’s not actually something that’s ever come up in the <mumble mumble> years that I’ve had the guitar. The original pins are made of a soft plastic material, almost like nylon. The remaining ones seem to be in good condition and are doing their jobs just fine. Perfectly serviceable. Really, if I could just get one additional one it would allow me to seat the string, tune up and play on. No muss, no fuss, no problem, Gus.
So, the very first thing I did was go online and see if I could get a single, matching bridge pin. Since this guitar was originally purchased in (some year that begins with a 19), it is rather challenging to find original parts. So, rather than waste a whole bunch of time searching for a part that probably costs a quarter to produce, I thought I would look around and see about replacing the whole set of pins.
A cursory search reveals that you can get a set of pins for between $5 and $10. They’re usually ivory colored and made of plastic. Sounds like just what I need.
But wait! Wow! There is quite an assortment of other materials and types: synthetic, wood, ivory, bone, Tusq (an artificial bone-like composite material), brass, steel. Slotted tail and unslotted. Plain or with inlays. Sets with matching strap buttons and tuning heads. You could probably have custom ones made with your monogram on it if you were so inclined (and could afford it).
So, when presented with such an array of choices, the analyst in me puffs up and asks that most fatal of all questions…WHY?
As a combination computer geek and guitar geek, it is sort of in my nature to examine all aspects of a problem before making a decision. Once I start down this path, I feel like I must truly understand the entirety of the problem space. For instance, if I use different pin materials, will it cause a difference in how tone is passed from the plucked string to the bridge plate? (The answer, for those interested is “yes”.) What would those differences be? And so the search begins.
Pursuing each line of questions is time-consuming. My lovely artist-ex-rocket-scientist girlfriend refers to it as “going down the rabbit hole”. Once I think I understand the characteristics of bridge pin materials, then the next question that pops up is, what about the material the bridge plate is made of? Do harder woods have different qualities than softer woods? Or metal or ivory? (Again, the answer is “yes”.)
So now that I understand the pins and the plate, what about how the combinations of materials work together? Do different combinations of pin/plate give different tonal qualities when you’re playing? Again yes.
Here’s where the overthinking part comes in. Every time you dig into the characteristics, and find a “yes” answer, it almost fractally generates more questions. “Why do some pins have slots? Why do some bridge plates get glued on and others float? Which is better, mahogany or ebony?” At some point you start asking such deep questions that you lose sight of what you were originally trying to accomplish. You can spend a tremendous amount of time accumulating facts that might be fascinating, but ultimately are unrelated to the goal.
Fortunately there’s a solution to this. It’s so simple it’s almost painful.
Every time you ask a question that opens up new questions, stop yourself and pose this question:
Does pursuing this topic get me closer to what I was originally trying to accomplish?
So, in my case I wanted to play my guitar. What stopped me? The strings were old and worn. What should I do to accomplish my goal and play? Change the strings. What do I need to do to change the strings? I need some new replacement strings (let’s not go down THAT rabbit hole!). Once I have the strings, then I go to the next step, and the next, and the next. When I get to the point of assessing tonal qualities, is that even germane to my goal? Actually it is. I prefer my acoustics to be warm rather than twangy. By understanding the construction of my guitar (ebony bridge plate) I was able to figure out that bone bridge pins would be the best material to get the sound I preferred. Mission accomplished!
And, since I found ones with mother-of-pearl inlays to match the inlays around the sound-hole and binding, it was a no-brainer…I didn’t have to think at all. Sort of like a car that’s just been washed runs better (wink, wink), a pretty guitar just sounds better.