The best FREE mod ever? Top wrapping!

Not many things in life are free so it makes a nice change to be able to potentially improve the tone AND playability of a guitar and for that modification to be both wonderfully simple yet not cost a silver bean to implement. To be exact, we’re going to be top wrapping. Intrigued? Read on.

There are two caveats for this modification:

  1. It’s only suitable for guitars with a stop-tail bar/tailpiece e.g. a Gibson Les Paul
  2. Your guitar must be properly setup in order to gain full benefit from this mod

Ok, so what are we talking about here? In a nutshell it’s an alternative way of restringing your guitar. This mod should, on a properly setup guitar, improve tone, sustain and playability! And it’s so wonderfully simple that anyone can do it. So I thought I’d write a quick guide using one of my guitars as an example. Here we go!

My Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
My Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional in it’s original unmodified state

Above is my Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional, a present from my parents for my 40th birthday last year (yes, I’m a very lucky man!!). Isn’t it gorgeous? It plays incredibly well and sounds stunning. So how can improve on something that I already consider to be as close to perfection as is humanly possible? Read on to find out.

So, we’re going to be concentrating on the tailpiece (also known as the stop-bar or stop-tail bar). And this mod is all to do with how we string the guitar up so wait until you next need to change strings and take an extra five minutes to make the changes below.

'Standard' stringing of the Les Paul
‘Standard’ stringing of the Les Paul

Here we can see both how my Les Paul is set up at the tailpiece and that I use D’Addario strings (9’s, EXL120 to be exact although I am toying with the idea of trying GHS Boomers but that’s another blog).

Strings passing over the bridge of a Gibson Les Paul
Strings passing over the bridge – Is this the most important photo in this blog post?

Ok, so what can we see going on in the photo above? There are two things that we need to concentrate on here. Firstly, the break-angle i.e. the angle that the strings traverse the saddles. Notice that the angle is quite significant, this is one of the major factors that we’ll be changing in this mod. Secondly, it’s critical that the strings don’t touch the back of the bridge on their way down to the tailpiece. Contact here produces another friction point and potential break point for the string.

A close up of the tailpeice
A close up of the tailpiece

And just for completeness above we can see the strings emerging from the tailpiece on their way to the bridge.

So, lets take the old strings off and start this modification in earnest.

A close up of the tailpeice
A close up of the guitar minus its tailpiece

So, above I’ve removed the tailpiece but left the bridge in place. I’m not going to be touch the bridge at all because the guitar is already set up as I like it so there’s no need to change string height or intonation. I have left the tailpiece posts in and will be adjusting those as shown in the next photo.

The tailpiece posts have been slammed!
The tailpiece posts have been slammed!

Ok, this is the first major step in this mod. The posts for the tailpiece have been screwed all the way down BUT ONLY FINGER TIGHT! There could be a temptation to tighten the posts up with a screwdriver but there would be a risk that I’d damage the posts and that removal later on down the line would be problematic. Remember kids, finger tight only.

Strings in the tailpiece - Fed from the bridge side
Strings in the tailpiece – Fed from the bridge side

So, in the photo above I’ve fed the stings through the tailpiece from the bridge side so that the strings are pointing AWAY from the tuners/headstock. No, I’m not going mad. The more observant amongst you will notice that I’ve taken the opportunity to give the guitar a quick clean while the strings were off.

All will become clear in the next photo!

Top wrapping a Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to top wrapping

The strings are now fed over the top of the tailpiece and tuned up. This is top wrapping! Notice how I start with the two outer strings? I’ll start with the two E strings first and get them up to tension. I’ll then string up the A and B strings and then, when they are tuned up I’ll finish with the D and G strings.

All strung up and ready to rock - The top strung Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
All strung up and ready to rock – The top strung Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional

So there we have it. The completed project! But the story doesn’t end there, lets take a look a bit more closely at what’s changed.

A closer look at the top wrapping on the Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
A closer look at the top wrapping.

We can start to see the difference in the break-angle here. We can see that the strings are a lot ‘flatter’ over the bridge.

A close up of top wrapping in action on my Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
A close up of top wrapping in action

Ok, here we can see top wrapping in action. The break angle has been significantly reduced. This means that there is far less friction at the bridge and string bending is noticeably easier. With the tailpiece slammed all the way down to the body there is more contact allowing more transfer of string energy to the guitar itself. Also there is more string in contact with the tailpiece, again allowing more string vibration energy to be transferred.

A different angle - Top wrapping on a Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
From the other side – top wrapping

I thought this would be a good shot to show the strings are being fed from the bridge side of the tailpiece and then fed back over the tailpiece to be then fed over the bridge and on to the tuners.

In all it's glory - the top wrapping on the Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional
In all it’s glory – the top wrapping on the Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional

So there it is, in all it’s glory. My top wrapped Gibson Les Paul 2014 Traditional.

Now, let’s analyse what’s changed here. I can only dare to guess at how many hundreds of hours playing time this guitar had before I made this change. None the less I played the guitar for around an hour before making any changes. This enabled me to tune my ear in to where the guitar was at and therefore help me notice any changes to tone etc post-modification.

Post-modification the changes were significant. The Les Paul had more sustain. In fact it was the first thing that my ears noticed. Just behind that was the improvement in tone. There’s a touch more ‘colour’ to the tone; more depth and ‘feel’. And then I started bending strings. Wow! It feels like I’ve dropped a gauge!! Seriously! Bending was always easy on this Les Paul but now it’s even more buttery. Granted polished frets helped but I didn’t do anything to them during this modification so I don’t think I can point it at that. One could argue that putting new strings on helped but in the nine or so months that I’ve had this guitar it’s probably had circa twenty new sets of strings and there’s never been such a noticeable change after each new set was fitted.

There are a couple of potential disadvantages to performing this mod. Personally, I think it looks ugly. I am prepared to take that compromise on the chin for the benefits I get in tonal and playability enhancement. Also, as I mentioned above, the guitar must be set up properly in the first place. Why? If the slots in the bridge saddles are not cut properly then strings could pop out of those slots when the string is bent. This is due to the reduced break angle over the saddles.

Please let me know if you’d like any more info on this mod or if you’d like me to help you in any way with any aspect of your guitar, amp, f/x etc.