Why the Saddle?
The saddle is a vital part of the resonator guitar’s sound engine. All of the initial vibration of the string has to pass through the saddle that holds those strings in place, and if the saddle is soft, absorbs the vibration or is loose, it will affect the resonator’s ability to do its job. Further, the type of wood that the saddle is made from can add it’s own tonal characteristics to the initial transmission of the sound to the cone, and that influence can affect the sustain, projection and flavor of the tone. Choose your saddle wisely!
Mike Replogle says, “At Dobro, I had a very practical lesson in the vital importance of the saddle. It was really forced home to me how important it is to have really excellent hardwood for the saddle one day in Final Assembly at OMI/Dobro. We had three instruments on the assembly benches- all the same model and from the same production batch. Two sounded great, and one- no matter what we did, sounded dead. This was a mystery that had to be solved! So spec-by-spec I reverse-engineered each part and every production process. The three resos appeared to be identical in every way. Finally, I worked back all the way to the parts production, and investigated the saddles. Yes, they were all maple, and they Looked just fine. But then I followed them back to the source, and found an interesting glitch. We had a big bin of scrap maple from the neck production, and the workers would pull blocks from that bin to make the saddles. So far, so good. But then, as I started thinking this through, I had a glimmer of a suspicion… I asked the worker where they put the maple scrap from the round necks, and he pointed at the bin. Then, I asked where he put the scrap from the square necks- and he pointed at the very same bin. Now I knew I was onto something- we used Eastern Hardrock Maple for the round necks, and I knew that would make excellent saddles. BUT… we used soft maple for the squarnecks, I knew that although it made a great guitar neck, the softer maple was not suitable for use as a saddle, it would kill the tone. And then I realized that we have been indiscriminately using hard maple or soft maple for the saddles and, without realizing it, we had been sending instruments out that would never quite reach their potential or find their voice… At least, not until they received a proper Replogle Saddle someday in the future.”
Why An Ebony Cap?
An Ebony “cap” is a thin (⅛” – ¼” thick) layer of ebony that it glued to the top of the base wood of the saddle. It’s called a “cap” because it sits on top of the base wood. Using an ebony cap on the saddle allows for some customization of the influence of the saddle on the tone of the resonator, especially in relation to the strings’ material and the gauges used. Ebony is a very dense hardwood, and that density will increase vibration transfer from the strings, which will brighten the sound and compensate for lighter gauge string sets that may be easier to play but, because of their lighter mass, may not be as loud or project as much as heavier gauges. Similarly, materials such a bronze may have a richer tone, but they may not project as much as a nickle string set and, especially on bronze wound strings, the ebony will help brighten the tone and give more presence.
Why a Split-Ebony Cap?
The split-ebony cap is an innovation that came as the result of hands-on daily experience working with many Dobros in a production setting.
“When I was managing OMI/Dobro,“ relates Mike Replogle, ‘I was looking not only in the rear-view mirror to see what had worked best over the prior 65 years, but I was also looking at modern innovations and considering what updates and new approaches could be incorporated into our Dobros that might help improve the instruments.”.
“One of the modern upgrades we added was using phosphor bronze acoustic strings for some models at Dobro and it worked well- we got a markedly better, richer tone from our Dobros. After doing this for a while, we started noticing that we were gaining a richer tone from the bronze, but losing some presence and projection. So, we decided to do some experimentation on a few new ideas and we did some blind testing, taking each idea and then playing the reso behind a curtain and picking winners based on what we heard, without seeing what we were testing. One of the winning concepts was to use an ebony cap on the maple saddle, similar to the bridges used on banjos. Well, almost a winner- it still needed tweaking. The first time we tried an ebony cap, we immediately noticed that the wound bronze strings definitely had better brightness and projection. But, so did the first two unwound strings, which then were too bright and a bit shrill. We wanted the better sound of the ebony on the wound strings, but we wanted to keep the traditional tone of the plain strings on the maple. This was the birth of the spilt-ebony/maple saddle, using plain maple for the first two unwound strings, and then an ebony cap for the last four wound bronze strings. I first released this on the Jerry Douglas Signature Model that I designed in ‘94, and it has worked great ever since.”
Why a Full Ebony Cap?
In some cases, it may be beneficial to brighten up all 6 of the strings. Depending on the individual instrument, the full ebony cap could bring out the tone and brighten nickel strings, and can boost a set of lighter gauge strings as well. The Full Ebony Cap is an option in the tool kit to customize and instrument and dial in the tone and projection.
Why Vary the Wood Used on the Saddle?
Maple is the choice for traditional tone and projection, though other woods have been used at various times. Maple provides that tone and projection that is characteristic of traditional resophonic guitars for their entire history.
Koa is an exotic hardwood that has also been associated with resonator guitars since even before their beginning, koa being the preferred wood used in the legendary Weissenborn instruments. Koa provides a warmer tone and gives a special softer edge to the tone and projection.
Other materials have been tried and used over the years, including bone, walnut, and even plastic. After observing and evaluating many of these variations and their functionality, the traditional maple and koa are the materials selected for Replogle Saddles for their tone, durability and workability.
Why Use Compensation?
Resonator guitars are infamous for having intonation “challenges”. In addition to production variations that frequently and subtly varied the scale length, the sound wells are often “generous” in dimension and allow for a good amount of flexibility in the final positioning of the resonator assembly. The nature of the bridge and saddle assemblies do not lend themselves easily to the fine tuning and adjustable methods later developed for electric guitars, so the resonator guitar has remained a difficult issue for intonation.
“Dobros have always been a sloppy fit”, says Replogle. “ the soundwells are usually a little oversize and allow room for adjusting the position of the resonator. This way the saddle could be set at the correct scale length, but there was no provision for compensating the intonation of the individual like a modern guitar. The best we were able to do was to rotate the cone a little counter-clockwise, so that the saddle would angle with the treble string slightly shorter and the bass string slightly longer. This helped on the 1st and 6th strings, but didn’t do much to help the other 4 strings. Using a variation of an acoustic guitar’s compensated saddle actually helped the intonation of all strings greatly.” Mike Replogle explains, “Carving the saddle under the first two strings, and smoothly angling the other four strings greatly improves the intonation. I debuted this innovation on the Jerry Douglas Signature Dobro® that I designed back in ’94, and it works great.”
Fitting the Saddle
Pressure FIt. Replogle Saddles are designed to be pressure fit into the bridge slot. Gluing is not recommended.
Height Adjustment. For the Replogle Saddles that have an ebony cap and/or compensation, height adjustment must be done by removing material from the bottom of the saddle. This may be done by hand or using a machine, but it is very important that the bottom of the saddle is completely square and flat once adjusted. Stewart MacDonald has a great jig for use with a belt sander, the NAME (link), otherwise sandpaper on a flat table can be used carefully for final truing up.
Width Adjustment. Replogle Saddles are slightly wider than ⅛” to allow for light sanding to get a snug fit in the saddle slot on the bridge, so some shaping should be necessary.
Shaping & Cutting. The width of the Replogle Saddle, at 2 ⅝”, provides .adequate width for the most common and standard string spacing. When installing on a spider-bridge, the saddle will need to be cut in the center to allow for the “tension screw gap”. When installing on a biscuit-bridge, the center cut is not necessary but the saddle will overhang the edges for the 2 ⅜” biscuit, and shaping is generally done for strictly cosmetic reasons, smoothing the line of the saddle where it meets the biscuit..