Guitar Basics: Tailpieces
Tailpieces are the end of the highway for guitar strings. Or maybe the beginning, since strings are first threaded through or over tailpieces, or pegged into them, before they are pulled along the fretboard for their big meeting with the tuning pegs. Essentially their function is to anchor the strings, which means most guitar tailpieces must be strong enough to withstand the combined tension of at least six strings without lifting off.
For the beginning guitarist, terms like “stop tailpiece,” “tune-o-matic bridge” and “trapeze tailpiece” may seem a bit mysterious. But there are four classic tailpiece designs that are found on most guitars. They are:
• Stop: A stop tailpiece is a bar, typically made of an alloy, which is held to the body of a guitar by large screws threaded into embedded sleeves. They are most often aluminum, zinc or brass based, with the latter the most costly. Aluminum has a few advantages. When the stop tailpiece was perfected by Gibson over a half-century ago, the originals were made of aluminum. Many players prefer those today for the vintage vibe, but aluminum is also the lightest weight tailpiece alloy, which some believe allows the strings and the guitar’s body to connect — which is another function of the tailpiece — in a more resonant fashion. It’s best to be careful while changing strings with a stop tailpiece, because they sometimes fall out of their sleeves and can scratch the finish.
Stop tailpieces are usually paired with two types of bridges. The most basic is simply a wooden or metal bar with grooves that strings pass through. Most Gibson guitars come with another of the company’s early electric era innovations, the tune-o-matic bridge. Tune-o-matics have adjustable individual saddles for each string and are therefore more desirable for most players looking to control their instrument’s action and intonation.
• Trapeze: Although the trapeze tailpiece was original equipment on the very first runs ofGibson Les Pauls, they are mostly the province of hollowbody and semi-hollowbody guitars, ranging from the L-5-CES to the Epiphone Regent. Early ES models also came with trapeze tailpieces. These devices attach to the heel of the guitar’s body and have slots for strings to pass through. Once the strings are installed and tightened to proper tension, the tension suspends the tailpiece in air — providing the appellation trapeze. The principle behind trapeze tailpieces is that they dampen the natural resonance of the strings less than stop tailpieces. These tailpieces also transmit the string tension to the guitar’s side, rather than its belly. The downside is they are the hardest tailpieces to string, since strings tend to drop out of their slots until they are at tension. In that respect, they take some getting used to.
• Vibrato: There are several types of vibrato — a/k/a tremolo or whammy bar — tailpieces. They debuted in the 1930s via inventor Doc Kaufman, who developed a vibrato unit that was mounted on a guitar’s body and had an arm that moved side to side. Today’s vibrato arms move up and down and are dominated by the top-mounted Bigsby style vibrato and various types of through-body vibrato tailpieces, ranging from the spring-tensioned arms found on many classic thin solid bodied guitar models to the dive-bombing units like the Kahler and Floyd Rose types favored by metal shredders. These also have fine-tuners for each string, to compensate for any detuning the use of the vibrato arm might produce. Gibson also offers a top-mounted Vibrola unit of its own design.
Like trapeze tailpieces, top mounted vibrato bridges transfer the string tension to a guitar’s side, offering more natural string resonance. Embedded units like the Vibrolas found on Gibson Flying Vs transmit the tension to the guitar’s body. Through-body units do neither, employing strings to absorb the string tension. Another system, the TransTrem, developed by Steinberger in the ’80s, has locking positions that allows players to transpose their tuning to other keys.
Due to the great sensitivity of some advanced vibrato systems like the Kahler, the Steinberger and the Floyd Rose, a light touch is required. Simply placing one’s hand on the bridge can cause notes to drift in and out of tune. So players — especially the heavy handed— would be wise to try a variety of vibrato-equipped guitars out before making an instrument purchase or modifying a valued six-string friend.
• Wrap around: On wrap around tailpieces, what’s wrapping around is the string. Strings are slid into the tailpiece from the front and then pass over the back and top of the bridge before making their journey up the neck. This system creates less string tension. Some players report tuning and intonation issues with these tailpieces. Others swear by them.
As always, personal experience is the best guide. Play as many guitars equipped with various tailpieces as possible, detune and retune them, and try to get a grip on how they do the job for you.