Springs, Strings, and a Knife Edge

“It’s really simple, you know. All you have to keep in mind is the need for balance.” For just a second, I realized that I sounded like a motivational speaker, but the moment passed and I was once more talking about the young rocker’s guitar, lying on the counter before me. The young man looked at me quizzically, not quite understanding how my words had anything to do with his request. “I just want you to change the strings,” he said again, nervously. (“Man! If this old guy is going to jabber on about the dangers of excess and overdoing things, I’m out of here! Just put the strings on already!”)
I suppressed a laugh; not wanting to make him any more uncomfortable than I already had. My explanation was quick and simple. “The strings have a certain amount of tension. The springs attached underneath have to match that tension. Otherwise, the guitar won’t hold its tune.” Oh! That, he understood. We talked awhile longer about the process we would go through to put new strings on the instrument and how long it would take to tune it, then he headed out the door, promising to return tomorrow.
Tonight, I’m once again thinking about balance. And tension.
I’m going to try to avoid too much boring technical detail, but I’d like it if you’d work your way through this with me. Hopefully, you’ll think the trip was worthwhile when we come through out on the other side. The cause of this whole discussion is that the young man has a guitar which utilizes a bridge system called a Floyd Rose. Many rock guitar players love these, but they are nightmares to guitar technicians.
I guess I should begin at the beginning to bring you non-guitarists up to speed. From the original fixed-bridge acoustic guitar, which played in tune most of the time, we moved to the electric guitar with its much lighter strings and its amplifier, which showed up every flaw in tuning and scale. To help with that, came the development of the Tune-a-matic bridge, boasting individual saddles, which allowed adjustment to each string individually. Guitarists had long before found that the lighter strings of the electric guitar were easy to bend, causing a tremolo, or whammy, effect, but that stretched the strings too much and shortened their life-span, so the tremolo tailpiece with its whammy bar was developed. Because the early versions of this bridge sat against the body of the guitar when they were at rest, the action only went one direction, loosening the strings to perform a dive-bomb effect. Enter the Floyd Rose tailpiece, which could go either down or up, depending on the player’s mood and inclination.
And, now you’re up to speed, so it would be nice if you could try to keep up from here on out, okay?
What many people aren’t aware of is the fact that there is a set of springs hidden in the back of many electric guitars. These springs work to bring the tension of the strings back to the original point after the distortion of either lowering them or raising them with the whammy bar. The tension on these springs has to be exactly the same as the tension on the strings themselves. The bridge, which is the central player in all this drama, has a knife edge which makes contact at just two points. The whole balancing act takes place in these two contact points, which are small metal posts embedded in the body of the guitar. Essentially, the strings place tension one direction, while the springs in the back of the instrument pull the other direction. Balance is achieved right at the knife edge of the bridge, which floats there–neither too far up, nor too far down.
I said that balance is achieved. What I did not say is that there is no longer any stress. There is, in fact, always stress. The tension must be maintained. Even in the primitive versions of the guitar, tension was essential to producing tones. The purest and strongest tones issue from high tension strings, stretched almost to their physical limit. But those most primitive of instruments required balance too…a careful equalization of tautness in the strings, and the strength of the resonant guitar. Too little tension and the sound is flabby and weak…too much and the brilliance of the tone is merely a temporary prelude to disaster, as the instrument submits to the physical forces which bring about its collapse. Balance is essential.
Do you get the idea that we’re not necessarily talking about guitars anymore? Hey! You are keeping up! You see, all of life is about balance, but never (much to our disappointment) about the absence of tension. Even in our training period, there is stress, discomfort, as we are being stretched and tuned for a lifetime of performances. The Technician is tightening, first the strings, then the springs, achieving the balance which is essential for the ideal tone and pitch, all the while making adjustments to the peripherals which will enhance the whole of the performance. At times, the tension seems too much to bear, but then, we realize that we are up to the task, holding our own against the forces which tug and stretch us.
Do I wish that life were not full of tension? You bet! But perhaps, it’s a good thing that we don’t always get those things for which we wish. You see, without tension, there is no balance. Without balance, there is no output. There will, indeed, be times when the tension lessens and we feel carefree and relaxed. My guess that these times of respite are actually periods when the Master Luthier is once again making adjustments, changing strings, and tightening the springs in preparation for another round of productiveness from His instrument. We were made to sing out with full voice! That won’t be achieved in the absence of opposition and stress. We perform at our utmost when we rest–hardship balanced with peace; uncertainty countered with faith–on the fulcrum of His grace.
Well, I’ve come full circle once again, causing me to remember that tomorrow will bring with it a little additional stress if I haven’t actually achieved some semblance of balance with the young man’s guitar before he arrives to pick it up. So, if you’ll pardon me for a moment or two, I’ll step down from this soapbox once again and deal with that little project.
Tension balanced with tension, resting on a knife edge! Who knew that beauty could come from such an environment?
Just make sure that knife edge is balanced on the right fulcrum…
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33~NIV)
“We come into this world head first and go out feet first. In between, it’s all a matter of balance.”
(Paul Boese~American businessman and writer~1923-1926)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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