Gibson’s Les Paul guitar is a solid-body design that the company first sold in 1952. It was designed by John Huis, who worked as a factory manager for the brand at the time.
Les Paul provided input during the design phase and eventually endorsed the final product.
On a standard Les Paul, you’ll get a solid mahogany body with a carved maple top. It uses a single cutaway, a rosewood fretboard on a mahogany neck, and two pickups with independent tone and volume.
A typical Les Paul uses a stoptail bridge, but some variants are available in the marketplace. You can also find different tailpiece options.
Another option is to top-wrap it when you want to get the most tone and sustain from the guitar.
Top Wrapping a Les Paul
Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top fame uses the top wrapping method for his Les Paul strings. This technique brings them into the stop tailpiece from the front instead of the rear, wrapping them over it to pass over the Tune-o-Matic bridge. That option reduces tension while creating tone changes and sustain.
On the typical Tune-o-Matic bridge, the strings are designed to route through the back of the tailpiece. From there, they come up and over the bridge to create the appropriate string tension for your playing style.
When you use top wrapping, the strings go through the front of the tailpiece before wrapping around to head over the bridge.
It’s not the most popular way to string a guitar, but there are a few players that prefer this methodology.
For those who are currently top wrapping a Les Paul, these are the benefits described when using this technique to produce sound.
- It gives the strings some extra flexibility, making it easier to do some bending even when the gauge is somewhat thick.
- More sustain and better tone are achievable from the guitar because of the shallower break angle.
- The tailpiece can get secured all the way down to the instrument, allowing for the energy transfer to be more efficient.
Top wrapping a Les Paul is one of those things that you’ll like or decide isn’t right for your playing needs.
It’s worth doing it once just to experiment with your sound and style since you never know what else you might discover with this effort.
Are There Disadvantages to Top Wrapping a Les Paul?
Although proponents of top wrapping a Les Paul are quick to point out the advantages of this technique, the critics will look at the potential disadvantages of this methodology. Before you try it with your instrument, here are the issues you’ll need to watch for when stringing your guitar.
- It is much easier to scuff the tailpiece because of the string routing method used during top wrapping.
- Since the angle break on the instrument is more severe, you can experience more snapping events with the strings when playing the Les Paul.
- You might not have the option to play a preferred gauge because of how the strings run over to the bridge.
The correct tailpiece, when installed in its proper location, makes a guitar more responsive. It also becomes easier to play as it accentuates the overtones and harmonics for added resonance.
That’s why top wrapping is popular for a Les Paul and some other guitars, including the Epiphone ES-339. You can achieve a more colorful and fuller tone while keeping your playing style relatively the same.
The Four Types of Guitar Tailpieces
Depending on how you look at a guitar, the tailpiece is either the beginning of the journey or its end. This component’s primary function is to hold the strings in place securely. There must be enough tension and strength available to help the instrument keep its tuning while you play.
On other stringed instruments (like a violin), the tailpiece is made of wood. Rosewood, boxwood, and ebony are the most popular choices, but newer designs include Pernambuco. Each offers a different density, structure, and weight.
Guitar tailpieces are usually made from metal. You’ll notice that steel, aluminum, and nickel have different tonal qualities in the same fashion.
After selecting the material you prefer for the tailpiece, you’ll want to think about the type and how that design impacts playing style.
|Stop Tailpiece:||This tailpiece design is the standard one used on most guitars. It typically consists of a metal bar made from a zinc, aluminum, or brass alloy. The strings sometimes slip out of their slots with this design, which can scratch your instrument’s finish. If you play on a Gibson, you’ll likely have a Tune-o-Matic bridge paired with it.|
|Trapeze Tailpiece:||The original Les Paul used this tailpiece option, but it’s now more popular on Epiphone and Gretsch instruments. It attaches to the guitar’s heel, offering built-in slots for the strings to feed through to secure them. They’re used to suspend the tailpiece after tightening to set the proper tension. This design offers more resonance, but the strings like to fall out of place while pulling them.|
|Vibrato (Tremolo) Tailpiece:||This tailpiece option is often found on Strats, but it is called a tremolo. Fender reversed the terminology back during the original production line, and it ended up sticking. The first one was built in the 1930s by Doc Kaufman. You can find several different features included, such as pivoting bridges or spring tension arms. Some are tricky to set up and play, but they suit blues players and heavy metal musicians who need more bending tones.|
|Wrap-Around Tailpiece:||When you choose this tailpiece, it’s not quite the same as the top wrapping method. The strings are fed through the front of the tailpiece, then placed on top of a smoothed-off metal piece or a bar to protect the guitar’s components. It delivers less tension than the other options and is often hard to keep in place while wrapping the bridge.|
There isn’t a right or a wrong answer when choosing a tailpiece for your guitar. You’ll just find that some options are harder to manage than others.
