This week's review involves one of the most common guitar tweaks - swapping out your saddle. Since the saddle is one of three places where your strings are "coupled" to the body of your guitar with non-wood materials (the other places being the nut and the bridge pins), the saddle material can and will make a difference in your guitar's playing dynamics. This week, we're looking at a Maury's Music Fossilized Walrus Ivory (FWI) compensated saddle ($79.99). FWI, unlike elephant ivory, is not a banned material and, as its name implies, is harvested from the fossilized remains of walruses. $79.99 might seem like a lot for just a guitar saddle, but it is a very hard material, and as a result offers the promise of improved transmission of string energy to your guitar.
In a little bit of a change, Todd and I are reviewing FWI saddles in two parts. This week, I'm reporting the results from the saddle upgrades we performed on one of my vintage D-35S's, with Todd's comments added below. There will be a second "Saddle Up" installment coming soon, where Todd will take the lead as we perform the same upgrades on his modern (and cherished) "Über Juber" OMC-28B.
Our testing procedure was pretty simple - my 1969 D-35S received, in order, Micarta, bone, and FWI saddles, which Todd and I played and noted our results. We wanted to include Micarta and bone in our review because these represent the saddle materials from which most guitarists would be upgrading. The saddles were sanded to the same height, and checked for fit, and then swapped in. My D-35S was wearing Martin SP Fingerstyle Medium 80/20 strings, held in with stock factory plastic pins.
We started with Micarta as our baseline, and learned it is not an inferior choice. Many companies use Micarta because it is a manufactured product with ample supply and great consistency. The Micarta saddle offered a nice, full sound, and I heard a firm midrange along with good overall volume and sustain across the board. With my bare-fingered playing style, I noticed I wasn't able to hear the bass strings very clearly, though. When I listened to Todd's fingerstyle playing with his enhanced (silk-wrapped) fingernails, there was better definition. When we switched to a flatpick, all the strings could be heard, and there was nice full balance with a little emphasis on the mids.
When we switched to bone, there was a big jump in definition. My bare fingers were able to produce better volume and the notes were cleaner and crisper. There was more clarity across the board, and a more ringing sustain. It was obvious why bone saddle upgrades are so popular. With Todd's fingers and with our flatpicks, the same improvements in volume, definition, and sustain were noticed. One interesting quality that emerged was that the bone saddle also imparted a little warmth and richness to the individual notes, although the additional clarity made Micarta sound a little fuller through the mids by comparison. I have heard from players who upgraded to bone that the initial brightness and hard edge given to notes eventually mellowed out somewhat as the saddle was "played in". Bone will initially sound brighter and clearer than Micarta, but will mellow as it is "played in" over time. The bone saddle on my D-35S had a few years on it.
The final swap to FWI produced even more definition, clarity, and volume. My fingerstyle patterns offered even better definition and volume than bone (especially from the 6th
strings), as did Todd's fingerstyle and our flatpick playing. What also reappeared was a nice fullness in the mids, balanced by a chiming and ringing quality to the highs. Individual notes appeared in sharper focus. On top of that, there was an added quality imparted to the individual notes. I heard a more complex sound coming out of my D-35S - the notes had a presence and depth that wasn't there with bone, and seemed fuller and tighter at the same time. This added an extra dimension to the individual notes, and was a wonderful bonus.