Q: Over the last few months, the action on my older Yamaha dreadnought has gotten uncomfortably high up the neck. I brought it into the repair shop for what I expected to be a setup, but there was apparently an issue that I hadn’t anticipated. I was told it could use some setup work, but more importantly, it needs a bridge reglue. My bill is a lot higher than I thought it would be and the turnaround time is longer. I just wanted the action to be lower! I’m feeling disillusioned and quite a bit poorer than I thought I would feel. What happened? —Steven, New York City
A: From where I’m standing behind the bench, I see lots of clients go through something similar. They think all they need is a simple fix—a setup, a little truss rod tweak—only to hear a more complicated story when they get to the repair shop. Of course, unexpected repair bills are always a bitter pill to swallow, but there are some good reasons to take care of certain issues as they arise.
Let’s talk about your bridge for a moment. Under the bridge is a glue joint that covers quite a bit of real estate—this big, strong joint is really working hard for your guitar. You can think about your bridge on the top, and your bridge plate inside the guitar, directly under it, as two slices of bread in a spruce sandwich. The bridge plate and the bridge do lots of jobs—stabilize and stiffen the area, strengthen around the bridge-pin holes, spread the tensile load, and help direct vibration to the right places on the soundboard.
When a bridge pulls up in the face of 200 pounds of string tension over years, it’s generally along the back edge or one of the back corners. This shrinks the size of the glue joint, and now the torque exerted on the guitar is uneven. Without the added support of a good bridge glue-joint, the top could be more likely to belly or yank upward, and distort or stretch like fabric. Also, because the joint is not solid, the string vibration has a less direct path to the soundboard. This means your guitar can sound noticeably worse: thinner, quieter, and deader. While the changes in sound might happen slowly, it’s often clear exactly what you were missing when you get your guitar back in one piece to find that it sounds much more like itself.
When a luthier notices before you do that your bridge is pulling up, count yourself lucky! If this problem goes on for long enough to be easily noticeable, it can be harder to fix. The top may get distorted, the bridge itself might cup and need to be replaced, and you could have to suffer while your guitar sounds worse than it should. If you want to check your own guitar, try slipping the corner of a piece of paper, like a Post-it note, under the back edge or back corners. If it disappears under the bridge, make an appointment with your luthier.
Here’s the good news: This is a very doable repair and something guitar repair shops handle every day. They’ll remove the entire bridge, clean away any old glue, and clamp the bridge back down with some fresh glue. If the top and the bridge are healthy, this is a great joint to use hot hide glue on; hide glue is crystalline and hard for maximum transference of vibration, and it doesn’t creep. If your luthier finds some unexpected damage under the bridge—which certainly happens—she might choose another glue with better gap-filling properties.
It sounds like even though you didn’t get the news you wanted from your repairperson, they did the right thing in telling you to take care of your bridge. And you did the right thing for your guitar by taking the advice.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.