I recommend using a stop tailpiece if you’re new to playing the guitar. This design is much easier to set up or re-string, which means you’ll have less frustration to manage.
When you’re ready to work on bending and bombing, the vibrato-style (trem) tailpiece is a better option. You’ll get to lock the strings better, but it comes at the cost of more setup difficulties. If you need to change your tuning more than a semitone for your playing style, a different choice is better.
If you’re in the country genre or want something vintage, the trapeze tailpiece is suitable for your needs. I love how they sound on a hollow-bodied guitar.
The issue with the wrap-around design is that you’ll have limited intonation adjustment. That’s why the top wrapping method is sometimes better than this tailpiece choice. You’ll get the same character, resonance, and sustain while limiting the risks of experiencing the potential disadvantages.
■ How to Get More Sustain on a Guitar
If the primary reason why you’re thinking about top wrapping a Les Paul or another guitar is to improve sustain, you might consider using one of these alternative methods first.
- Change the settings on your instrument or amp. You could also tighten the tuners or lower your pickups.
- Adjust the gain or master control on your amp, but not to the point where your tone gets muffled.
- Use thicker strings on the instrument. Products with a higher gauge typically hold more energy than those with a lower rating. Anything between 0.0008 to 0.015 should work.
- Swap out the nut for a different material. Most entry-level instruments use a plastic one, so it’ll help to upgrade to a metal or bone one.
- Get a different pick. When the ones used are harder and thicker, you’ll get more sustain from the guitar. You can go to an extra-heavy one of 1.2mm or more to achieve some exciting results. Metal and celluloid are better than plastic.
- Invest in a compression pedal. This item will make your sound feel more polished, smooth, and professional while increasing the sustain of your guitar. I highly recommend the Boss CS-3.
- Grab an overdrive pedal. It’s less aggressive than a distortion alternative, producing a unique tone that replicates how a tube amp sounds when it’s cranked up all the way. Here I’d recommend the Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini.
Most musicians can get some extra sustain or improve their tone by maxing out their instrument’s settings. You can find several how-to guides for this purpose from your guitar’s manufacturer.
It also helps to build up strength in your fingers. When you can bend the D string in the same way you would a B, you’ll get fatter sounds and more sustains for those crazy licks.
How I Feel about Top Wrapping a Les Paul?
The easiest way to manage the top wrapping method on a Les Paul is to route the strings over and through the tailpiece. That means you might need to reverse the installation point to have a successful experience. You must consider string length, screw tightness, and bridge quality to get the best outcome.
I know musicians who love using the top wrapping method. Some of them do it because their favorite guitarists use this technique.
I also know many people who think it’s gimmicky.
For me, I’m more of a traditionalist. Although I’m not opposed to the idea of experimenting with sound, I prefer to play guitars how they’re made.
Designers didn’t go through the trouble of putting together all these parts without thinking about tone, quality, or sustain.
If I were to try top wrapping a guitar, it would be the ESP LTD EC-256FM. It’s an affordable alternative to the Les Paul while delivering a similar sound.
It has a mahogany body and a flamed maple top like Gibson’s instrument, but the design uses roasted jatoba for the fingerboard.
The default setup allows for some bending, but you can achieve more by using the top wrapping method.
It has some grit to the sound, provides a few tonal options, and uses dual ESP pickups designed in-house. It even has a Tune-o-Matic style bridge.
If you want a superb 1950s sound, top wrapping a Les Paul makes sense. It might be easier to stick with the original setup when you need heavy rhythms and less noise.