Water Buffalo Horn Bridge Pins
By Todd Stuart Phillips
A change of bridge pins of one substance for some made from another material can be an affordable way to micromanage the voice of a guitar. Since the strings terminate in the pin slots, the transfer of the string vibration to the bridge plate can be affected by the specific type of bridge pins. One of the more unusual bridge pins I have found so far are those made from water buffalo horn. They provide a pin of black color that is an excellent alternative to the most commonplace black pins, plastic or wooden pins made from African ebony.
I play Martin guitars and the non-Martins I have owned were made in Martins' image. When it came to guitars made in Martin Style 18, which feature mahogany bodies with spruce tops, it is traditional to have black bridge pins. Vintage Martins often had ebony pins. Modern Martins typically come with pins made of lightweight plastic. Plastic is inert and will not swell or shrink due to environmental conditions. This means it is safe to assume it will not lead to a crack across the pin holes during shipping. But plastic is not the best conductor of the vibrations that start in the strings and end up as sound waves emanating from the wooden body of the guitar. Many players therefore replace their plastic pins as soon as possible. My first choice was ebony, until a friend recommended water buffalo horn.
I did not know what to expect from water buffalo horn pins when I put them in my new custom Martin, a Grand Auditorium size guitar made with mahogany back and sides, African ebony fingerboard and bridge, fossilized ivory nut and bridge and a premium grade, Adirondack spruce top. What I found was a black pin that helped provide a nice, if subtle boost in volume and an even nicer, if still subtle boost in definition. The guitar has a stark clarity as it is and the water buffalo horn increased the transparency that allowed the details down in the dry, woody, mahogany to stand out a little sharper and clearer.
In contrast, ebony pins lost a little bit of that transparent detail and replaced it with slightly rounder edge and slightly warmer overall effect. But the tonal characteristics achieved with either pin were more similar than I had expected. I guess that brand new, premium grade Adirondack top just etches such a sharply defined focus the effect of the pins was minimal. However, when it came to a guitar with a Sitka spruce top, the differences between the pins stood out a lot more.
When water buffalo horn pins were put in a D-18V, with mahogany back and sides and Sitka spruce on the top the effect was much more noticeable compared to ebony. Where ebony seemed to filter out some of the shine from the trebles and the brassy edge of the wound strings, water buffalo horn pins actually accentuated them. The guitar's owner felt that water buffalo horn pins made his guitar sound more open and ringing, "like a vintage D-18". I felt the added definition did indeed make the guitar sound more "open" because I heard a touch more detail in the harmonics and the soundscape under the fundamentals took on a more complex quality.
From these two guitars I would say that I preferred ebony in my Adirondack topped guitar while preferring the water buffalo horn in my friend's guitar topped with Sitka. Adirondack is very stark and brittle sounding so I like the way ebony cuts some of the edge off of that. But I could see why someone would like the water buffalo horn pins because of how it increases the definition even more.
When it came to Sitka, water buffalo horn pins were a definite plus, helping to increase the detail in a robust and powerful voice that is otherwise thicker and could use some help in the definition department.
When it comes to a black bridge pins, those made of water buffalo horn definitely affect the sound of a guitar for the better. They might be considered expensive compared to ebony but they increase sustain and volume and enhance the definition down in the voice, accentuating the tonal characteristics already present in the instrument in a way ebony does not. They sound good in guitars topped with Adirondack spruce but their true potential is revealed when installed in a guitar made from Sitka spruce.
Out of a possible 8 Notes on the T Spoon Scale of Guitaracity I give the Water Buffalo Horn Bridge Pins and clear and present 6 Notes.