Hipshot are a savvy bunch, and to bring a new bridge system onto the market you have to know exactly the features it needs for the end user without making it a stiff and boring-looking item, or worse....an overburdened contraption that only a marketer can save. The Tone-A-Matic effectively addresses the most common issues found in traditional TOM-style systems with a neat attractive unit; both a one-shot retrofit for Nashville-style TOM bridges and a simple-to-implement high grade boutique bridge for new instruments.
Generally here on ProjectGuitar.com, the average reader is a builder, so let's get the retrofit stuff out of the way first. After all, this is the primary market for the Tone-A-Matic.....then we can concentrate on the really fun stuff to show how well this bridge works for us in new builds!
Retrofitting, or "when they didn't do it properly in the first place"
Primarily, the Tone-A-Matic is aimed squarely at owners of guitars fitted with Nashville/Epiphone/import-style bridges; those with standard large-diameter adjustment posts rather than the ABR-1 thumbwheel style. This isn't to say that you can't pull out that weedy ABR-1 and upgrade, however that route will involve a careful invasive surgery.
Like all of Hipshot's products, the system comes complete with everything you need, including replacement Metric (M8) bushings should your existing ones happen to be a smaller M4 or Imperial threading....or simply if you prefer to renew everything. Optionally, Hipshot can provide Imperial-threaded posts should you be transplanting onto say, an American-made Gibson Nashville. Having all of the parts and setup tools you need right there in the package gets this changed over in one sitting, and is super convenient. None of this "getting the parts in, only to find you need to buy other bits" time-wasting. If you can operate an Allen key, you're golden. Height adjustment of both the bridge and stoptail studs are both managed using the same included 1/8" Allen key whilst the bridge locking mechanism uses a 1/16" key. Obviously the line was drawn at including a screwdriver for intonation!
Tailpiece (top) and bridge (bottom) studs/bushings - click to enlarge
Stud spacing of the bridge matches the Nashville-style configuration, with a distance of 2-15/16" (2,94"/74,6mm) whilst the stoptail is spaced 3,2"/81,3mm. It is worthwhile confirming that your instrument matches this spacing, since exceptions can occur out in the wild.
As per Hipshot's usual modus operandi, the parts are precision milled from solid high-grade alloys (in this instance, aluminium and stainless steel) ensuring a durable, effective top-drawer unit. Rather than slavishly copying the well-worn (and somewhat mundane) TOM look, Hipshot elected to produce an aesthetically-elegant unit, reminiscent of those found on some classic Japanese instruments of the 70s/80s. (the best-looking TOMs ever in my humble opinion....)
The bridge has a mild radius milled over the top face side-to-side and front-to-back with saddles placed to match a 12" radius. Hipshot fit saddles notched and gauge-sized to create a spacing of .406" string-to-string, however saddles are also available un-notched (or left-handed) should you want to tailor saddles to your own personal spacing scheme.
Front view - click to enlarge
Intonation of each saddle is carried out from the rear using a small Philips screwdriver. It's notable that the adjustment screws are offset from the centre of each saddle keyway, making for easy access between the strings rather than being blocked by them as on standard bridges.
The offset adjustment screws are also responsible for a unique feature of the Tone-A-Matic, which may not be perfectly obvious on the first inspection (quote from Hipshot product description):
Unique stainless steel saddle design acts as a second class lever to push firmly into the bridge. This eliminates that aggravating saddle rattle and injects string energy into your playing.
Many people might gloss over this simply as an exercise in marketing speak, however this is a very understated and fundamentally important aspect of the design. It can better be explained through the following diagram:
A combination of the offset adjustment screw and specially-shaped saddles allows slight pivoting motion around the adjustment screw's thread. Downward pressure from string tension over the saddle forces the saddle-to-bridge witness point down into the body of the bridge itself. Physically, this produces an efficient, tightly-coupled system and in theory, direct exchange of energy between the vibrating strings and the bridge body. This is what we want from a bridge. Traditional TOM saddle designs often lose this crucial direct coupling, with that energy needing to travel through more components which are often far less "locked together". Whether this makes the bridge sound better is of course up for discussion. What counts, is that if it is possible to improve sound through better coupling, then this is exactly how you go about it. High quality solidly-locked components with the shortest paths possible for energy transfer to reduces losses within a mechanism.
In addition to the capacious intonation range, the entire bridge itself is able to be offset on the mounting studs by around 7/32" (5,6mm) through milled slots on the underside and locking set screws. The Tone-A-Matic system comes complete with longer and shorter set screws, allowing you to choose the correct sizes for an invisible fit. Again, this locking mechanism strongly couples the bridge to the studs.
Detail of bridge offset mechanism - click to enlarge
The normal procedure for most TOM setups is to offset the bass side of the bridge backwards in order to eak out the most from available intonation range. From a retrofitting standpoint, we don't need to have this offset any more. The Tune-A-Matic is more than capable of handling the intonation range required compared to original units. Instead, the Tone-A-Matic can occupy an existing offset stud pattern but be re-aligned so that it is perpendicular to the centreline....if you want!
As a builder, figuring out ideal placement of a Nashville or ABR-1 bridge requires us to calculate in the offset to compensate for the limited intonation range the traditional units offer. ABR-1s are notoriously fickle, requiring that the bass-side of the bridge is offset backwards simply so that the instrument can be intonated at all. Nashvilles are more relaxed in this regard, but still need a little babying to find their ideal location.
Quick Tip: The Tone-A-Matic makes this consideration for bridge compensation meaningless. Line your stud centres across a point 1/4" (6,4mm) back from the theoretical scale intonation line of your instrument. To confirm why this is so, consult Hipshot's comprehensive specification sheets.
A welcome addition to the stoptail is the inclusion of two strong retention magnets. These simply prevent the stoptail from falling off the instrument during occasions when the instrument is without strings. Whilst not a ground-breaking innovation or even something that it is necessary, that Hipshot added this into the stoptail design shows that this is not a product where corners were cut for purposes of economy.
The Tone-A-Matic is wider than traditional TOM designs, meaning it can be shallower without reducing unit strength. Not having bulk under the body allows the bridge to be laid closer to the body for slighter neck angles without need of recessing, or used higher as commonly found on more traditional TOM-style instruments.
Bridge height comparison - click to enlarge
The market for TOM-style bridges is hugely competitive, with top-drawer offerings from ABM, Graph Tech, Tone Pros, etc. vying for sales through tit-for-tat marketing speak, voodoo and intangible claims. From a personal standpoint, this has always been a complete turnoff for me. Unless a claim can be proven or have some demonstrable basis in reality, it is likely just marketing. That's how the world works, and how company X spends big dollars to get their hand in your wallet.
Hipshot's introduction of the Tone-A-Matic has been comparatively free of this thin veneer of marketing and presents a real and very solid product showing the quality engineering and pragmatic thought behind the design. Hipshot bridges always tend to be highly configurable and sell themselves off good old plain capability and stellar rep. That's what counts, and this is where smart money should be spent. I'm looking forward to seeing this bridge on more builds in future!
A solid showing from the guys and girls over at Interlaken. Perhaps we'll see a wraparound one day?
At the time of writing, the Tone-A-Matic is available via the Hipshot Products website and should be filtering through to your local Hipshot distributors.
Hipshot Tone-A-Matic Guitar Bridge/Stoptail by Carl Maltby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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