Fossilized Mammoth Ivory Guitar Saddle
By Todd Stuart Phillips
The saddle on an acoustic guitar is the thin strip of hard material embedded in the bridge which helps determine the height of the strings. It also the primary terminus of the suspended strings where the vibrations are transferred to the bridge and tonewood body of the instrument. The material used in the making of the saddle can influence those vibrations and contributes to the resulting tone of the guitar. Among the most popular saddle materials used for professional-level guitar is fossilized mammoth ivory. These saddles are not made out of actual fossils (i.e. rock). Rather they are made from ivory tusks that have started the mineralization process which ultimately turns them into fossils. Maury of Maury's music recently installed just such a saddle in my Martin OM-28VR for me try out. I am very pleased with the results..
Not all saddles are suited for all types of guitars. Other than manmade materials like MicartaTM and TUSQTM the most widely used substance is bone, typically harvested from shinbones of cattle. Bone saddles offer very pure tone, nice volume and an increase in sustain when compared to those other saddles. In my opinion, bone sounds most like the elephant ivory used on guitars in the 19th and early 20th Century. However, bone saddles can take a while to break in, sounding thin and shrill when they are new. They also sound so clean and pure once they have settled in that they do not necessarily contribute to the tonal coloring of the guitar's voice. In that way they are not unlike an expensive, diaphragm microphone that is astonishing in its detail and transparency but could benefit from a preamp that ads some warmth and fullness to the signal. When I want a similar tonal enhancement for a guitar I turn toward fossilized ivory from a long dead walrus or even longer dead mammoth.
Fossilized ivory saddles can provide even more volume and longer sustain than bone saddles. But they also impart a more noticeable influence on the tonal signature of the guitar. They add warmth and fullness, fatting up the notes and compensating for any brittle qualities one might hear in, say a mahogany guitar with an Adirondack spruce top. Such qualities can actually be enhanced by bone or elephant ivory. I do not know if this is simply a matter of the fossilized ivory saddle acting as a filter and muting certain treble frequencies or it is also enhances frequencies in the midrange and bass. But the results are obvious even if we are still talking about subtle variations when compared to the more significant influence that comes from one type of spruce or another, or the difference between a rosewood body or one made from koa, etc.
I have used fossilized walrus ivory and was very happy with it. So I was curious to see how mammoth ivory would differ. The answered turned out to be just enough. If there is a downside to fossilized ivory it is found in highest highs. Some of the brightness and sparkle, what I call the angels in the harmonics over top of the voice, is sacrificed in exchange for that added warmth and meat in the undertone and fatness in the fundamentals. Mammoth ivory brings some of that back into the mix and where walrus ivory brings a wonderful definition to the various components of a guitar's voice, mammoth ivory does so even more. I find the trebles on my OM-28VR have a more pronounced ring in the high-mids and trebles which only adds to the complexity of that Sitka-tinged, rosewood voice. It is no wonder C.F. Martin & Co. have chosen fossilized mammoth ivory to put on their Golden Era Series guitars. It helps a new, stiff Adirondack spruce top sound richer and fuller in the early years before the guitar really opens up. But it does so without filtering out too much of the angels that make Adirondack so desirable. On an Indian rosewood guitar with a good piece of Sitka mammoth ivory only enriches the complex and lush tone while promoting the dark brassy quality of the lower fundamentals and the silvery ring in the highs.
Such subtle differences in the voice of a particular guitar are very much in the ear of the beholder. One musician might prefer the transparent clarity of a bone saddle and another might prefer the warmth and body infused into the same guitar from a fossilized walrus ivory saddle. Fossilized mammoth ivory seems to fall somewhere in between, leaning toward the walrus but with some of that glassy, shining treble that makes bone saddles so popular. When combined with some fossilized walrus ivory bridge pins one gets a pretty powerful and delicious sounding guitar, even if other types of pins could be used to fine tune the voice to personal preference.
I would recommend a fossilized mammoth ivory saddle for just about any combination of tonewood and top wood. It does not change how a guitar sounds so much as enhances its natural voice while filtering out some of the edge and shrillness that might be present.
Out of a possible 8 Notes on the T Spoon Scale of Guitaracity I give the Fossilized Mammoth Ivory Saddle and timeless and full-bodied 7 notes.